Bangladeshi Doctors Report 3,000-Plus Mental Health Cases Among Rohingya

Jesmin Papri and Tushar Tuhin
Dhaka and Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
171218-BD-mental-620.jpg A Rohingya woman holds her child at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Dec. 3, 2017.

Jamila, a 13-year-old Rohingya girl, remains traumatized after Myanmar security personnel gang-raped her and killed her father before her eyes, even though she’s receiving psychological treatment in Bangladesh, her mother said.

The teen is one of more than 3,000 Rohingya refugees who are being treated for mental and psychological disorders, according to health officials in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. Like Jamila, many of the patients are girls and women who were allegedly raped by Myanmar security forces or who witnessed family members being slain.

“The military personnel raped my daughter in front of me and my husband. They killed my husband on the spot as he tried to resist. My daughter witnessed the killing,” Nur Banu, Jamila’s mother, told BenarNews.

Despite the treatment, Jamila has not recovered.

“She does not talk to anyone. She is startled when she sees an unknown person,” Nur Banu said. “I don’t know when she might improve.”

The mother and daughter are among at least 655,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighboring Bangladesh since late August amid a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military, according to latest estimates from the U.N. The security forces and Buddhist militia in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have been widely accused of committing atrocities against Rohingya civilians, including rape, arson and killings, but government officials there have flatly denied the allegations.

Across the border in Bangladesh, health officials warned that the number of Rohingya suffering from mental health problems was expected to grow.

“Up to Dec. 10, we have detected 3,242 Rohingya, mostly women, girls and children, with different forms of mental disorders. The brutality they endured caused different forms of mental problems,” Cox’s Bazar chief health officer, Dr. Abdus Salam, told BenarNews.

“To treat such patients, we have opened a mental health center at the Ukhia health complex,” said Mezbah Uddin, the chief health officer in Ukhia, a local sub-district.

Salam said Bangladeshi health authorities did not focus on mental health when the latest influx of Rohingya refugees began amid the crackdown in Rakhine. It followed fatal attacks on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents.

“We focused on providing emergency health services and checking the probable [spread] of contagious diseases. Now, we have started, though late, the procedure to detect the mental health patients,” Salam told BenarNews.

“Possibly, we will get more patients because the Rohingya witnessed massacres, slaughter, rape, arson attacks and all forms of savage atrocities,” he said, noting that many patients did not want other people to know about their psychological problems.

“Of course, the number 3,242 is very small against a population of 650,000. My personal opinion is that every Rohingya family fleeing Rakhine this spell has some sort of mental illness. We are treating only the severely disturbed people,” he added. “The number would be between 20,000 and 25,000 if we could have diagnosed them strictly.”

Men and boys suffer, too

Syed Hossain, 35, is a Rohingya refugee living at Block B in the Unchiprang camp. He arrived there after fleeing from his home village in Rakhine.

Hossain sits as rigid as a statue but can suddenly become animated, hugging people and howling if he catches sight of uniformed security personnel.

Syed Hossain had previously been happy, living with his wife, mother and three children in Rakhine, Jamal Uddin, a friend who crossed into Bangladesh with him, told BenarNews.

But at the end of August, on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Adha, members of Myanmar’s army massacred Hossain’s mother, wife and children, before burning down his house, Uddin said.

“This tragedy traumatized him. He used to faint repeatedly,” Jamal Uddin said. “His condition is deteriorating day by day,” he said.

Another refugee, Rafiq, 12, appeared depressed while watching friends from his camp play in a field. He came to Bangladesh with a distant relative, Shawkat Ali, after they fled Rakhine state.

One Friday about three months ago, Ali said, the military attacked their village in Maungdaw township, Rakhine and shot Rafiq’s parents right in front of the boy.

“Since then he does not talk. He always looks pale and depressed,” Ali said.

NGOs offer assistance

In reaching out to such cases, NGOs including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Action Against Hunger (ACF), the Red Crescent Society and Gonoshasthaya Kendra have employed counselors to support mental patients, according to Mezbah Uddin. Two physicians, five psychiatrics and 150 counselors have been providing mental health services to the Rohingya.

MSF spokesman Selim Badsha told BenarNews that his organization treated about 1,000 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar.

Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is heading a protection group to create a referral system and safe spaces for victims of gender-based violence. It also is enhancing efforts to identify and refer children at risk for appropriate support, according to a recent news release.

“Most of the mental patients are women and girls,” Mahmuda, a UNHCR mental health program associate, told BenarNews. “The women who survived [acts of] brutality have developed a greater degree of mental disorders. Counseling and treatment have helped many of them recover and return to a normal life.”

Sharmin Aktar, a volunteer with the Red Crescent, is among those trying to help Rohingya overcome their mental trauma.

“Many of the Rohingya living in camps have witnessed killings of their parents and dear ones in Rakhine. We have been trying to counsel them in ways that would help them forget the past bitter memory,” she told BenarNews.


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