A growing mental health crisis in Afghanistan

In the war-torn nation, conflict has left deep psychological scars across all areas of society

Herat, a city in Afghanistan's Western Region, has few psychologists but - just like across the whole contry - growing mental health needs.
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After decades of war, violence and displacement, Afghanistan is in the grip of a mental health crisis. For many Afghans, psychological help is beyond reach. Those who do come forward are often stigmatised by a society that values family honour above all else. According to the International Psychological Organisation, 70 per cent of the country's 37 million people is in need of mental health support.

And, as ever in conflict zones, women and children are the worst affected. As The National reported, of the estimated 3,000 Afghan suicides every year, 80 per cent are women.

Many Afghan girls are forced to marry young. From childhood, far too many face violence – or the threat of it – both in the home and on the streets. Often forced to move frequently, to escape disorder and brutality, the vast majority are afraid to speak up or run away, fearing the shame that will be brought upon their families. In Herat, a city of two million near the Iranian border, there are only 31 registered psychologists.

However, there is cause for mild optimism. Afghanistan is in transition and, according to its health ministry, both the provision and uptake of psychological services are growing as the nation modernises. Still, overcoming deeply held conservative values and ensuring that those in need of help feel able to seek it will take time.

To make matters worse, Afghans still live in fear of daily attacks. At least 34 people were killed and more than 100 wounded on Monday, when a blast tore through central Kabul. Children, who have known only war throughout their lives, were whisked away to hospital with books and pens still in their hands. It followed last-ditch peace talks between the US and the Taliban, which claimed the strike.

From Syria to South Sudan, the psychological impact of war – particularly on children – is well documented. Afghanistan's fragile government might be keen to tackle its mental health crisis, but until peace is brought to the country, its weary people will continue to suffer in both body and mind.