After three decades of uninterrupted bloodshed, war is the only way of life many people in Afghanistan know. The psychological toil of endless conflict is profound. Cases of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug-induced psychosis, major depressive disorders, and anxiety are commonplace throughout the country. But as the scourge of mental illness spreads, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is barely diagnosed at all.
Although reliable data about Afghanistan is hard to come by, it is estimated that as many as 40 to 60 percent of Afghanistan’s civilian population suffer from PTSD, but few who seek treatment for the disorder ever know they have it. Symptoms of PTSD—such as flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, mistrust, and fear of leaving the house—aren’t considered particularly abnormal in the war-weary nation.
Mullah Sakhi Jan prays over a 13-year-old girl, who injured her leg when she was hit by a car. Many turn to mullahs for guidance and medical help, including for mental health issues. While some mullahs, after offering traditional prayer and amulets, might tell their clients to see a doctor, not all are as progressive. Photo: Magda Rakita/BAAG
Mohammad sits on the bed while his mother – Bibi Oghel – rests. She was diagnosed with depression, panic attacks, and anorexia following a dispute with her daughter-in-law’s family. Relatives are allowed to stay overnight in patients’ rooms. Photo: Magda Rakita/BAAG
Afghanistan is a tremendously communal society where large families often live under the same roof, so most people who withdraw socially or exhibit angry outbursts—both of which are also symptoms of PTSD and are considered abnormal in the country—will be treated for depression or anxiety.
Mazar-e-Sharif, a city along the country’s border with Uzbekistan, is home to Afghanistan’s first private neuro-psychiatric hospital. Named after its founder, Dr. Nader Alemi, the hospital can accommodate up to 20 inpatients and 80 to 120 outpatients every day. In the last 12 years Alemi has treated a cross-section of Afghan society, including rich and poor, the neurotic and the suicidal, and over an estimated 1,000 Taliban fighters.