By Tahani al-Sabri
In a strange phenomenon appearing among school-age teenagers, qat chewing has been growing more prevalent among 13-18 year olds.
A large number of students engaged in public education—estimated at approximately six million students in Yemen—have fallen victim to chewing qat, which causes several physical and psychological diseases. Experts attribute this rise to encouragement by students’ families, weak academic curricula, and the absence of an active response by the Ministry of Education.
Ahmed al-Matari, 17, died recently at Matna hospital in the Bani Matarin directorate of western Sana’a. At the time of his death, Ahmed was severly emaciated. His eyes and face were yellow, and he had lost his appetite.
Dr. Mansour al-Amrani is a professor at the Sana’a University Faculty of Medicine as well as an expert on the liver and digestive system. He was responsible for Ahmed’s medical treatment, and confirmed that “medical examinations and CT scans revealed that prolonged chewing of qat lead to an increase in liver enzyme production, resulting in deadly cirrhosis.”
Ahmed—who did not finish high school—saw his condition deteriorate rapidly beginning in 2011. According to his older brother, Abraham, “Ahmed was chewing qat twice a day for an average total of 10 to 12 hours. We took him to the hospital twice, but the disease had already taken hold.”
At al-Thawra hospital, many students visited their 15 year-old friend Ahmed Awadh. His doctors kept him under the medical supervision in the hospital for several days because of his deteriorating condition. Awadh’s Condition does not seem much better than Ahmad Matari’s case before his death.
Ahmad’s father believes that “qat is the thing that brought him to this. He chews qat twice a day, which effects his mental and nervous system.” According to a medical report issued by al-Thawra government hospital, Ahmed has schizophrenia as a result of excessive qat chewing, which leads him to behave in an aggressive, dangerous manner.
A questionnaire distributed by the writer investigated 2,000 students in six schools, including 400 females. The questionnaire revealed that 62% of male students surveyed chew the qat leaf, compared to only 3% of girls. Eight out of every ten qat chewers stay up late from the effects of the plant, and also suffer lethargy, anxiety, and abdominal pain because of their daily chews.
38% of respondents, none of whom chew qat, accuse the plant of causing injury to their colleagues both physically and psychologically. The survey also showed that six out of every ten students acquire qat from their friends, and that four out of every ten student inherit their qat habits from their parents and relatives.
While 84% of those who do not consume qat say they do not face any difficulties in getting it or affording it, many parents provide qat to children themselves. Other young chewers, especially those who live in the countryside, acquire their qat from family farms. Sixteen percent of chewers, on the other hand, encounter difficulties in securing qat. Many of these do not chew unless their friends provide them with leaves or they can purchase their own product with work wages earned in after school jobs or during summer vacation.
The ratio revealed by the questionnaire is “catastrophic”, as described by social scientist Ibrahim Saleh Abad, especially when compared to the 800-student study carried out by a researcher in the late nineties. The statistic showed that the percentage of qat consumed by school students at that time did not exceed 20% of respondents.
In the courtyard of al-Amal Psychiatric Hospital sits a young boy named Omar Saleh. Omar is 17, and has chewed qat for six years. On this particular day, he is battling with his doctors, trying to escape their restraining hands while shouting, “I’m not crazy.” His mother, who sits next to him, says that “Omar is not crazy, but he suffers from illusions and suspicions that his family wants to kill him.”
A specialist on psychological illness employed by the hospital, Dr. Mohammed Amer Zmran, revealed that “chewing qat makes student overstate their worries, problems and illusions. It increases their anxiety, depression and suspicions.”
After ten years of clinical observation of patients, Dr. Zmran can confirm that “most young psychiatric patients are addicted to qat, and more suicides occur among adolescents who chew qat than those who do not.”
Dr. Zmran confirmed the results of a study carried out by Dr. Geiger and a group of psychiatric researchers conducted in 1994 qat-related cases in Heath Herton hospital in Australia. Their study found that “qat works to increase dopamine levels in the blood, which in turn increases the degree of suspicions held by chewers, especially after they stop chewing.”
This finding was also verified by Bandar, a fifteen year-old student. “The first time I chewed qat, my parents took me to my cousin’s wedding and gave me a bag of leaves. That day I could not sleep from fear.” Bandar, who now chews twice a week, added that “now after I finish chewing, I’m scared to be alone, even in my room.”
The psychological illness specialist Dr. Abdo al-Shaylashi believes he understands the chemical link between the plant and paranoia. “Increased production of enzymes in the brain in an abnormal way leads to these emotional cases.” Dr. al-Shaylashi has received 120 cases of 15-20 year-old youths in in his clinic, representing 20% of the psychiatric cases in 2012.
Laboratory tests conducted on twenty students at al-Anwar medical laboratories by an investigative writer found that only ten of those who chewed manifested the “Firas Orjanobos” compounds in their bloodstream. Blood toxicity varies among those who chew qat, and often completely disappears among those who don’t.
According to Dr. Mohammed Hababi, a toxicities specialist, the high rate of these toxins in chewers’ blood can be traced back to two compounds common in the plant. Altatinat and Altalien both cause inflammation of the stomach and mucosal membranes, hindering digestion.
Despite these risks, the Deputy Director of Legal Affairs of the Ministry of Education, Mohammad al-Sareea, denied the feasibility of a law or regulation preventing the chewing of qat by school students. “We prevent eating qat in schools, but we cannot do that at home, because many parents encourage their children to chew. It falls within the framework of personal freedom, exactly like smoking.
Awareness seems to be the only option now available to those who wish to combat early chewing. Some advise establishing schools far away from qat markets along with initiating campaigns to inform citizens of the dangers of the plant. The most important of these tools is an awareness curriculum, which touches on qat in one lesson talking about its impact on water resources.
Ali Haimi, Undersecretary of Curricula in the Ministry of Education, reported the existence of a plan to review the curriculum, and include qat awareness damage. He suggested this program would begin in the current school year.