Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabul Doctors Report Rising Teen Suicides

Societal pressures and post-conflict trauma blamed for increase in young people trying to kill themselves.
By Mina Habib
  • Afghan women at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Ben Barber (USAID/Wikipedia)
    Afghan women at a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Ben Barber (USAID/Wikipedia)

Lying in her bed in Kabul’s Istiqlal hospital, slowly recovering from the effects of swallowing rat poison, the 17-year-old said death seemed the only way out after a broken engagement.

“When my fiance’s family came to arrange the wedding party, my family presented them with an extremely weighty list of expenses which they could not afford, so they decided to call off the engagement,” said the grief-stricken teenager. “Not only did I love my fiancé very much, but it was a huge dishonour, so I decided to commit suicide to relieve my sorrow.”

Kabul’s hospitals are seeing rising rates of teenage suicide – particularly among girls – which are attributed to factors including domestic violence, “family honour” and poverty.

Some observers say the glimpses of a different life which adolescents get from social media, television and films makes it harder for them to cope with the realities of living in an impoverished, post-conflict society.

Staff at the capital’s Ibn Sina hospital say that last year they dealt with 113 suicides and attempted suicides – a figure they had already reached within the first few months of this year.

At the Istiqlal hospital, officials say they are logging three to four suicides and attempted suicides weekly, compared with only one or two a week in 2013.

With many attempts as well as deaths from suicide going unreported, doctors believe the real numbers are much higher.

Mohammad Naim Ibrahimkhail, the chief doctor in Istiqlal hospital’s internal medicine unit, said that most cases involved rat poison because it was relatively easy to obtain.

He blamed the influence of foreign films and media, warning that they gave young people unrealistic expectations of life and made self-harm seem a viable option.

“Socioeconomic circumstances in Afghanistan cannot be compared with foreign countries, so when young people see the life presented to them through films and soap operas, they want to live that way,” he said. “But then when they face social and economic obstacles, they blindly commit suicide as people do in films and soap operas.”

Teenagers were easily swayed, he said, adding that romantic failures were also a big influence.

At the Jamhuriat hospital, officials similarly confirmed rising suicide rates among young people, although according to Ajmal, a doctor there, most cases involved domestic violence.

“In our society women are under greater pressure due to the forced marriage of girls, even underage ones,” he said. “This is a paternalistic society, so women are supposed to obey men completely. Their wishes are disregarded, and this leads to domestic violence and in some cases suicide.”

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) agrees that female suicide rates are rising.

Latifa Sultani of the AIHRC said that data collected from Kabul hospitals showed that most suicides involved young women.

“There are many factors in the rise in suicide among women, such as forced and under-age marriage, poverty, low literacy levels and also the aggressive introduction of foreign culture into our society,” she said.

Timor, the director of Kabul’s only psychiatric hospital, said it was important to note that women in Afghanistan were at particular risk of having mental health problems. The majority of patients in his institution were female, he added.

“Overall, we can say that the past three decades of war, poverty and unemployment, as well as harsh cultural practices which mostly affect women, are the main factors in psychiatric problems that sometimes lead to suicide, particularly among women,” he said.

One of his patients, 18-year-old Soraya, said that her mental health deteriorated after several of her family members were killed. She is now in a state of constant grief.

“It overwhelmed me to the point where life had no meaning, so I tried to kill myself twice, but people around me saved my life,” she said from her hospital bed. “The psychiatric doctors not only provide me with medicine but also talk to me a lot, which is very soothing. I think I am gradually getting better.”

Bashir Ahmad Sarwari, a psychiatrist at the ministry of public health, said that his department had not yet developed a way to accurately record suicide statistics, but agreed that many cases went unreported.

He felt that awareness-raising was one way to combat the phenomenon.

“We have recently put into place a new strategy to try to minimise suicides by restricting some types of medicines that could be used for suicide,” he said. “Also, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with religious organisations to run a campaign to discourage people from committing suicide.”

Keramatullah Seddiqi, head of research at the Afghan ministry for Haj affairs, says that Islamic tenets expressly forbid suicide.

Social affairs analyst Abdul Ghafur Lewal said decades of conflict had exacerbated mental health problems. The rampant capitalism that appeared in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion also led to spiritual values being replaced with materialism.

“Young people are dynamic and inquisitive, and when they become frustrated and understand the true realities of their lives, they choose to commit suicide,” he said.

Modern communication technology had also had an effect, Lewal continued.

“Since the collapse of the Taleban, there has been an explosion of public communication in a close-knit society, which has unbalanced people,” Liwal continued. “The exposure of a traditional society to a cross-cultural storm, mainly through satellite and cable television, cell phones, the internet and many other forms of media has caused a conflict of values, hopes and beliefs. This may have contributed to suicide rates as well.”

Zainab, 16, lies in a coma in the Istiqlal hospital. Leaning over to kiss her, her weeping mother explained that Zainab had been due to enter an arranged marriage with a cousin, who lacked the means to provide her with the life she dreamed of.

“My daughter asked for glamorous things like film actresses have. Her fiancé couldn’t meet her demands, so she became frustrated and depressed,” she said. “I had a quarrel with my daughter, and afterwards I found her in a faint on the kitchen floor. When I took her to the hospital, the doctors told me that she had swallowed rat poison.”

Doctors do not know whether Zainab will ever recover.

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.