European Year for Development

European Year for Development


You're not alone: tackling mental health in Afghanistan

Malalay (fictitious name to protect her identity) was born in Maidan Wardak, a province in central-eastern Afghanistan. She is one of six children and, since she was five, has lived in fear. Her father was often violent at home. Every day she would dread the moment her father returned from work, not knowing what his mood would be like.

As she grew older, she learned that he was suffering from mental problems that caused depression and erratic, aggressive behaviour, as well as psychosomatic issues.

By the time Malalay turned thirteen, her family moved to Kabul. Like many other Afghans that moved to Kabul from the countryside looking for better opportunities, they found themselves living in one of the many poor neighbourhoods of the Afghan capital.

By then her father's illness had been diagnosed and medical treatment had helped him. But eight years of constant distress had taken their toll on the psychological well-being of Malalay. She was depressed; she was feeling constant physical discomfort and her hands and feet would often get cold without any apparent reason. While having tantrums she would mistreat all those around her and throw objects and cry.

"I feel exhausted and time does not pass. The world is tight and dark for me. […] Life doesn’t have any importance for me. Sometimes I think about suicide but then I think about my father and don't kill myself".

Mental health problems are widespread in Afghanistan. A survey conducted in 2004, the last available, found 68% of respondents suffering from depression, 72% from anxiety and 42% from post-traumatic stress disorders.  Unfortunately, poor knowledge, cultural barriers as well as the lack of trained professionals and adequate infrastructure often prevent those affected from recognising the problem or seeking support in due time.

Malalay, aged 16, found her way to the Kabul Mental Health Hospital, the only tertiary health facilitiy addressing Mental Health problems in the whole country. Her doctor used to work there and, knowing about her problems, had advised her to seek professional support.

There she met with a psychosocial counsellor and a psychotherapist, who have been working with her ever since. They are both women. Having female doctors, nurses, midwives, psychotherapists and counsellors has greatly improved the possibility for women to seek care in a country where culture still prevents many of them from seeing a male doctor.

Now, she is already feeling better. Her path towards making a full recovery and recovering her well-being may still be long, but now she has professionals to talk to from whom she receives guidance and support.

"I am coming to the hospital to be cured. I am grateful to my doctor, my psychotherapist and my psychosocial counsellor who have helped me a lot. I feel I can improve a lot."

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I am coming to the hospital to be cured. I am grateful to my doctor, my psychotherapist and my psychosocial counsellor who have helped me a lot. I feel I can improve a lot.

- Malalay

The EU has contributed to the improvement of the mental health status of the Afghan population since 2007, when mental health became part of the Basic Package of Health Services provision.

  • A survey in Afghanistan found 72% of respondents suffering from anxiety and 42% from post-traumatic stress disorders.
  • The EU has provided EUR 7 million to mental health programmes in Afghanistan.
  • The EU supported International Medical Corps to renovate Kabul Mental Health Hospital, the only hospital providing psychiatric services.
  • The EU supports the capacity building of mental health professionals, mainly psychologists and psychiatrists.
  • The EU supported The International Psychosocial Organization to train 140 psychosocial counsellors in 34 provinces.

Source: EU Delegation to Afghanistan