The secret epidemic: mental health in Afghanistan
An estimated 50 per cent of Afghans over the age of 15 suffer from a mental health disorder. A BMS World Mission doctor is trying to help them
Afghanistan’s history is marred by war and conflict
“When I used to work in the north of Afghanistan I didn’t know a woman who hadn’t lost a child, or a close relative, to the fighting,” says Catherine*, a BMS doctor who is working with a partner to improve the provision of mental health care in the country.
“The exposure to violence is really quite phenomenal.”
Fighting in conflict after conflict; losing your husband, your father, your son; living with and trying to love a traumatised and (as a result) often violent husband; having flashbacks of the corpses you saw on the streets of your childhood – these things have a devastating effect.
It can take generations to get over trauma of the kind experienced by Afghans who have lived through decades of war. And violence is far from a thing of the past. Statistics from the World Bank suggest that half of Afghan people over the age of 15 suffer from anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Most Afghans are like you and me. They really want to have a life for their children, they want to have a job and they want to do well,” says Catherine. She works alongside many people who are doing remarkably well given their stories, but who are not experiencing the fullness of life God desires them to have. They are scarred by the trauma they have experienced.
One of the major barriers to working through mental health issues in Afghanistan is the huge stigma surrounding it. People struggling with mental health issues often feel embarrassed or ashamed and so are unwilling to go to a doctor to get help.
Catherine heads up the mental health work of our partner organisation in Afghanistan. Raising awareness of the issues is key to their approach. Helping people to understand that they are not alone – that others they know are experiencing the same things – helps to break the isolation and fear that those suffering from a mental health disorder in Afghanistan might experience.
“One woman came to counselling ready to kill herself”
As well as challenging deeply rooted preconceptions, Catherine and our team of partners are training medical students and doctors in the delivery of mental health care – both at a basic and at a more specialist level. They’re also directly supporting traumatised Afghan people through counselling.
Their work is already transforming lives. Catherine tells the story of one woman who came to counselling ready to kill herself. Her husband had divorced her and taken away her child. She was left alone, her status in Afghan society very precarious, and feeling like she didn’t have any rights. “She was having a lot of suicidal thoughts,” says Catherine. “She had hit the bottom and didn’t think there was any hope.”
Through the counselling, this woman realised she did have choices. That she did have a life. Since receiving counselling, she has decided to get some more education and to pursue a career. She wants to become a mental health counsellor and help other people trapped in despair like she was.
“When we look at fullness of life, at good life, just having your physical needs met – which is most Afghans’ first aim – isn’t enough,” says Catherine. BMS wants to transform whole lives, and Afghanistan is just one of the places we’re working to do that. Through the mental health projects Catherine is working on, we’re helping people to break free from depression, anxiety and isolation – and training up health professionals to make an even greater impact.
You can help us bring hope and healing to people in Afghanistan and beyond right now by making a one-off donation or becoming a 24:7 Partner.
The needs in Afghanistan are huge – but so is the opportunity to help transform the lives of people who have suffered from a lifetime of violence. We are currently looking for people to fill a number of vital roles in our Afghanistan team. If you have expertise or experience in mental health, health, development, finance, HR, operations or admin, we could be looking for you!
Please check out our vacancies in Afghanistan today and pray with us for God to call Christians to come forward to fill these roles and serve the people of this beautiful, war-ravaged
This article first appeared on the website of BMS World Mission and is used with permission.