Interview with Dr. Azad Ali, ­ Head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Koya University

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has known a long history of violence and persecution, with decades of war, oppression, genocide, and dictatorship. Trauma is passed over from generation to generation and talking about mental health issues is still taboo. In Kurdistan, most mental health services are provided by psychiatrists, with the treatment approach relying primarily on medications. The mental health needs are significant, but qualified mental health professionals to help survivors recover from their experiences are lacking.

Dr. Azad Ali has been the Head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Koya University (KU) since 2010. He obtained his Ph.D. in Psychology in Malaysia in 2004. According to Dr. Azad, clinical psychology is a relatively new field in Kurdistan. He reports: “Those who work as ‘clinical psychologists’, lack both knowledge and skills. They lack updated knowledge about treatment approaches, and they also lack necessary training on specific psychotherapeutic skills. Graduates from psychology departments with bachelor degrees are not qualified to provide any sort of mental health care, even the most basic ones. What makes the situation worse is the fact that this area has been through a series of traumatic events for the past 40 years.”

When you experience displacement and violence there are two things that are very important: reestablishing a sense of security and trust. “You have to deal with the traumatic event in a healthy way, so it promotes growth, rather than negative consequences. Providing mental health services for those who suffer from severe traumatic stress is a dire need”, says Dr. Azad. The reality in Kurdistan today is that people need help processing traumatic experiences, and there are very few qualified providers to offer this type of assistance.

Not receiving the needed help after experiencing trauma, or not receiving help from professional mental health workers, could deteriorate the psychological condition. “Their trauma might turn into a complex trauma, and the symptoms get worse. This will have a negative impact on new generations… Traumatized parents are likely to raise traumatized children. In response to these needs, SEED has partnered with KU to strengthen the Clinical Psychology department in order to prepare students to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

Since October 2016, KU and SEED have been working together to develop and implement a plan to do just this. Through a reformed curriculum, students will now learn practical and clinical skills in addition to theory. They will also benefit from a more robust supervised practicum experience. During the students’ final year of study they will work for two months in an organization and facility under supervision from their host institution and KU faculty, building practical skills prior to graduation. The faculty have been trained as clinical supervisors and we have expanded the variety of options for placement opportunities, including in organizations who are working with conflict-affected communities such as SEED. Additionally, students will benefit from a new trauma specialty, where they can learn more about trauma and how to help those who have experienced traumatic events heal.

To ensure KU’s Clinical Psychology faculty were equipped to implement these changes, SEED brought in Dr. Sandra Zakowski, an expert in trauma from Argosy University in Chicago, to develop the courses and train the faculty on delivering the material to their students. “With her knowledge and experience, she was able to successfully teach us both subjects and given her past work in Kurdistan, adapt the materials to our local environment.” Her mentorship will continue from a distance as Koya University implements the new courses. Dr. Azad says that the clinical psychology students are extremely happy with the new trauma specialty: “Though we offered the course as ‘optional’, all the final year students registered for the new course! From their feedback, we learned about all the benefits the new specialty had.  They are not only attending, they are actively taking part in the classes because it will help them in their future careers working with IDPs, refugees, or others at risk in the region.”

In addition to curriculum reform and a more robust supervised practicum, through the generous funding of the US State Department, the Clinical Psychology Department was able to purchase two new sets of textbooks for their students for the first time.  Dr. Azad states, “Our university library lacks good references about trauma. Twenty copies of each of these important books are extremely helpful in implementing the course.”

SEED looks forward to watching how these significant changes will impact the future of mental health care in Kurdistan as future graduates enter the workforce and use their education to help Kurdistan heal.