For nearly two years, Afghan women find themselves at the forefront of a mental health crisis over the bleak outlook for their future and the future of their country. Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan are suffering from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, as a direct result of being forced into isolation by the Taliban.
“I just want someone to hear my voice. I’m in pain, and I’m not the only one,” an Afghan university student told the BBC, holding back tears. The university student attempted to end her life a few months ago.
When the Taliban took power by force in August of 2021, their representatives said they would be more moderate. The Taliban broke its promises of being a more moderate government than it was during the 1990s when women were forbidden from attending school or working outside the home.
There have been over 100 edicts issued restricting freedom of media, women’s education, employment, and many other areas since the Taliban takeover in 2021. A majority of the orders are about women and girls, restricting their rights and freedoms. Many Afghan women say the return of the Taliban feels like “being sentenced to a life in prison.”
In December 2022, the Taliban banned Afghan women from attending university and for many, that ended their dream of higher education and the life they had envisioned for themselves for years. Even those who were in the last year of their studies were forced to stop. The ban on higher education added to a growing list of Taliban edicts, banning women from employment, education, leaving home and accessing healthcare, among other areas.
“Pandemic” of suicide
There is an underlying but urgent mental health crisis in Afghanistan on top of unemployment, hunger, poverty, and gender apartheid against women. Psychologist Dr. Amal*, reports that Afghanistan has “a pandemic of suicidal thoughts” and that “the situation is the worst ever, and the world rarely thinks or talks about it.”
United Nations estimates show that one in two people in Afghanistan –mostly women – suffered from psychological distress even before 2021. Before 2021, nearly 2 million Afghan women had been diagnosed with severe depression, according to Ayesha Ahmad, an expert on global mental health at St. Georges University in London. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate is higher for women than men – 80% of suicides each year are women.
In the days following the university ban, Dr. Amal received 170 calls for help. Now she gets about 7 to 10 new calls for help daily. Most of them are from girls and young women. With the latest restrictions on women’s freedom and the economic decline, the problem has only worsened.
“I feel like an empty shell of a human being,” Maryam Rezaei told Radio Free Europe back in December of 2021, about being forced to leave university and being confined to her home.
A hopeless generation – with no breaks
Nadir* is the father of a girl who took her life in March this year. She had believed that schools would reopen and couldn’t cope when they didn’t. She became distressed and would cry a lot, according to her father. He painfully describes his daughter, saying “she loved school” and was “smart, thoughtful and wanted to study and serve our country.” Another father of a woman in her twenties recalled that his daughter “lost all hope” when she wasn’t allowed to sit for the university entrance exam.
A teacher and breadwinner for her family, Meher*, reports trying to take her own life twice after losing her job and leaving her with unbearable expenses. The options for her were bleak, facing pressure to get married and no plans, goals or hope for the future. Being forced to stay home, “I feel exhausted and indifferent to everything. It’s like nothing matters anymore,” a teenage girl says while crying at her doctor’s office with her mother. Even women helping other women with psychosocial support are feeling the toll of the crisis. Saghar Yousoufi, who works in a women-focused group, said “breathing is getting really, really hard.”
The Taliban blames women for their suicide and won’t record suicide statistics.
Local news agencies began reporting on multiple suicides across the country. The Taliban does not record suicide numbers or respond to escalating figures. Dr. Shaan, a psychiatrist, said that they are not allowed to record or assess suicide statistics, but that there is hardly anyone who is not suffering from a mental illness. Because of the stigma attached to suicides, however, many families avoid reporting them.
In Herat province, the Afghanistan Center for Epidemiological Studies released a report in March showing that two-thirds of Afghan adolescents reported symptoms of depression. Most of the patients at the mental health department at Herat District Hospital are women’s rights activists, former government employees, and journalists.
Afghan men suffer from mental health crisis too.
Dr. Amal discussed the impact on men, as well. Men are brought up to believe they are powerful, but right now they can’t express themselves or provide sufficiently for their families. She suggests that people try to form support teams of family members, friends and neighbors in order to avoid isolation. A study conducted last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of a mental health initiative, found that education would be an effective intervention for clinically depressed women – but those options are not available under the Taliban. Asra*, a master’s student at Kabul university studying Islamic religious law asserts that “it’s not right that women cannot go to school. They have the same rights that men have.”
Jamila Afghani of WILPF who has launched a mental health program stated that the international community has “a role to play in alleviating the suffering of these women.”
She said governments should stop meeting with the Taliban behind closed doors. Additionally, countries should restrict funding and monitor spending of humanitarian aid closely.
“Now I’m worried about the future of my daughter,” Frishta Rahmani, an NGO worker in Afghanistan lamented, “what will happen to her?”
*Names have been changed or withheld to protect the interviewees
Springer 03/06/2023; BBC 06/05/2023; RFE/RL 11/04/2021; Analyst News 03/30/2023