Life for Afghans now: interview with a young mental health activist (Part 3)

Newscoop: Thank you for sharing these great suggestions. I think you’ve given our readers a lot of concrete examples of how they can get involved. I also totally agree with what you said about keeping the attention on the situation. Now, I wanted to talk about mental health and also the situation of mental health in Afghanistan. But first of all, I thought you could share why mental health matters to you?

Noor: I think there is a deep connection with how I connect with mental health. It’s the reason for my mood, emotions, and functioning. It comes with an intrinsic motivation and my own lived experiences which give me that unique and powerful perspective on upholding the rights of people to good mental health, especially the vulnerable ones. I see it as the main source of power to our actions and beliefs. What actually strengthens our beliefs, what causes conflict and what leads to resolving these conflicts is all related to mental health. We have a lot of research and different theories that state the reasons for conflict and for resolving them. Complex concepts like altruism, implicit biases, prejudice and discrimination. All of them are related to mental health. The crime rate (which is increasing), the domestic violence (which is affecting tons of people), and most importantly the counter-productivity that might strike some people or relate to mental health. But also, the upkeep of good mental health or providing mental health services. Seeing the losses that come with poor mental health and seeing the benefits that good mental health can have. I think it is out of question to ignore the benefits that come with investment in mental health because a rich and imaginative life is all made possible by our moods and our mental health. 

Newscoop: Well-said. Human Rights Watch recently published their World Report of 2022 that looks at human rights practises in nearly 100 countries, and especially in the context of mental health. They reported that the collapse of Afghanistan’s health services led to the loss of most physical and mental health care for Afghans that was already quite critical. So, could you describe what the mental health care provision looked like in Afghanistan before and now after the Taliban takeover?

Noor: Let me clarify that for decades, and it’s not just a recent issue, but for decades and even for centuries maybe, mental health has been a foreign and a taboo term to Afghans, with a lot of stigma around it. Despite the widespread impact of the ongoing war, violence, poverty, and low standard of living on the mental health of most of the population, you will find people whispering “Oh, he’s going crazy. I saw him at a mental hospital yesterday” or “I saw him seeking help”. Not long before the political upheaval in Afghanistan, politicians were cutting corners and hesitant to leverage implementation plans for the unexecuted National Mental Health Programme that we had. Despite the desperate need for mental health support during such horrendous moments, non-existent resources and illiteracy have blocked any chance to propose recovery plans for our future. Escalating financial burdens at this point cause drastic violence in homes as well. A local 16-year-old banana seller shared with me that his father often beats him when he doesn’t bring home a hefty sum. A teacher in a public school told me her students are mostly depressed because of domestic violence within families and inappropriate behaviour from teachers. Just recently, a student was beaten so intensely by his teacher that he bled for ten minutes straight, and cases of suicide are plentiful, with two people dying by suicide every two hours, as statistics state. 

But the silver lining for an Islamic country like Afghanistan is that mental health is supported by Sharia and in the holy Quran and Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Specific verses promote mental health and discourage self-harm. I am going to translate a verse to English: “And be patient, [O Muhammad], and your patience is not but through Allah. And do not grieve over them and do not be in distress over what they conspire.” There is also another verse that states: “And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, Allah is ever merciful to you.” Reading through these verses, we get a sense that there is something that you should be hopeful for because the Taliban are focusing a lot on implementing the Sharia law. We can clearly see a direct relation between mental health and its reinforcement through the Quran and the Hadith. 

Personally for me, I also do acknowledge that Afghans desperately need help at this point. We cannot confront the massive challenge of poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction unless we address mental health. The Taliban are unfamiliar with the words mental health, and timely investment in advocacy is needed to integrate it into primary healthcare systems and to introduce that term to them and to advocate for its inclusion and implementation in the country, be it at the local or regional level. That’s because mental health might not seem Haram or prohibited in Islam but rather it’s embraced and promoted through the Sharia laws. So, I think there is a good opportunity for integrating that into primary healthcare. I think that might be the best opportunity for mental healthcare and also for a change in the overall healthcare system in Afghanistan.

Newscoop: I wasn’t aware of that, how interesting. It’s true that mental health has to go hand in hand with the development of other aspects of society in order to support Afghan people. Noor, this slowly brings us to the end of our interview. To end it on a hopeful note, I was wondering if you could share an anecdote or a memory of what makes your home country beautiful to you or the Afghan people unique.  What is getting lost is the rich culture, history and beauty of the country and of the people. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to remind our readers of that. 

Noor: Yes, truly I think I have a lot of experiences that resonate with what you said about the beauty of the country, despite being worried, tired and old-fashioned. When you see the country, you might assume that I have traveled back to the past. But anyways, Afghans are brave and courageous, and they have been buried along with their hopes several times. But they have stood up continuously. They strive for improvement and progression, but only if the conditions allow. My memories with my country are centered around playing and storytelling with my relatives. The aroma of food that comes out of their house wafts around and makes your mouth water. 

Then there is our collectivist culture that involves the whole family in empathising with each other. We all listen to each other in happy and hard times, and collectively come up with solutions spur of the moment and share our happiness or losses. The old houses and cottages, warmed with old-fashioned heaters, sometimes a lamp of light when there is no electricity, with hot cups of tea and delicious sweets made by the elder women in the house, are the fond memories I have of my country. The several occasions when you have to gather, listening to folklore songs. We celebrate the Persian new year by making Haft Mewa, which is a traditional cuisine in Afghanistan, made up of seven different dry fruits. And then there’s also another gathering we have, which is called Jashn Samanak, that also occurs on New Year’s Eve where everyone gathers. We make a sweet called Samanak that’s made from wheat. And apart from that, we have the small house gatherings that we do. We sing, we dance, we spare and share that moment with each other. 

Despite the difficulties that everyone faces in their own lives, still you get a moment of respite from the outside world, and you focus on yourself and on your surroundings. You take a moment to observe how beautiful our culture is. It has been inherited to sing songs, to drink a cup of tea and share the moment with each other. When you come here and when you compare the Western world with Afghanistan — or not even going very far, even comparing Pakistan with Afghanistan — you might see that Afghanistan is very, very old. The infrastructures and the house and even the lifestyle that people have, all of it is actually very traditional. But at the same time, it is also very beautiful. That’s what makes the country unique in its own way.

One last point that I would like to add and this is for anyone, regardless of being inside or outside of Afghanistan. We have a proverb in Persian: Ko ar qadr ke beland basha, baz am sar-e khud ra dara which means that: “However tall the mountain is, there’s a road to the top of it.” It simply implies that no matter how big a problem is, no matter how overloaded you are with barriers, you still have a way to overcome it. And there’s still a way to overpower all the obstacles and difficulties that you’re having. And I do believe the difficulties don’t only strike Afghanistan or the Afghan people, but it strikes everyone, right? Regardless of wherever they live or whatever situation they are in. So just to keep this in mind: “However tall the mountain is, there’s a road to the top of it”. And you can overcome barriers no matter what. And thank you so much for having me. 

Newscoop: Beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful proverb and your experiences. I can see you have the talent to be a writer. The way that you just described these memories, I could see them in front of my inner eye. And I can tell you one thing, you are definitely leaving me very inspired Noor, and I know all of what you shared today will also resonate with our readers. 

I want to thank you once again so much for taking the time to speak to me today. I wish you all the best for the future. 

Noor: Thank you so much for the opportunity. I really appreciate how you think about Afghanistan and how you’re helping to continue drawing the attention of people to this matter. 

*Names have been changed to ensure the safety of the interviewee