‘No hope’: Suicides on the rise in northwestern Syria

Health professionals say that incidences of mental illness are rising in northwestern Syria [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Continuing war and lack of opportunities and hope drive some in opposition-held areas of Syria to take their own lives.

Warning: This story contains descriptions of suicide. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help and support are available. Visit Befrienders International for more information about support services. 

Idlib, Syria – Muhammed Anjouki had lived the majority of his 16 years during Syria’s devastating war.

Living in Idlib, the largely opposition-held province in the country’s northwest, he had survived the direct consequences of the war – the air strikes, the barrel bombs, the snipers.

But the war has other effects, and Muhammed’s family was finding it hard to get by.

His father had his legs amputated as a result of injuries sustained during the war, and the family had been forced to flee their home in the town of Maarat Al-Numan after government forces attacked in 2019, and settled in camps for internally displaced people along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Muhammed dropped out of school, and started to look for a job to help them.

“Muhammed had to bear the responsibility of providing for the whole family,” his father, Salim, explained to Al Jazeera. “He had nine siblings, seven of them girls, and he was the eldest of the boys. He left school and worked full-time, something he wasn’t used to.

“We had no idea where we were going when we left Maarat Al-Numan, we spent our first night sleeping in the open in the rain … we went from place to place fleeing the regime forces,” he added, speaking of the trauma that the whole family had experienced.

Salim said that his son would tell those around him their circumstances would improve, and that the family would be able to return to Maarat Al-Numan.

But at the same time, Muhammed was getting into debt trying to help his family, and it was gradually affecting him.

“His behaviour was changing, he would sit alone away from the family, and he appeared to be under pressure,” Salim said. “I would find him alone sitting outside after midnight.”

Muhammed would take his own life in his tent shortly after the Eid holiday, in April.

Rising trend

According to the Response Coordination Group, a Syrian NGO working in the northwest of the country, suicides are on the rise in the region, from 22 in 2021, to at least 32 in the first six months of 2022.

Ahmed Abdul Hayy, a psychotherapist working with the SAMS medical centre in Idlib, told Al Jazeera that the trauma that many Syrians have experienced may be a reason for the increased number of suicides.

“People in northern Syria face conditions such as displacement, losing their homes, living in camps where they lose their privacy, as well as unemployment, poverty and an inability to adapt to the difficult conditions,” Abdul Hayy said. “This then leads to people losing hope and fearing the future, which appears as if it were getting worse.”

Approximately 90 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line, according to the United Nations, leaving many Syrian breadwinners unable to provide for their families.

The absence of a support system to help deal with these problems is one of the main reasons for the increase in suicides, said Abdul Hayy.

“In most of the cases recorded, warnings had been given before suicides were carried out, but the threats were not taken seriously, and vulnerable people were instead reprimanded by family members or met with indifference,” he said.

Young losing hope

Most of the suicides carried out have been by young people, many of whom have lost hope after living for such a large proportion of their lives during war.

“Young Syrians see on the internet and in films people living lives completely different to their own,” said Abdullah Darwish, a local researcher. “This often makes them feel secluded and makes them think negative thoughts about their unknown future.”

Darwish also believes that an improved economic environment would help to alleviate the growing trend.

“There need to be more job opportunities, particularly for young people, so that they go from being consumers to producers, even if it’s just small projects,” Darwish said. “This will make them more positive about life.”

While the majority of the suicide cases recorded were men, Abdul Hayy explained that this may not actually be true.

“This is a conservative society where psychological illness is still regarded as shameful, and where people avoid visiting psychiatrists, let alone suicides,” said Abdul Hayy. “I think that the number of women who have committed suicide is likely to be higher, but that relatives do not talk publicly about it, and say the death was caused by something else.”

There should be more awareness of the rise in suicidal thoughts,” Abdul Hayy added. “Mental illness should be regarded as a disease that should be treated by health professionals, and not be covered up and thought of as shameful.”



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