School student Jamila* always knew that her neighbour  Bahiri* had a hard life. Forced to marry a much older man when very young, she then developed epilepsy during her first pregnancy. Her husband took a new wife thinking the epilepsy was a ‘djinn’ – an evil spirit.

Jamila was deeply concerned and disturbed by observing these traumatic events: ‘My neighbour found it difficult to cope with the stress in her life and she tried to commit suicide several times, but fortunately did not succeed.’ No one was helping Bahiri with her depression and suicidal thoughts, so, despite being just 16 years old and still in school, Jamila decided to take action.

In Afghanistan, stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems is rife. Those suffering with mental health issues are excluded from their families and the wider community; often shamed, insulted or beaten. These social problems often make the mental health problem worse and harder for people to find the help that they need.

Tearfund’s partner have been working in west Afghanistan to change attitudes and behaviours surrounding mental health. School pupils and teachers have been trained about the issues and what they can do to support someone who they see suffering.

After receiving this information, Jamila knew she had to do something to help Bahiri. Jamila realised that she did not have a ‘djinn’ but a medical condition that could be treated. It took a lot of courage but she persuaded her dad to go with her to see the family. Jamila spent a long time trying to convince Bahiri to go to a medical clinic to be treated for her mental health issues: eventually she agreed. The doctor told the family that the problem was totally treatable.

As a result of the care she received, Bahiri is much better. Jamila is thrilled at the difference that she made to this vulnerable woman’s life: ‘I am so happy that my father and I could help my neighbour and pass on what I learned in the training.’

Changing attitudes and behaviours takes time and commitment. It depends on the bravery of ordinary people to speak out to challenge the outdated ideas and practices that can happen in families and communities. Jamila is just one example of many young people in Afghanistan who are starting to become more socially active and mobilising to change their communities.

Jamila’s courage, intelligence and care for one woman’s life made all the difference. She spoke out when she needed to, changing a whole family’s attitudes and ultimately saved her neighbour’s life.

*Names have been changed for security reasons.  

Image by Ninara via Flickr/Creative Commons.