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BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Health Minister Salih Mahdi al-Hasnawi says the country needs to increase the number of psychiatrists several times over to deal with a growing number of mentally ill patients, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reports.

Al-Hasnawi told RFI that Iraq has only about 100 psychiatrists for a population of about 30 million people -- plus roughly 280 auxiliaries, including nurses and social workers. He said at least six times that number of specialists is needed to ensure a semblance of adequate care.

Al-Hasnawi, a trained psychiatrist, said the government is currently considering a bill initiated by the Health Ministry that offers incentives to psychiatrists whose workload is exceptionally heavy, including plots of land.

He explained that the ministry's focus is to eliminate the social stigma associated with mental illness by breaking up the big mental health institutions and incorporating psychiatric treatment into primary-care and general hospitals.

Al-Hasnawi recalled that in 2007 the Health Ministry, in cooperation with the World Health Organization, carried out the "Iraqi Mental Health Survey," which revealed that mental illness among the population is 16.8 percent. That is within internationally accepted norms. He asserted that the "rate is much higher in rich countries like the United States and Britain."

Public health activist Abdel Hadi Nasser questioned the minister's figures, telling RFI that "the tension and stress is palpable in the street, at home, and among politicians. He said that suggests the rate of mental illness in society is higher than official figures.

Nasser cited concerns about security, cuts in power amid summer heat, and bickering among politicians as factors contributing to mental problems that include aggressiveness and schizophrenia.
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