The silent illness stalking Afghanistan – Mental Health

11/24/11 Report— Tearfund
No one knows the true impact that years of war and instability have had on the mental health of people in Afghanistan.

Research suggests the psychological consequences of insecurity, trauma, migration, poverty and poor education are far-reaching.

A study of 300 children in Kabul showed that 90 per cent believed they would die in war, 67 per cent had seen dead body parts and 80 per cent said they felt frightened, sad and unable to cope with life.

Another report showed that large parts of the population in one Afghan province were suffering the symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Help lacking

Help for those with mental illness is desperately lacking, with psychotherapy and counselling almost unknown to most of the population.

Against such a background, Tearfund has this year been working with an Afghan partner to improve the lives of thousands of people.

Our partner’s Primary Mental Health Project in Western Afghanistan provides psychiatric training to doctors, nurses and community health workers so at least basic mental healthcare will be available even in remote places.

The idea is to integrate mental healthcare into the existing local health clinic structure as it offers accessibility and, because it is already accepted, less stigmatisation.

The project also works with community members who are non-medical specialists yet have an influential role, such as traditional healers.

Family conflicts

Educating traditional healers, mullahs and sheikhs, is particularly important as historically they have been seen by Afghans as the only people capable of providing mental health care.

They are being given basic knowledge of priority mental health disorders and are learning how to educate community members on mental health issues.

Partner staff are also working with community health supervisors who are receiving basic knowledge of common and severe mental disorders and how to refer patients for treatment. They’ll also understand more about family conflicts and counselling. In turn, they will train community health workers.

Suicide bids

The project is also building awareness and understanding across wider areas of Afghan society, such as government officials, teachers and the legal system, for example by producing quarterly magazines and promoting participation in World Mental Health Day.

Our partner’s community-based work started in 1995 as a response to seeing many women suffering extensive burns after setting light to themselves in suicide bids.

Bruce Clark, Tearfund’s Country Representative for Afghanistan, said, ‘Our partner over time has built up a mental health support programme that has developed into a national leader in the field.

‘Clinical diagnosis and treatment, psychiatric doctor and nurse training, mental health resource development and an extensive community awareness and training programme have followed.’

Bruce said partner events to mark World Mental Health Day recently attracted key local government officials, the Pakistan and Iranian consuls as well as six TV crews.

‘It was fantastic to see mental health, a largely hidden and misunderstood illness, get national coverage and for our partner to be recognised for their excellent work,’ he said.