The Truman View

The voice of Truman members, writing in their personal capacity.

August 18, 2021
“This war, and the chaotic withdrawal, has created a mental health crisis.”

“This war, and the chaotic withdrawal, has created a mental health crisis.”

Written by
Neil Aggarwal

Afghanistan’s rapid fall to Taliban forces will inevitably prompt policy debates over the method and timeline of the American military withdrawal. But, these debates should not drown out one undebatable truth: that this war, and the chaos of the withdrawal, has created a mental health crisis.

The United States has seen an entire generation of people serve in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s victory has sparked uncomfortable questions among diplomats, humanitarian workers, and military service personnel about what their service and sacrifice has meant during the “Global War on Terror.” Amongst this, mental health research shows that moments like these, ones where we are forced to question the very purpose of our lives’ most stressful situations, can lead to depression, PTSD, and substance abuse problems.

The federal government must put mental healthcare at the forefront of their policy agendas. That means quickly, repeatedly, and non-judgmentally directing their staff to mental health resources. It also means providing far better education amongst government agency human resources departments. Furthermore, the federal government needs to be working hand in hand with leaders from the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association in order to publicize, destigmatize, and normalize access to mental-health services.

Abroad, Afghan immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers will face stressors before, during, and after their migrations. In these contexts, non-governmental international organizations within the United Nations can partner with psychiatric, psychological, and medical organizations within host countries to develop a stepped approach. A growing evidence base has documented how stepped approaches like psychological first aid can triage mental health needs and be delivered in a wide range of cultural contexts. This is vital to include within official policies as countries make determinations about the numbers of migrants they accept.

All governments must demand that the Taliban abide by international humanitarian laws that protect the health rights of prisoners and other vulnerable populations. Whether they will, and whether sentiments made by the militant’s spokesperson on Tuesday suggesting that ‘no one will be harmed,’ is another matter altogether.

Neil Aggarwal
Truman Security Fellow

Neil Krishan Aggarwal, MD, MBA, MA, FAPA, is Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, Research Psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and a Member of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought. He specializes in cultural psychiatry and psychiatric anthropology, particularly among South Asian populations. His books include Mental Health in the War on Terror (2015) and The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate (2016).