A Grim Realization
Terrorism and its impact are not limited to the security of a nation, but the mental trauma associated with such violence and conflict impacts generations. In my personal experience, growing up in Pakistan post-9/11 meant that one eye was on the news and another on the ground. On the one hand, when a bomb blast took place, there would be dramatized and sensationalized news coverage. On the other hand, rescue teams rushed to save lives from the rubble, and communities came together to support survivors on the ground. This dynamic illustrated an elaborate choreography between humanity and evil. In all this, I wondered what phrases like “the war on terrorism” and “collateral damage” meant to people whose homes built with years of hard work were destroyed by the simple click of a button.
Be it drone attacks in the northern region of Pakistan or extremist suicide bombers blowing up communities, at the end of each news story it was ultimately a society left exhausted with grief. I, too, witnessed such incidents with my own eyes or through the lenses of the media as an adolescent. The ability to attend school the day after another school in a different city was destroyed did not feel like a major mental effort back then. After all, it wasn’t your school, right?
Now at a distance, recollecting memories of living in a turbulent phase of Pakistan’s national security conditions, the realization that this phase was indeed difficult is now more evident than ever.
The constant exposure to bomb blasts, target killings, and suicide attacks on the periphery of one’s life is both mentally and emotionally exhausting, and it leaves one slightly desensitized yet easily triggered by death and misery. Add to that the flood of sensational reporting wherein lives become numbers, and attacks become strategic to a larger plan against the “bad guys,” a young adult is left feeling lucky they are simply alive and kicking in such times. It implies that if we are not directly affected, we should mourn the loss of the nation while counting our blessings for being alive. It is a twisted survivor’s guilt fed to us so that our resilience can allow for more lives to be taken in a battle that seems to have no end.
A Traumatized Generation
My thoughts are with the youth that grew up in Afghanistan right next to me in Pakistan. There have been forty years of war, including the twenty-year uninterrupted period during the U.S. invasion.
As a young adult, it is disconcerting to know that an entirely new generation emerged amid violence and chaos as Afghanistan became a battleground. Afghan youth who trickled into neighbouring countries like Pakistan as refugees were also met with mixed fates. They undertook menial jobs or limited education opportunities while still feeling estranged from home and yearning to return. However, with over seventy percent of its population being twenty-five years and under, Afghanistan can transform itself through the hands and experiences of this generation that has mostly only experienced war, argues Maiwand Rahyab, Counterpart International’s deputy director of Afghanistan.
This transformation is only possible if the mental health of the Afghan population, especially of its youth, and their well-being are taken seriously on the international stage. A simple Google search reveals that mental health after traumatic events such as school shootings in the U.S. are immediately discussed in the aftermath. In contrast, there is little research and discussion about the psychosocial impact of the violence in Afghanistan.
While the international relations aspect of this conflict calls for identifying causes, effects, and perpetrators, a bomb is a bomb, and gunshots are gunshots regardless of whether they are initiated by the “good guys” or the “bad guys.” Thus their impacts on the people are all the same, even if their intentions serve a good cause.
A Gallup poll on Afghanistan released in 2019 unsurprisingly revealed bleak results wherein 85% of the respondents said they were “suffering,” and none said they were “thriving.” Also as expected, the respondents declared anxiety regarding the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops at that time, expecting that the withdrawal would push the country further into the clutches of the Taliban. Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) released data estimating that over two million people in Afghanistan suffer from depression.
Given that it is the country with one of the youngest populations globally, most of these sufferers would be young people. This dim reality leaves the nation vulnerable to its youth taking charge of their futures and home country.
Dangers Of A Single Story
Over the years, the world became used to viewing Afghanistan as a warzone. Its people and their real struggles tend to be dehumanized and overlooked. The issue of national security and the global war on terrorism takes so much space in the discussion that the people on the ground affected are treated as collateral damage.
But this security-centric view of Afghanistan only provides relief to the international community that something is being done about the trouble. This perspective does not consider that the future of a country with the potential to return to its initial stable and thriving state is being affected in the process. Mental health is key to any nation’s progress—even in usual circumstances.
So, a country that has experienced intense violence for decades is at a far greater risk of being further destabilized if its population is not considered human enough for their mental health to be a global topic of discussion. Acknowledging that conversations around mental health have only recently been highlighted, we mustn’t keep them exclusive to specific countries.
In recent years, Afghan youth have been outspoken about how their inclusion in the peace process has been mere lip service by the recently-toppled government and the U.S. “The government is just telling the world that they are engaging with the voices of the youth, but in reality, it’s just for show; they’re not really listening to us,” said Breshna Musazai, Peace Ambassador of One Young World and Member of National Youth Consensus for Peace, to Natasha Phillips at The Independent. With the Taliban now in control of the country, the future of mental health resources for youth and other Afghan citizens is even more uncertain.
When the conflict began, a different generation’s future was at stake, but now, more than twenty years later, it is another generation that is the key stakeholder.
Forging A New Path
The current state of mental health and the recent surge of violence in Afghanistan calls for a trauma-informed reconciliation approach. Peace talks and wars have both presented half-baked outcomes for the fate of the country and the international community’s involvement in the country. Therefore, the Afghan government, its allies, and international aid agencies need to take into consideration mental health and trauma-informed decision-making when strategizing about Afghanistan.
Platforms like Human Rights Watch have sent doctors and researchers into rural areas of Afghanistan and have criticized the services available for healthcare. However, we need to be aware that a significant amount of financial aid has been poured into various sectors of Afghanistan. Despite this, the government spends $0.26 USD per capita on mental health, out of $7 spent annually per capita on health services in general.
With the country and its people in another period of massive transition, it is not too late for the global community to step up and hold the Taliban, the previous Afghan government, and its international partners accountable to increase its investment in the mental health of Afghan youth and all citizens. Furthermore, a trauma-informed reconciliation approach will consider mental health an essential factor in the peace and stability of the country and the entire region.