“Mental health is as important as physical health”: setting up support groups in Kyrgyzstan

10 March 2023 “Mental health is as important as physical health”: setting up support groups in Kyrgyzstan

Young people in Kyrgyzstan often face exclusion, discrimination, lack of opportunity and social pressures. This can take a heavy toll on their mental health, and can lead to destructive behaviours or unhealthy coping mechanisms that undermine peace in their communities.

There are few resources or services available for young people, often hampered further by stigma associated with mental health. With funding from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, Saferworld and partners DIA, Institute for Youth Development and Peace Initiatives are training young mentors to set up self-support groups around the country where young people can talk about their problems and get support from their peers.

Two of these mentors, Altynai Abdysheva and Cholponai Talantbek kyzy, spoke to us about their experiences.

Can you tell us about yourselves and how you got involved in this project?

Altynai: My name is Altynai Abdysheva. I’m 26 years old and a graduate from the psychology department at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University. I’ve been working in the psychology field for the last five years in Osh, and for the past two years I’ve been focusing mostly on working with teenagers.

One of the staff at Peace Initiatives knew about my experience and suggested that I apply to be part of this project. As a psychologist, I understood the powerful effects of group therapies and I wanted to support young people in Kyrgyzstan to help themselves.

Cholponai: My name is Cholponai Talantbek kyzy. I’m 27 and live in Bishkek. I have been working with young people since 2017. After hearing about it from the Institute for Youth Development, I decided to apply to become a mentor for this project. I wanted to see how effective this initiative would be in addressing psychosocial barriers of young people. I believe self-support groups could help improve young people’s mental health. 

You can also watch a video of our interview with Altynai and Cholponai here: 

Please tell us more about the self-support groups that you work with?

Altynai: My self-support group is located in Osh, the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan and a multi-ethnic city. In my group, around a third of members are Uzbek, while the rest are Kyrgyz – and most are young women.

My group mainly raise issues relating to interpersonal relationships – with parents, friends or partners. They also like to talk and share ideas on how to improve self-esteem and confidence, and how to successfully achieve their goals.

From my observation, some of the challenges faced by my group members stemmed from the lack of connections with their parents. There is an entire generation who grew up without their parents due to labour migration abroad. Many have shared their stories of being left by their parents, and of having to move in with relatives where they did not receive the affection or love they needed. This generation is now in their teens or 20s, and they have problems building meaningful relationships with people around them.

Cholponai: My self-support group is in Bishkek, at a centre for people with disabilities – with people coming from all over the country. Half of my self-support group members are young people with disabilities.

My group members usually raise issues related to gender stereotypes, talk about their experiences in facing discrimination or bullying because of their disabilities, and about communicating emotions. As a person with a physical disability myself, I also share my own experiences of overcoming those barriers and try to provide moral support.

Over the past three months, some members have become really close. I can see that they trust each other.  

What challenges have you encountered while working on this project?

Altynai: The first challenge was the cross-border conflict with Tajikistan in the Batken region. At the time the conflict broke out I had facilitated just one meeting with the group. For two weeks, people stopped attending the sessions because many were forced to move and it was too dangerous for those who remained.

The second challenge was getting people to open up during the sessions. There was a young woman who attended the meetings every week but did not substantially contribute to the group discussions. However, we had a new member join who was quite open about her experiences. This encouraged the other young woman to finally open up. She said that this new member’s readiness to speak up impressed her and inspired her to finally share some of her own thoughts.

Cholponai: At the beginning I felt anxious about our meetings. Then I started focusing on how to build trust and friendship in the group. I tried to build a friendly environment, so we went to the theatre together. Luckily, most of my group members have birthdays around the same time in November. So, everyone was in a positive mood for much of the time.

What have been your biggest impressions in the groups so far? 

Cholponai: The group members have made the biggest impressions on me. One became my co-facilitator. She has cerebral palsy and has gone through a lot in life, yet she always knows how to ask the right questions to support a person to open up, to create space for them to think through their problems and to help improve their mental health.

Other members also bring really valuable contributions from different backgrounds. There is one member with a physical disability and he spoke a lot about psychological barriers related to his disability. There was also another member who grew up in the orphanage system. He discussed how fear of discrimination and bullying by others held him back in life and kept him from accomplishing his goals. But after a few sessions, he finally found the courage to apply for a job and ended up getting it. Although he now works full-time and does not come to our group meetings anymore, I still see this as a big success.

The point here is that although many members share their concerns related to discrimination based on their disabilities, the truth is we belong to the same society and have the same rights as everyone else.

Altynai: I have a group member who has faced sexual abuse. She told us that she hadn’t realised before joining the group how her past experience had affected her life. Through our sessions, she realised she had been tolerating abusive relationships, even when it’s harmful to her mental and physical health. She’s now committed to pursuing self-care for herself.

Another young woman had serious problems with depression and loneliness, which led to her missing classes regularly for years. I recently noticed some changes in how she presented herself as the group sessions went on. She is in a better mood and has said that she started going to school again and even making friends. I believe that the group sessions contributed to this positive change.

The truth is we belong to the same society and have the same rights as everyone else.

What do you think could be some longer-term changes?

Altynai: In my group, no one was interested in or even aware of any available mental health and psychosocial support services or therapy. But now they are aware of the importance of keeping a healthy mind and are more familiar with who they could turn to for support. They have realised the benefits of therapy.

Cholponai: Members of my group are expressing their emotions more openly, and know how to set priorities and personal boundaries. Members became more empathetic and are ready to help others to express themselves and share their feelings more freely. Many improved their communication skills and managed to build better relationships with their families and friends. Now that they understand that mental health is as important as physical health, I think we have succeeded in achieving the goals of the project.

And how has this work affected your own lives?

Altynai: My experience of being a mentor has helped me to see the extent of problems related to migration. As I mentioned, there is a huge part of the population who has trauma and psychological issues because they were left by their parents who work abroad. They now have challenges building relationships with people around them. Many told me that they wish their parents hadn’t left; they felt that they could have managed even with less money, as long as their parents were around. I see this problem also at schools I work with outside this project.

I would add that this experience is also beneficial for me to develop community initiatives and awareness raising campaigns in the future. Working as a mentor has enriched my practical knowledge of working on early childhood traumas.

Cholponai: The group sessions involve a lot of listening and asking leading questions, so I am learning to ask these questions in a more sensitive way and to not undervalue or judge anyone’s experiences. I am learning to ask different types of questions to get participants to open up. It’s not often that I have the opportunity to mentor a self-support group for young people, so I am glad that I have this experience.

Read more about our work in Kyrgyzstan.

Illustration: Zhyldyz Bekova.

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