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Open Society Scholars Bring Mental Health Services to Afghanistan

People gathered on a mountain ridge
Spectators gather on a hillside to watch the traditional sport of Buzkashi near Bamyan, Afghanistan, in March 2014. © Kamran Shefayee/Getty

Bamyan province in central Afghanistan is poor, mountainous, and relatively isolated. The roads linking it to the capital, Kabul, are often insecure. As in the rest of Afghanistan, the effects of war can make it a stressful place to live.

For Jamaluddin Mohammadi, a Bamyan native, returning here after an extended time away was jarring. After being awarded a South Asia Scholarship from the Open Society Foundations in 2012, he spent two years studying for a master’s degree in counseling at India’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. But returning home entailed more than simple culture shock because jobs in the field that Jamaluddin had been immersed in for the past two years, counseling, do not exist in rural Afghanistan.  

“One of the main factors which drove me to apply for an Open Society scholarship was the real need for mental health professionals in our area,” says Jamaluddin. “There are few to no mental health facilities in Bamyan province, although the local population continues to face stressors associated with years of conflict and poverty.”

Since his return to Afghanistan in 2014, Jamaluddin has had to innovate. “I have been working to open the first counseling center in Bamyan University to support students experiencing mental health issues. I’m also starting to build self-help groups, as well as manuals, tools, and packages for mental health well-being and awareness.”

He is also teaching part-time at the university in the fields of human growth and development, research methodology, and community mental health. He’s clear and passionate about the need to provide mental health services to young Afghan people. 

“Seventy percent of the Afghan population is under 25, and there is an immediate need for a strategy to bring practitioners, youth policymakers, and other stakeholders together to support basic mental health services in every educational institution,” says Jamaluddin.

Mental health service provision is woefully inadequate throughout Afghanistan. Kabul is home to the one hospital dedicated to mental health care in the country. Professionals are scarce, and stigma towards those suffering from mental illnesses is high.

“As mental health is a new field in Bamyan, I also need to be involved in community mobilization,” says Jamaluddin. “We face the challenge of a lack of awareness about mental health issues in the community, which means we have little support for counseling programs, especially financially.”

Three hours east of Bamyan, in Kabul, Jamaluddin’s fellow South Asia Scholarship alumni, Abdul Hadi Iqbalzada and Mohammad Nazer Alemi, are also critical of the lack of public health campaigns that could help address stigma and a lack of trust between clients and counselors.

“We face the challenge of convincing the community that psychotherapy or counseling can help you to come out of your issues,” says Hadi, a mental health counselor with a local NGO. “Afghan people often believe pharmacological intervention is the only way.”

Nazer, who is currently researching juvenile justice in rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan for an Italian NGO, witnesses the lack of support first hand. “In the centers, there are young people—girls and boys—with mental health disorders who need psychological support. But, unfortunately, none of the juvenile rehabilitation centers provide them counseling or mental health services.”

Like Jamaluddin, Hadi and Nazer are working to change this paradigm, both systemically and one patient at a time. “I created peer support groups of students at Kabul University’s department of counseling, but now I’m offering counseling services myself for free,” says Hadi. “Most clients have relationship, depression, anxiety, and social phobia issues. Providing these services is something I feel I can do for them.” 

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