Psychiatrists Concerned With the Afghanistan Situation: Ethical and Practical Issues

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What can psychiatrists do to help veterans, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and all those affected by the US withdrawal?

COMMENTARY

Our national attention has turned to Afghanistan, as the media shares disturbing pictures as news unfolds. Meanwhile, we in psychiatry hear related testimony from patients and colleagues, and are concerned that the withdrawal of US troops may lead to escalating mental health problems locally as well as internationally.

The Testimonies From Clinical Practice

A recent encounter with an Afghan patient embodied the concern and brought the issue to the forefront of consciousness. The patient, who came to America years ago on a special visa based on his work with the US Army, presented with severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The PTSD was reactivated because of the unfortunate developments in Afghanistan.

Morally conflicted, he said:

I joined the war to act like a buffer. I wanted to protect my people, and also to serve America, the country I love and now call home. That backfired. Despite my best efforts, many people died because of wrong intelligence. Information I gave was ignored or misused. I am now left with the memories, the flashbacks, and the nightmares. How can I undo the damage I caused? I wanted to build schools, so the Afghan children might have a better future. But would God forgive me for taking part in killing?

The patient, wrestling with existential issues and navigating through many layers of shame, guilt, and taboo, was comforted by having a Muslim psychiatrist who shared his religion and aspects of culture. In turn, the cultural and religious understanding helped to create a safe therapeutic space and a sounding board for this patient in his search of meaning and healing.

We have also heard from a Jewish psychiatrist colleague, who entered the US Army as a psychiatrist in 1975, just as the Vietnam war was ending. He saw soldiers who developed unexpected symptoms after serving in Vietnam. Although PTSD as a formal diagnosis was relatively unknown at the time, Vietnam was an impetus to its deeper understanding. Upon arriving at his base in Alabama, a General told him and his physician colleagues that they needed to learn about soldiers because there would be another war in our lifetime.

Nobody could have known that the war in Afghanistan would be the longest war in American history, or that we would again abandon our allies when we left the country. However, despite all the comparisons being made with Vietnam, there is at least 1 big difference: The public has seemed relatively unconcerned with this war compared with the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, this clinician predicted a disaster when a specific Afghanistan withdrawal date was made public, (since it gave the Taliban a clear timetable to prepare for) and now is troubled by the escalating deaths, trauma, and losses, especially among families, women, and children.

Another colleague is a Muslim psychiatrist who wears a hijab. She took care of military veterans during her psychiatric residency training. Almost all of the veterans were being treated for PTSD stemming from the trauma they witnessed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars(Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF)). [Often her presence, even as a care provider, was a trigger for them. Frequently the veterans would refuse to see her at the outset of their hospitalization because, as one patient put it, “24 hours before I came back home, I killed a woman who looks like you . . . how am I expected to flip the switch and work with you?”

In time, these reactions changed. In fact, over the course of the treatment program, many veterans reported that being treated by someone who looked like the individuals they were trained to fear and distrust was an important part of their healing. There were even some who, by the end of the treatment program, refused to work with anyone but her, reporting that it changed their views of Muslim and Middle Eastern individuals.

This experience reflects many layers of complexity. Veterans following orders experienced trauma and came home with severe PTSD, making it very difficult to return to a multicultural society. Clinicians have an ethical duty to do no harm, yet many Muslim clinicians understandably feel complex emotions when treating those who took the lives of their brethren. Most importantly, the moderate Muslims may be battling for their safety on 2 fronts: there may be forces from within as well as forces thrust upon them, both ultimately contributing to their ongoing intergenerational trauma.

The current trauma can only add to the intergenerational trauma in Afghanistan. Whether or not pulling the armed forces from Afghanistan is the right decision, it seems like better plans could have been made to protect those at risk. It is reminiscent of our ethical principle of not abandoning patients. If a transfer is needed, we cannot drop a patient until a new psychiatrist is involved. Moreover, when we terminate our therapeutic alliance with a patient, we try to do that slowly, reassessing how well that is going along the way. It would be flaunting medical ethics to arbitrarily pick a date just around the corner and abruptly leave.

Moral and Ethical Priorities

Psychiatrists must decide whether or not to stand up and speak out against injustice. It may be a professional obligation, in line with the ethical principles of the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and World Psychiatric Association. These principles put patient needs first, but also include the ethical needs of society.

The AMA’s ethical principles state:

“A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health,” the APA’s adaptation adds “Psychiatrists may interpret and share with the public their expertise in the various psychosocial issues that may affect mental health and illness.”1

This annotation covers our potential obligations to those at risk in Afghanistan. What can we say or, more importantly, what can we do to help them? As far as patient care goes, our troops will need special attention. How those who served feel about the sudden withdrawal may be crucial for how they process the trauma they encountered, especially from a moral injury point of view. Will they feel that their time and participation was wasted? Likewise, will this withdrawal be a trigger for troops who served in Vietnam and were traumatized and criticized for their participation?

In addition, potential patients are likely to come from those in Afghanistan who worked with the United States. If they stay alive and stay there, or become refugees, they are at risk for the repercussions of trauma, betrayal, and loss. Women and children seem to be a target of potential repression and abuse.

The World Psychiatric Association approved their first Code of Ethics for Psychiatry in October 2020, after 10 years of deliberation. That must reflect how difficult it is to come to a consensus on health and mental health values and virtues of various countries and cultures. Yet it has principles that seems relevant to Afghanistan2:

Psychiatrists advocate in particular for support for mental health programs, especially in but not limited to developing countries and in areas where care for persons with psychiatric disorders is non-existent or rudimentary…
Psychiatrists are aware of the deleterious consequences of family violence, emotional and sexual abuse on mental health and well-being, especially for women and children . . .

There is also another relevant professional ethical set of principles for physicians, those of bioethics, which focus on 4 main principles in individual patient care: beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, and autonomy. However, when we speak of population health, we must insert social before beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. Social justice is population health. Social justice movements may come from outside the traditional lines of institutional power, such as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. Thus, although psychiatrists have their own institutional ethics, they must attend to outsiders’ voices, which may offer special guidance.

The Hubris of the United States

We must look inward. Have we, as the United States, had an arrogant attitude in our dealings with the rest of the world? Have we acted like we had the power to bend anyone, anywhere to our will? America is not alone in its hubris. Other nations such as the United Kingdom, for instance, played a significant role in military operations in Afghanistan and must accept some responsibility for the chaos that is rapidly unfolding.

This is not a new issue for our country and, therefore, not a specific criticism of any political administration. Instead, perhaps it is a reflection of a deeper psychological problem. This episode is reminiscent both of our withdrawal from Vietnam and our disengagement from Iraq in 2011. It is as if after we are humiliated by not winning a war, we have something to prove, and so we end up doing the same thing again.

This is very similar to a strategy that traumatized individuals often use: recreating the same traumatizing situation over and over in order to master it. Just as a traumatized individual might tend to do, sometimes impulsively and sometimes intentionally, the United States has jumped into situations we did not fully understand, leading to armed civil conflicts around the globe. Although we continue to be a world power, trust in us and our reputation may be deteriorating. Of course, in Afghanistan, we also cannot ignore that continuous wars, conflicts, and humanitarian crises have been ongoing since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Some could argue that our intentions have always been good, that we intended to help the oppressed, to prevent bloodshed, and to democratize the world. But much of the world does not want to be democratized. Starting with Vietnam and ending with Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the many countries left in shambles in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and similar movements), we seem to leave behind wreckage and chaos, lots of civilian casualties, unfinished business, and collateral damage.

Possible Solutions

Reflecting on the speed with which Afghanistan has fallen, we feel overwhelmed by unfathomable human suffering and the amount of hurt we inflict on each other. Yet we can also choose to be part of the solution through healing activities. Just as our country is trying to reckon with the meaning of the death of George Floyd, we must search for actionable social justice in the midst of this tragedy.

What can be done? Individual mental health professionals can write to politicians and the public. They can raise awareness about the far-reaching effects of trauma and inform the public about the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan, which seems to be heading toward a humanitarian and refugee crisis. They can advocate for as many urgent evacuations of Americans, Coalition Forces, Afghan allies, and vulnerable women and children, as is practically possible. We can also collectively act in ways that engage, rather than shy away from, the silent pandemic of human cruelty. Perhaps the World Psychiatric Association can develop a rapid response team, a United Psychiatrists like the United Nations, to employ when international mental health is at risk. Similarly, perhaps a whole-world approach can bring in NATO and other countries, including China, Russia, and other Muslim countries.

Those who work in the military and the VA should be prepared for the troops’ reactions and be ready to provide education and care. We might anticipate and prepare for a rise in Islamophobia as the country goes through a restless stage of uncertainty and searches for someone to blame. All of these measures would be enhanced by harnessing the power of storytelling and social media to raise awareness about how important psychiatric care really is.

Besides these opportunities, the United States needs some longer-term psychological soul-searching, perhaps via a special Task Force called Operation Mental Freedom (OMF), to break the cycle of these failed invasions. Psychiatrists knowledgeable about intergenerational trauma and cross-cultural relationships are available to help.

Concluding Thoughts

Although the US government decides to withdraw from an issue by simply pulling our forces out of a country, it is not an easy task for mental health care professionals to withdraw emotionally and ethically. We are healers, and human suffering touches our very deep core. Thus, we must act accordingly.

–SPIRIT (Social Psychiatrists Interested in Recovery from International Trauma)

The multicultural group SPIRIT was assembled in May 2021 to publish the article “An Interfaith Psychiatrist Prescription for Middle East Peace” in Psychiatric TimesTM. SPIRIT’s first piece was inspired by the collective concern about the escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist for Providence Healthcare System, Portland, Oregon. Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM. Dr Levine is Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, as well as the author of more than 100 professional articles and 6 books. Dr Seeman is Professor Emerita, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Dr Bailey serves as Kathleen & John Bricker Chair, Department of Psychiatry, LSUHSC. He also is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Cobb Research Institute and is the 113th Present of the National Medical Association. Dr Malhi is Medical Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic and Multidisciplinary Autism Program at ChristianaCare, Delaware. Dr Aggarwal is Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Columbia University; and Research Psychiatrist, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY. Dr Awaad is a Clinical Associate Professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she is the Director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab, and the Director of its community organization: Maristan.org. She also serves as the Associate Division Chief for Public Mental Health and Population Sciences as well as the Section Chief of Diversity and Cultural Mental Health in the Department of Psychiatry and Stanford. Dr McLean is Clinical Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr Gogineni is a Professor of Psychiatry at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. He is active in several national and regional organizations and published and presented on International Medical graduates, culture, religion, family psychiatry, gender issues, etc. Dr Peteet is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Fellowship Site Director for Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr Hankir is a doctor working in frontline psychiatry for the National Health Service at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in the UK.

References

1. The Principles of Medical Ethics, With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association. The American Psychiatric Association Press; 2013.

2. Code of ethics for psychiatry. World Psychiatric Association. October 2020. Accessed August 17, 2021. https://www.wpanet.org/policies