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Afghanistan’s Mental Health Community at Risk of Collapse

landscape view of Afghanistan

Carl & Ann Purcell / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • As the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, the mental health of Afghan people and mental health professionals who treat them are at risk.
  • One doctor’s escape from Afghanistan leaves his non-profit mental health organization at risk of collapsing.
  • Gathering resources and ideas of people across the world could help those suffering.

Since 2009, Wais Aria, a medical doctor trained in Afghanistan, has dedicated his life to helping Afghan children and adults deal with war trauma through his non-profit organization TABISH.

“I [saw] there was high demand of mental health support for children and women [because there wasn’t anyone focusing on them at the] time, as well as at the moment. I thought being a doctor can help a person, but being a society doctor can help the population of a country,” Aria says.

Through Tabish, national and international certified psychotherapists and counselors provide psycho-social and emotional support to Afghan people throughout Kabul, including in refugee camps and at Tabish clinics, which are located in Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar, and Kandahar.

In some cases, counselors are on standby to visit areas where people have experienced violence or tragedies.

The organization has also helped pregnant women and orphans in marginalized communities and provided education and music programs to women and children.

Despite all the good Tabish has done, in 2017, Aria’s life was threatened for its work and because he spoke openly in public about his concern for the mental health of Afghan people. Fearing for his and his family’s life, he moved them to the United States shortly after the threat.

Because his medical credentials do not make him eligible to practice medicine in the U.S., to make a living, Aria finds work as a medical interpreter and workshop speaker on the topic of psychosocial
assistance for the State of Maryland. He continued to keep his organization running from afar.

However, in June 2021, he brought his wife Kubra and their four children back to Kabul to visit family.

Facing the Threat of Taliban Takeover

As the threat of a coup by the Taliban became reality, Aria found his family in great danger because of his organization.

In August, they spent a week trying to find a way back to the United States, and finally, on August 28, they escaped from Afghanistan.

Kubra hid their Green Card papers, an American passport for one of her sons, and her cell phone under her clothes, knowing the Taliban would not touch her since doing so is considered sacrilegious.

“I was beaten many times on my shoulders by the Taliban who kept pushing us back as we waited hours to get close to the gate,” says Aria.

When they finally were granted access, the family was airlifted by the United States military from Kabul to Qatar, and then to Germany, where United Airlines took them to Washington DC.

“[Our] family and children can manage, still my children talking a lot about that situation. Myself, I don’t have [good sleep]…still some scary stuff coming to my sleep,” Aria says.

Wais Aria, Afghan doctor

I was beaten many times on my shoulders by the Taliban who kept pushing us back as we waited hours to get close to the gate.

— Wais Aria, Afghan doctor

After hearing all he and his family had been through, Aria’s friend Judy Kuriansky, PhD, psychology professor at Columbia University Teachers College and mental health advocate at the United Nations, reached out to him.

“Dr. Aria is open and honest about them suffering from PTSD. They are traumatized now. He is back here after a horrible ordeal and is not sure how he will support his family and his Tabish staff at home. He is worried about his parents [in Afghanistan]. But it’s hard to help others if you can’t help yourself,” says Kuriansky.

She is advocating to help people like Aria, as well as other mental health professionals still in Afghanistan.

The Effects on the Mental Health Community

As Aria copes with the situation and helps his family process the trauma of escaping Afghanistan and leaving family behind, finding a way to keep Tabish afloat also weighs heavily on his mind.

He says people in Afghanistan are traumatized and need his organization’s services more than ever, however, at the moment, his staff is in hiding and afraid to carry on with their work. He says he doesn’t think Tabish will survive under the Taliban.

“[Still], we are thinking about our office—how to remove all our computers and close that because we can’t work. Most of our staff are women, there is no job for them, as well they are at risk of investigation,” says Aria.

He worries about the mental health of his staff, too.

“Our team who spent all their lives to help others, now they [are] suffering from isolation and depression, at risk, no job, so [I worry about] safety for them,” he says.

Judy Kuriansky, PhD

Dr. Aria is open and honest about them suffering from PTSD. They are traumatized now. He is back here after a horrible ordeal and is not sure how he will support his family and his Tabish staff at home.

— Judy Kuriansky, PhD

Kuriansky shares the same concern.

She connected with Aria in 2017 when she featured Tabish at a United Nations event she organized about issues of youth in traumatized communities around the world.

“His work helping children is meaningful to me,” says Kuriansky. “[Now that the] Taliban has taken over, his entire organization is trapped and his staff is trapped,” she says.

As the representative of several NGOs (non-governmental organizations), including the International Association of Applied Psychology and World Council for Psychotherapy, and as part of the Psychology Coalition at the United Nations, Kuriansky is advocating at the United Nations and appealing to the State Department to extract mental health professionals trapped in Afghanistan.

“Mental health professionals in Afghanistan are currently under extreme threat, given the Taliban’s [abhorrence] of their use of Western techniques,” she says. “[They] are in danger worse than ever and we need to see how we can get them out of the country. It’s going to be a big task.”

While Kuriansky knows Aria personally, she says his story is just one example of the many people affected by events in Afghanistan.

“[This is also] about researchers, professors, clinicians, who were not among the several thousands who were able to escape. The entire mental health community in Afghanistan is in danger of collapsing as is other communities—arts, women, everything,” Kuriansky says. “This is a wide circle of massive upset.”

A Call to Do Your Part

While most people have seen news coverage of the terrors of the Taliban, Kuriansky hopes people across the world continue to think about Afghan people still living in Afghanistan and those relocated to other countries.

“In other words, the news cycle will move on, but this story is lasting, so I want [people] to continue to pay attention to what is going on for the people who are still trapped there and to think about what they can do,” says Kuriansky.

She aims to mobilize networks of people who are interested in supporting people like Aria and those trapped in Afghanistan.

Judy Kuriansky, PhD

Mental health professionals in Afghanistan are currently under extreme threat, given the Taliban’s [abhorrence] of their use of Western techniques.

— Judy Kuriansky, PhD

While there are organizations collecting monetary donations, she says at this time gathering funds is not her intention.

“[I hope people can use] their ideas, and what they can do in terms of their advocacy, or their entity, work, what they do in their jobs and organizations, so we can have a collective effort to have an ongoing way to reach these people who have now been quieted and stifled and maybe killed,” says Kuriansky.

Aria says any help is appreciated. However, he also hopes to spread awareness and empathy.

“[As] long as we don’t experience any emotional pain, we don’t know how it is hard. I spent 20 years [helping] a lot [of people], but never [did] I feel…how much pain they have [until] I [was] emotionally tortured,” he says.

If you are able to help Aria or his organization, contact him at wais.aria1@gmail.com.

What This Means For You

With the official fall of the Afghanistan government, the mental health community is at risk of collapsing. Pulling resources and ideas from people across the world could help those suffering.

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