2018-06-08 / Front Page

Local nurse produces mental health documentaries in Afghanistan... and attends a wedding

By Cindy D. Ott

Cindy Ott (right) interviews a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Afghanistan. Cindy Ott (right) interviews a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Afghanistan. This was my fifth visit to a nation that has suffered the ravages of war for almost 40 years. Afghanistan, which borders Iran to the west, is composed of many different tribes of people, and that part of the nation is influenced by the arts and culture of Iran, formerly known as Persia.

Serving for the second year in a row as a volunteer mental health media advisor, I would again help to produce documentaries to help educate people about psychiatric illnesses. Due to decades of violence and the problems that result, including poverty, mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, depression, and anxiety are prevalent in Afghanistan.

Last year, I worked alongside local Afghan team members to produce a documentary about depression, which aired on local television and was uploaded to YouTube. This year, we produced two shorter documentaries about childhood trauma and epilepsy. Epilepsy is considered a mental health diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis, in Afghanistan.

Cindy Ott, Afghanistan, 2018 Cindy Ott, Afghanistan, 2018 Many children and adolescents in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, due to fear and anxiety created by traumatic life experiences. A research study, which included interviews of 1,101 children and 1,101 caregivers, showed daily domestic violence affected children more than having a loved one killed in a rocket missile attack. Education included informing parents that children who are severely beaten or watch their mother get severely beaten can be traumatized even when they are adults. A major goal of this documentary was to educate parents and community about the harmful effect of any violence to the most vulnerable members of society—children.

The emphasis of the epilepsy documentary was to educate people that medication can control seizures and allow children diagnosed with epilepsy to live a mostly normal life. Some people in Afghanistan believe epilepsy is caused by “djinn” or evil spirits, and instead of taking their children to the doctor, they take their children to people who say they can heal their children. The parents then give them money. One doctor said because seizures usually do not last long, the parents think the child is healed, but then seizures return and the child’s situation continues to worsen without medical treatment.

Women walking in Afghanistan. Women walking in Afghanistan. There are many challenges to producing a documentary in Afghanistan, such as losing electricity for an extended time or the government unexpectedly declaring a holiday and workers taking the day off. Although there were moments of losing power, these lasted only a few minutes, and this year, no unexpected holidays were declared.

With a knowledgeable crew and having experience from last year, we completed production of both documentaries in English and Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan. These documentaries will be broadcast on local television in Afghanistan and have been uploaded to YouTube on the internet. If you would like to view the documentaries, please access “Afghanistan: the Crying Child/Trauma,” or the link, youtube/1KLtQVAvya8, and “Afghanistan, Accepting the Child with Epilepsy” or the link, youtube/JgbsykUTsCU.

This year, I attended an Afghanistan wedding for the first time. This meant a lot to me, not only because the bride was the doctor featured in our documentaries, but because my youngest daughter is getting married this summer.

As weddings in Afghanistan are usually very large, with hundreds of guests, this wedding was considered small, with only 300 guests. The women and the men were in different large banquet halls for the wedding. The women and girls danced, mostly in a circle, moving in unison to Afghan music blaring through huge speakers. The women wore evening gowns, often shiny and elaborately decorated. They wore much make-up, and their hair was often intricately coiffed. Most of the women did not wear a headscarf but did hurriedly cover their hair when the groom arrived. As soon as the groom left, the headscarves were just as quickly removed. This may seem odd to American women, but it is only in a gathering of women that Afghan women are free to laugh, dance, and take off their headscarves.

When the bride and groom made their first entrance, standing on the balcony and then walking down the steps of the winding staircase, the bride appeared sad as required. I was told this represents her sorrow that she must now leave her family. The bride wore a green dress, and I was informed this is symbolic of the green henna the groom places in the palm of the bride’s hand. When the henna is moistened, it turns red to symbolize the husband and wife will stay together.

Later, the bride descended the same staircase and wore a long, lacy white wedding dress with a veil. The bride and groom poured what appeared to be pomegranate juice or something similar into crystal clear stemmed glasses, crossed arms with each other, and drank from the other’s glass. They cut the wedding cake, and each fed the other a piece of cake. These traditions were familiar to me. What was unique was the knife dance performed by the bride.

An Afghan woman, who lived as a child in Iran when her family fled Afghanistan due to war, explained this is an Iranian custom done for entertainment. And I have to admit, it did get your attention. The bride danced slowly, waving a large, sharp knife into the air. Finally, the groom, who is watching her, gives her some money.

I will cherish the memories of this special wedding, the continuous dancing by the women and teenage girls, and the children enjoying the festivities. No matter where you are, there is joy in celebrating a special occasion and enjoying life with others. This is even more treasured when the environment is one of great insecurity due to violence and war.

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