Bahara Hamdard at Graduation ceremony of the two years diploma programme on Social Health Counselling. Photo: UNDP Afghanistan / Pazhman / 2021


“It is always annoying to see people consider a counsellor as a mind-reader, soothsayer or doctor of crazy people. We are neither of those. A counsellor is a confidant and a friend.”

Bahar Hamdard, who is 19 years old, was speaking at the graduation ceremony for her degree in Psychiatric Social Counselling from the Pohand Ghazanfar Institute of Medical Sciences. The programme is supported by the Global Fund and UNDP. She graduated along with 63 other girls.

In her address, Bahara Hamdard spoke about the days of war and misery in Afghanistan, in a seemingly endless conflict that has claimed the lives of both women and men, the young, and the old. It is a conflict that that has not only claimed thousands of lives and destroyed countless homes, but also has left numerous people with mental disorders and psychiatric conditions. This is the problem that Bahara hopes to address through her work.

After graduating from school, Bahara heard about the health social counselling program through the Kabul Public Health Directorate and registered her name for the entrance exam. After the exam, she got a phone call to tell her that she had been accepted onto the programme. Although she was enthusiastic about studying in the field of counsellling, the reaction of some people to the work made her think twice. People’s perception of a counsellor as a  as a “mind-reader” and “soothsayer”, or worse, as a “crazy people’s doctor" was disheartening to Bahara.

"Social health counselling, formerly called psychological counselling, is a new field that people are not very much familiar with," Bahara said.


However, she was encouraged by her family to continue with her studies and enroll in the counsellor programme. She wanted to change people's attitudes towards this field and to be a guide for others who were interested in helping those with mental disabilities.

Despite the stigma in many societies, mental health conditions are incredibly common across many societies, especially in conflict, or post-conflict settings. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately one in five people in post-conflict settings have a mental health condition.

The statistics in Afghanistan bear this out. According to the Afghanistan Mental Health National Survey of 2018, more than 66 percent of Afghans have experienced at least one traumatic event. Public health statistics show that half of Afghanistan's population suffers from depression and needs psychological counselling.

The situation is particularly acute for women. Cultural restrictions and four decades of war have stripped women in Afghanistan of their freedom and rights, including the right to education and work outside home. More than half of Afghan women suffer mental illness due to conflict, domestic violence and lack of access to health services.  

"Women have made and continue to make immense sacrifice to achieve their current status," said Bahara. “In a culturally oppressive society, it is not easy for a woman to get an education or work outside home.”

Although she has not yet entered the job market, Bahara has already been able to use her newly aquired training to help her friends and relatives with their problems. “They share their problems and ask me to give them advice on the challenges they face,” she says.

With her passion for education and her optimism, Bahara is a woman of the post 9/11 generation of Afghanistan, a generation that has experienced freedom, education opportunities and exposure to modern technology and knowledge, despite the continued problems in the country. Looking to the future, she is optimistic about what she can do with her training. “Today I see many changes, and I am proud of what I have learned, and I see a bright future for myself.”

Once the counsellor program gains momentum, it is hoped that more stakeholders will contribute towards sustaining the Global Fund initiative, which means the number of counsellors that can be trained and deployed to underserved communities will increase.

UNDP is committed to working alongside the government of Afghanistan and its sister UN agencies and other partners to provide critical health support to the citizens of Afghanistan. Through the “One UN” approach, UNDP seeks to address social and economic determinants through a comprehensive approach of policy, programme, and capacity-development support to ensure equal rights and access to services for all.

 

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