While preparing for my trip to the 17th annual meeting of the Kurdish National Congress of North America (KNC) in Nashville, TN on March 25th, 2005, a friend of mine asked me if there was any psychiatric explanation for the suffering of the Kurdish society! The question was stimulating and in fact I came up with some possible explanations that became the subject of this speech.
I believe the scientific methodology of many disciplines could be helpful to policy makers. As an example, a cell biologist might teach us how the function of parts of a healthy cell is similar to that of function of parts of a healthy society. An anatomist might tell us how the complimentary functions of organ systems are similar to complimentary functions of various individuals and organizations in a society.
With this in mind, I would like to explain how psychiatric principles might help with understanding sociopolitical problems and their solutions. People turn to psychiatrists when having difficulty with their feeling, thinking, or behavior. The analogy of such a triad in a society might include culture, ideology, and government. The psychiatric disturbances have been classified based on their nature such as disease, behavior, personality, and life story (1).
Similarly the nature of sociopolitical disturbances could be classified based on their nature such as geographical location, governing style, human resources, and historical experiences. Since Kurds are divided and have no state of their own, the KNC could perhaps use the models of groups such as Indian, Jewish, or African National Congresses to function as a pluralistic umbrella organization and promote ending Kurdish suffering with peaceful means more effectively.
In that context, Kurdish American Education Society would be able to carry out its primarily educational mission more efficiently by working closely with many other organizations with similar objectives such as the Education Committee of the KNC.
With the development of society, psychiatry has made significant progress as well. Around the time of colonialism, when native people were exploited and terrorized (2), romantic psychiatrists thought that mental illness was related to passions that drive people to choose evil which, in turn, leads them to inner corruption (3).
Enlightenment led to American, French and the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. At that time Benjamin Rush, the Father of American Psychiatry, thought that mental illness was related to the brain. From late 19th and mid 20th century on the field was influenced by the work of psychiatrists such as Kraeplin for his medical or categorical approach, Freud for his analytical or ” neo-romantic” approach, and Meyer for his combined approach.
At the same time the world witnessed two disastrous world wars. During World War II, academic medicine and psychiatry were partially responsible for Nazi's racial and social hygiene program in Germany. Hitler's machinery of death killed not only 6 million Jews but many people with mental retardation and other, so called, biological degenerates (3).
Since the 2nd half of the 20th century much progress has been made. We know today that mental illness has no ethnic, class or gender boundaries. Even the most powerful people may become mentally ill or victim of traumatic experiences. Abraham Lincoln once had said: “I am now the most miserable man living; whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; to remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better” (4).
Yet, we know he recovered and made a major contribution to the history of mankind. Likewise, the community of holocaust survivors with the worst traumatic experiences has been able to recover and contribute to progress in many areas such as science, technology and humanity today.
Thanks to such progress, contemporary psychiatry has become a comprehensive and advanced medical, psychological and social discipline; the trend is now toward pluralisms (5), as it is the case in social sciences, in which we see diffusion of ideas and approaches, and even coexistence of war and peace movements in a democratic society. This does not mean that we now live in utopia; still much progress needs to be made to have a more humane world.
Type and Nature of Disturbances in Individual vs. Society
An individual can feel sad, miserable, hyper, nervous, or empty. A society's culture might show signs of isolation, aggression, irresponsible pleasure seeking, resistance to innovation, and appreciation of death more than life. An individual might have bizarre, nihilistic, obsessed, expansive, and paranoid thoughts. A society's ideology might show signs of anarchism, isolationism, fanaticism, expansionism, and fascism. An individual might behave withdrawn, impulsive, self injurious, dramatic, or violent. The government in a society might act isolative, expansive, suppressive, reactionary, aggressive, or wild.
Professors Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney, two of my greatest ex-mentors and contemporary prominent thinkers at Johns Hopkins University, have differentiated mental disturbances based on their nature that includes individual's life story, diseases, personality, and behavior (1). Likewise, I think one could differentiate the suffering of societies based on historical events, geographical location, ability to utilize resources, and system of government.
Life Events in Individual vs. Society
One of the causes of suffering is life event. An individual who has experienced torture, physical or sexual abuse, hunger, and neglect will have a very difficult time to lead a normal life. He or she will need much reframing and comfort to recover. Likewise, suppression, genocide, poverty, invasion, and assault break the backbone of any society. Such societies need international support, security, and guidance to become a regular member of the international community.
During colonialism a romantic psychiatrist might have called a battered spouse evil, if she had wanted to end a prearranged marriage with the chief of a clan. Today most reasonable psychiatrists would not discourage separation in such cases. Likewise, in contemporary world one expects that politicians not to consider “separatism” or independence of oppressed people as a taboo.
Broken Part in Individual vs. Society
An individuals' mental disturbance might be related to a disease, chemical imbalance or a broken part in the brain that might cause psychosis, agitation, confusion, depression and even suicide. Such individuals need immediate intervention with medications, hospitalization, and at times even electroconvulsive therapy for stabilization and recovery. Likewise, national and international communities could relate a society's misery to geographical location, natural disasters, and lack of resources that requires intensive financial and technical support in order to recover.
Maladaptive Behavior in Individual vs. Society
Another cause of individual's suffering is maladaptive behavior such as drug, sex, gambling, and eating addictions or criminal activity. Interrupting such behavior and relapse prevention is the key for recovery in such cases. Likewise, a government might preoccupy people's minds with rituals, past glories, superstition, and fantasies of worldly or heavenly pleasures, yet engage in exploitation, terror, drug trafficking, assassinations, mass murder, and neglect of its citizens.
The appropriate intervention would be to stop governments from such behaviors with whatever it takes to help and protect innocent people so they can enjoy the peace and prosperity of the civilized and progressive world. Stopping the behavior of dictators with whatever it takes might be rightfully worrisome for many because of complications of radical measures. This is probably the reason that a significant part of the civilized world including progressive Arabs, Turks, and Persians advocate that we all are equally suffering and that we should wait until the change comes within, when everyone is ready.
As counter argument, many Kurds might agree with George Orwell's animal farm and mention that “some people are more equal than others” and that enough is enough. Likely this is the reason they are appreciative of US determination to move on with stopping dictators from their maladaptive behavior!
Characteristics of Individual vs. Society
Another reason for the suffering of an individual is temperamental vulnerabilities such as extreme shyness, impulsivity, immaturity, defiance, self-centeredness, and lack of intelligence, etc. In such a case one needs guidance to be aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses to handle daily challenges in life.
Likewise a society might be underdeveloped, lack knowledge of politics, ethics, philosophy, art, literature, music, technology, and architecture and yet remain ethnocentric and resistant to change. In such a case, education, education, education, and guidance are the key. The heritage of such societies needs to be appreciated, protected, and developed so people can relate to positive aspects of their culture and identity and improve their self esteem. Once there, they might appreciate other people's culture and welcome change, progress, and voluntary unions.
Nature of Disturbances in Kurdistan and the Role of the KNC
In short, an individualës suffering can be due to one, few or all four factors of life story, personality, behavior, and disease. The society's problems can also be related to one, few or all four factors of traumatic experiences, cultural characteristics, governmental behavior, and geographical location. In fact Kurdish society seems to be affected by all four factors.
In terms of traumatic events, Kurdistan has experienced displacement, suppression, abuse, genocide, bombing, and assassinations. Kurds are advised by outsiders to be patient though. It might take a very long time for people in Mahabad, Darsim, Qamishli, and Halabja, to feel as comfortable as people in Teheran, Ankara, Damascus, and Baghdad, although these cities might have had their own traumatic experiences.
Here is a description of Halabja's experience: “In every street and alley women and children rolled over one another. The sound of crying and groans rose from every house in the town. Many families who were sleeping were subjected to chemical bombing before the sun rose “(6).
Halabja's tragedy is only the tip of the iceberg of the Kurdish history. Shame on those who consider Kurdish “separatism” or independence a backward movment! Of course every apple tree might have some bad apples, but considering Kurdistan's traumatic history, the peaceful independence seeking faction of the Kurdish movement seems to be the most progressive faction.
For now what the KNC should do, is to insist on compensation for the abuses, promote return of displaced people to where they belong, support Pishmarga for self defense unless militarism is abolished in the region, and build alliances with progressive factions of other ethnic groups that believe in unconditional justice and equality!
In term of dimensional or cultural characteristics, fortunately Kurds tend to be ethical, open, flexible, and tolerant of diversity. Fanaticism does not seem to be appreciated in Kurdistan. However, some Kurds still believe in gender discrimination, male polygamy, honor killing, and capital punishment. The society is still deficient in areas of education, language, art, science, and philosophy and it has not built a coherent national identity.
the KNC should continue to promote values of contemporary civilization, educate and obtain scholarships for youth at home and abroad. It should promote boycotting Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages in Kurdistan unless the Kurdish language becomes equal in the four countries. However, it should promote friendly coexistence and dialogue between Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, etc. and appreciate their heritage without compromising Kurdish identity and full equality with them.
In term of governing behavior, Kurds often have been at the service of dominant cultures, too busy with internal pitiful conflicts, and overlooked the bigger picture for short term party gains; they have not enjoyed self determination, are unfamiliar with pluralism, and assign responsibilities to individuals based on family and tribal relations. the KNC could remain modern, modest, and pluralistic in advocating for national interests. It could encourage giving responsibilities based on skills, expertise, and ability! It could coordinate developmental stages and put federalisms, independence of one or few Kurdish states, interdependence, and voluntary unions in the Middle East to referendum.
In term of geographical location, Kurdish society is being broken apart between four unreasonable countries; it lacks a recognized national identity. It lacks industrial development, jobs, and security. It is impractical now to expect all parts of Kurdistan to be united. However, it is practical that an organization such as the KNC uses the Model of African, Indian, or Jewish National Congresses and becomes a broader, pluralistic, and umbrella organization for all factions of the Kurdish society.
the KNC could initiate dialogue and invite all Kurdish political, social, cultural, and educational institutions to join and to take their share of responsibilities. Once there, the KNC might request a budget from national and international communities and monitor that priorities are given to building factories, roads, hospitals, schools, universities, and cultural centers in all parts of Kurdistan.
the KNC could intermediate that US and other allied forces remain in Southern Kurdistan to prevent the repetition of Mahabad's experience in 1946, when the first Kurdish republic was eliminated in Iran. To do so, every Kurd might need further selflessness, and the society as a whole further sacrifice in form of paying for the cost of mutual cooperation with and providing security by the allied forces with all of the oil from Kurdish soil.
How About Me and Us?
One might ask what can be done besides lecturing the KNC? I encourage transparency and straightforwardness. As a spouse, parent, and citizen, I hope I have enough time to do my share of responsibility at home and in the community. As a professional (www.doctorartin.com), I hope I can find an academic or humanitarian institution that can help me with building a mental health center in the liberated part of Kurdistan.
As current president of the Kurdish American Education Society (www.kaes.us), I hope I can convince the board members to work closely with other organizations with similar objectives such as the Education Committee of the KNC of North America (www.the KNCna.org) for a common goal. Locally KAES has been successful in carrying out many educational and cultural activities with minimum resources. Our hope is to have support from Kurdish, American, and the international community to be able to take a greater share of responsibility.
Although many might be rightfully skeptical about the role of the UN in our cause, the previous president of KAES, Mr. Rashidi, has initiated talks with them via the United Nations Association (UNA). I urge the KNC or any other individual or organization that is convinced Kurds deserve to determine their destiny, to join us so that together we can build a Kurdish Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) at the UN. Once there, we will be able to be more effective.
Our first initiative then could be to request the unpaid budget for oil for food program for various national projects that could be carried out by many dedicated and altruistic Kurdish individuals and organizations for a common goal; such a goal would ultimately serve Kurdistan in particular and humanity in general.
1. Paul McHugh and Philip Slavney, The Perspective of Psychiatry, John Hopkins Press, 1998
3. Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, NY, 1997
5. Nassir Ghaemi, The Concepts of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 2003
7. Personal opinion and memory from lectures of mentors, report of patients, and review of history.