Drama therapy used to help victims of trauma in Baghdad

Therapy through theatre and music is what Iraqi artist and drama professor Jabbar Khammat is using to treat depression
Sunday 15/04/2018
A new approach to life. A patient at the theatre clinic expresses himself through acting and playing the oud.                                                							    (Oumayma Omar)
A new approach to life. A patient at the theatre clinic expresses himself through acting and playing the oud. (Oumayma Omar)

BAGHDAD - Therapy through theatre and music is what Iraqi artist and drama professor Jabbar Khammat is using to treat depression suffered by trauma victims at his theatre clinic in Baghdad.

The cases of Kassem, Jaafar and Ahmad, Khammat said, reflect the difficult psychic conditions of a substantial portion of the Iraqi population suffering from decades of war, chemical attacks, deprivation and bad economy.

“They are examples of ex-prisoners, drug and alcohol addicts and victims of non-conventional weapons and war traumas who were able to overcome their depression with the help of drama therapy,” Khammat said.

“Ahmad’s case, for instance, sums up most of the psychological conditions. His depression stood as an obstacle between him and his direct family. He sunk into complete stupor and isolation and became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a means of escaping from his painful past and harsh present.”

Ahmad suffered from the loss of his sweetheart killed in an explosion at the age of 17, and, although he later married and had children, his trauma persisted and depression compounded with difficult living conditions almost killed him.

“Ahmad became a different person after he was able to disclose his problems and express his feelings on stage to an audience, the majority of whom are patients at the clinic. By doing so, he succeeded in liberating himself from the shadows of the past,” Khammat said.

He explained that the main phase of the treatment called “the platform of disclosure” offer patients “the space or context to tell their stories, set goals, solve problems, express feelings or achieve catharsis.”

At a later stage, they are trained in drama performance, including vocal exercises and some find solace in playing music. Through drama, they can actively explore the depth and scope of inner experience and eventually enhance interpersonal relationship skills.

“This meant that they have to concentrate on something other than their addictions or past trauma and look instead towards the future. Drama therapy helps them gain more confidence, concentrate and relax,” Khammat said.

Drama therapy is relatively new to Iraq. Khammat introduced the approach at the juvenile penitentiary of al-Juaifer in 2010 as part of a reformist project. Young people in the prison were asked to channel their energy into theatre by writing and performing a play in which they reflected their stories, sufferings and hopes. Afterward, they could interact with the audience.

“The Journal of a Forgotten Citizen” is a play written and performed by patients at Ibn Rushd Psychiatric Hospital, where Khammat tested his alternative therapy. The play focused on corruption with three characters representing different parts of Iraqi society.

Another project was put on for survivors of chemical weapons attacks in 1988 in Halabja, in northern Iraq. At least 5,000 people died and an estimated 7,000 were injured or had long-term illnesses. Many of those involved had breathing difficulties and sometimes found it difficult to express how hard that had been almost 30 years after the attacks.

“Psychodrama experience has helped many trauma victims to come out of their stupor by giving them the chance to take part in writing plays through which they illustrate their stories and embody aspirations and hopes, such as being a good person, especially in the case of drug addicts. The therapy helps them train and move into the future, a practice that would eventually change their approach to life and their behaviour,” Khammat said.

“Traditional treatment consists of digging into the past only but drama therapy offers patients an innovative way to express their suppressed emotions and reactions through playing roles related to what happened to them in the past or what they are going through at present or what they apprehend might happen to them in the future.

“Unlike traditional therapy, drama therapy looks at the targets as outcasts instead of patients, and this helps build confidence instead of feelings of uneasiness or animosity,” he added.

Dr Oussama al-Saidi, director of Ibn Rushd Psychiatry Hospital, said: “Drama therapy is a new therapy in Iraq and it could be used as part of the overall rehabilitation process at the hospital. Medical personnel need training and expertise in drama therapy, which proved to be effective with certain patients while they were still in the hospital. However, their response was temporary. Some relapsed into their depression and addictions after being discharged.

“That is why this type of therapy needs close follow up, in addition to being sustained with medication.”

Khammat said he hopes to take the drama therapy practice to places in Iraq where people have suffered the most trauma. He said he planned to train therapists in different parts of the country “to assist hundreds of Iraqis suffering from traumas and who need modern techniques to take them out of their desperate conditions.”

However, the teacher-turned-therapist admitted that it is not an easy task to convince Iraqis of the merit of drama therapy. There are other challenges, too, such as a lack of state funding and dealing with fact that women from conservative families refuse to get on stage in Iraq and the lack of sites to work regularly.

Logo of the Theatre clinic. Photo from contributor
Logo of the Theatre clinic. Photo from contributor