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TEDGlobal: Inge Missmahl and the talking cure in Afghanistan

Inge Missmahl is a Jungian analyst who’s worked in Afghanistan since 2004. She’s working on an important, but sometimes unexplored, aspect of reconstruction – recovery from trauma.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, she tells us, with massive illiteracy. The average age of Afghan citizens in 17. These young people are growing up in the face of ongoing conflict, which leads to an accumulation of traumatic experiences. That, combined with the basic hardships of life in the country – 54% of children under age of 5 suffer from malnutrition. The attempts to build peace through building schools and roads are worthwhile, but “people’s depression stays intact” because “people don’t have tools to get over it.”

The family is central to Afghan social systems. If someone feels worthless and ashamed from depression, they tend to fall into social isolation. This can later manifest as husbands beating wives, parents beating children. And “if we can’t cut this circle of violence, it will be transfered to the next generation.”

The goal is to allow people to address their traumas, saying, “this happened to me, it did this to me, but I’m able to cope with it and learn from it.” And, she says, she hopes some will also say, “And I won’t marry off my 13 year old daughter” as a reaction to our family problems. The message is that something can be done, even in an environment as challenging as Afghanistan.

Missmahl’s plan was to train counselors to open counseling centers in Afghanistan. She met a German funder who was able to help her bring the work to fruition, and she’s opened 50 counseling centers in Kabul. They’ve worked with 11,000 patients, “70% of whom regained their lives.” To spread the work further, she’s helped build training manuals and a structure to expand the program further.

She shows data that demonstrates that symptoms of depression have been better controlled by talking cures than by drugs. This isn’t a surprise, she tells us – doctors have on average 6 minutes to talk with a patient and, in many cases, what patients need to recover from depression is to be listened to. They need a way to find solutions to their problems and family conflicts, and she tells us it’s critical to build systems that allow people to listen.