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LN Trains Professionals in Iraq

Lighthouse Network had the privilege of going to Iraq to train professionals to help counsel and care for the Iraqi people.  This is an article written on PhillyBurbs.com

Sharing the health

By: JOHN ANASTASI (Sun, Feb/11/2007)

In an area of the world known for its huge supply of oil, the poor in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq have little heat.

Karl Benzio, a Doylestown Township psychiatrist, found that out firsthand recently as he slept in the fetal position under the covers with his hat and gloves on in an effort to stay warm.

“We had hot water on just two … days, so it was a matter of deciding how long you could go without a shower,” Benzio said.

He and two colleagues in the mental health profession spent part of last month training health care workers in the Kurdish city of Ebil. In that part of Iraq, 17 psychiatrists serve the entire 6 million resident population and the only antidepressants consistently available have not been widely used in America since the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“In medicine they’re back in the 1970s, but in terms of psychotherapy, they’re back in the 1940s or 1930s,” said Benzio.

That is hardly adequate to meet the mental health needs of people who spend their lives living in substandard conditions under the looming threat of sectarian violence and civil war.

“The need is hugely great, but the supply and skill set is limited,” said Benzio, who recently provided mental health training workshops during more than a week spent in Ebil.

The Lighthouse Network, a Doylestown Township nonprofit Christian ministry, sent Benzio, Philadelphia psychologist Jeff Black and Allentown therapist/social worker Leslie Vernick to Iraq to lead a series of conferences on Jan. 14.

They met with doctors, nurses, social workers, medical students and counselors, covering topics that ranged from conflict resolution, listening, interpersonal communication, stress relief and anger management. They also spoke to some Christian congregations living in the predominantly-Muslim country.

Compared with the Sunni and Shiite territories in southern Iraq, the Kurdish region is relatively peaceful. But it has its problems.

The unemployment rate is high, and most people have little money.

“Electricity is a struggle,” Benzio said. “At night, they have the most power. People get up at 2 a.m. to run the washer or the vacuum cleaner. They wake up in the middle of the night to run appliances.”

If that lifestyle is not enough to necessitate counseling, the Kurds also have the added issue of sharing houses with numerous family members.

“A lot of young men get married but then have to continue to live with their parents because they do not have enough money to buy their own houses,” he said. “That can contribute to stress and tension because couples don’t have that privacy they need to do conflict resolution without others being involved.”

Many of the people Benzio met were happy the American troops had deposed Saddam Hussein and stabilized the region.

“They are concerned about (the troops) leaving because they feel there will be considerable unrest if they leave,” Benzio said.

The Kurds fear they would be vulnerable to attack both from neighboring countries and from Sunnis and Shiites without a U.S. presence in the country. Benzio said many people are optimistic about new construction and the return of other Kurds who had fled the region during Hussein’s rule. But for many others, life in the Kurdish region has taken a psychological toll.

“On the flip side, we saw people who have lived through the chaos for a long time,” he said. “There’s significant stress there. Some of them seem battered down. There’s a victim mentality.”

He said about 10,000 people died in one town when its residents were gassed in the early 1990s and some Kurds seem unable to move forward.

“This is a culture that keeps its emotions suppressed,” Benzio said. “Then, when it finally comes out, they just snap.”

Another fly in the mental health ointment is the fact that many of the country’s health care professionals do not choose their careers.

“In school, they look at their skills and tell you what you should do,” he said. “Some do not want to be there. One question we asked was, “You got into this to help people, right?’ but, for some of them, it wasn’t their choice. Some of them are not inherently helpers.”

The American doctors tried to teach them how to listen and communicate effectively with each other and their patients and resolve conflicts respectfully.

Following his return, Benzio took part in a conference call with representatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to talk about the trip and suggest strategies to help the Iraqi people. He has suggested return trips every year to continue the group’s work.