Written by Tahmina Aminy
After growing up in war in Afghanistan, it has taken me a long time to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I still wake up from horrific nightmares unable to breathe or move. The sound of bombs and rockets still shadows me through my dreams. I still dream that somebody is trying to rape or kill me. My legs become numb and I cannot run away.
After decades of war and conflict, I have no doubt that most Afghans, especially women, suffer from mental and emotional trauma like I do. Many of us have seen family members getting injured or killed in front of us. My mother told me stories of when Russians bombed her village and how they had to collect their relatives’ body parts from the roofs and yards. We’ve escaped death by suicide attacks and rockets and we continue to live in fear, not knowing if we will survive the days we start. Our trauma is perpetuated through the media. We constantly see graphic images of day-to-day violence against women and attacks on civilians. We are so haunted by violence that when our cars stop in traffic, we wonder if we’re living the last minutes of our lives before everything disappears, like our friends and family members have in the past.
In 2015, Afghanistan’s Health Minister Firoozaldin Firooz told the BBC that 72% of Afghan women suffer from depression and 60% of men are suffering from stress. We also face an alarming rate of suicide for our relatively small population. Consequential wars and suicide attacks have caused many Afghans to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder during the recent years. And after every terrorist attacks, the attention of the media and hospitals is more to the physically-wounded and the dead. In the news and on social media we see images and videos of dead bodies of our people playing in loops. No one pays attention to the psychological trauma of the violence.
While most research and media attention has focused on trauma of war among U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that Afghans, who witness violence on a personal and daily basis, also suffer from PTSD. And without support, access to therapy and mental health professional, and because of the stigma associated with mental and emotional issues, those suffering from PTSD in Afghan communities remain silent and isolated.
As an Afghan woman, I not only struggled with PTSD from a young age, but also with the stigma that surrounds mental disorders in our communities. I never told anyone about my feelings and the trauma I was experiencing. I was always worried about what others would think of me or say about me if they knew what I was going through. I was worried about being labeled “insane”, as many dealing with emotional and mental issues are in Afghanistan. I was also afraid that no one would believe me. My family insisted on silence. They were worried that if people knew I was struggling it would hurt my chances of getting married. Like most Afghan women, I had to be quiet and carry the heavy weight of responsibilities and traditions.
Beyond the isolation and stigma, PTSD causes us to lose our hope and give up on our goals. Sometimes we try to avoid people, places and activities that remind us of the trauma. Even today, noises such as fireworks and underground trains make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable. I remember after the bombing of our neighborhood, for a few weeks, I would run to home from school every day thinking that something bad had happened to my family. I couldn’t focus on my studies. Many PTSD survivors I have talked to among my friends and relatives want to avoid marriage because they think that they may not live long and they worry about their children’s future. They stop investing in their future because they’re not sure they will survive today.
As we talk about the growing number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, we cannot forget the emotional and psychological impact of war on our communities. We each have to start by fighting the stigma that surrounds PTSD and other mental and emotional disorders in our families and circles.
Feature image by Rada Akbar.