Tehran NGO offers novel mental health approach for Iranians in crisis

Mental health
7 min read
09 February, 2023

On a freezing weekend in late autumn, in a crowded upscale district of northern Tehran, 60 men and women are sitting next to each other at the main conference hall of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that holds courses on mental health and individual development.

What may strike the observer is the contrast in the dress style of participants, ranging from colourful headscarves and stylish garments to the Muslim chador veil.

Organisers regularly call on some women who have let their scarves slip over their shoulders to cover their hair, but the scarves go up to be let down minutes later. At 8 o’clock sharp, music is played before the new course starts.

"Almost every night, I dream of them [regime forces] hauling me away or being shot at or holding someone dying… it's difficult to run away from these kinds of nightmares"

Zahra, who prefers to keep her last name anonymous, was one of the attendees. Mathematician by training, she currently teaches at a primary school in Tehran.

“I used to feel negative about myself and blame myself constantly for a variety of reasons, most of which I had no control over. But now I have the feeling that participation in this course has changed me entirely,” she said after the three-day course.

“I’ve become kinder towards myself, I feel less stressed, I don’t offend myself like before and I try to apply what I’ve learned here in my personal life. I have to admit that I have an excellent feeling after having attended this course."

Iran has been gripped by countrywide protests since the death of young Kurdish girl Mahsa Amini in mid-September after being arrested for having flouted the dress code in effect since the establishment of a theocracy in Iran in 1979.

This latest wave of protests has been through various stages, with even regime media acknowledging the emergence of communal psycho-trauma against the backdrop of discontent caused mainly by economic woes.

As recently as several weeks ago riot police and Basij militia vigilantes fanned out in the streets leading to the NGO. Some days tear gas was fired by police to disperse anti-regime protesters, with the gas being smelt in the surrounding vicinity.

Surging stress and depression

Zahra regularly wears the chador but along with her mother, she has joined street protests against Mahsa’s death and the imposition of a dress code on women. 

“Naturally you hear bad news every day. Although I try not to follow the news, I hear about it in the streets,” she said. “When you find yourself to be discontent, when you are critical of regime policies but you can’t do anything, while even your most basic wishes would never be fulfilled due to a worrying and vague future, you will be dominated by fear, stress, and anxiety," she added. 

“Almost every night, I dream of them [regime forces] hauling me away or being shot at or holding someone dying… it's difficult to run away from these kinds of nightmares.” 

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Sepehr, 29, is a primary school teacher interested in reading books on psychology and individual development. He is a regular facilitator of book-reading gatherings in eastern Tehran.

“Reading books and discussing books may not be the priority of those coming together. I think the first point is the get-together per se to let participants share their issues and learn about one another or maybe support each other mentally and sentimentally,” he said.

In the midst of the mental health epidemic caused by the recent wave of unrest in Iran, psychologists and counsellors have offered their services at discount rates or even free of charge in a bid to help improve social conditions.   

Revolutionary method

Mehdi holds a PhD in psychology and has more than a decade of experience in the field. Preferring to withhold his last name and even the name of his office due to his worries about facing further restrictions due to the Islamic regime’s sensitivity to the issue of mental health, he has been cooperating with the featured NGO.

“Here we’re fixated on awareness based on learning skills. In fact, during courses and training we try to upgrade the people's treatment of mishaps and teach them how to deal with traumas and the ensuing feeling of insecurity and anxiety,” said Mehdi.

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Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic regime and Iranian politicians have been used to laying the blame on foes and foreign plots, Western sanctions, and political rivals for their own failures and mismanagement of state affairs in an attempt to shirk from accountability.

However, such slogans and pretexts have been losing their practicability among a large segment of Iranian people, including the younger generation – 70% of Iran is aged under 30.

For many experts, the authorities’ irresponsibility and unaccountability have intensified public fury, partly surfacing in the form of street protests or radical behaviour and partly turning to silence and indifference about national affairs, which would further weaken social capital, cause frustration, stoke mistrust of the regime and finally leave undesired impacts on the economic, cultural and political development of the country. 

“As soon as news of arrests or killings emerges or I hear about the treatment of protestors, I become enraged,” said Sepehr. "It has a double effect: the rage it causes in the community and how that is then exploited by the authorities. Both are infuriating."

At this NGO, skills, and techniques are taught to participants to give them serenity, self-satisfaction, and self-worth while seeking to boost their self-confidence to empower them.

Fereshteh is 27 years old. She studies microbiology at one of Tehran’s universities for her master’s degree. She recently attended one of the courses of this NGO on individual development. She has closely witnessed campus protests and shares her traumatic experience of the unrest and the violent crackdown on students by regime forces.

“At the outset of the protests, I had a clash with myself. I was nervous. I was looking for a way to do something. To be honest, I’m not like other protesters. I don’t dare go to the streets. I always wondered what I can do now. But after I followed this course, I gained awareness about some issues which has helped me to some extent allay my concerns and resolve my inner ambiguities,” she said.

“The materials presented during this course and the methods applied fully match realities on the ground. That is exactly what society needs and I think it necessary for everyone to be applied to personal and social life,” Fereshteh went on to say. “Each of us, pro- or anti-regime, have to show mutual restraint, feel responsible toward another’s psyche and listen to each other. On the other hand, simply holding a dissenting view should not let us forget about moralities and instead resort to radical and violent behaviour.”

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Push love forward

What distinguishes this institute from others in terms of approach and methodology may be the feeling of devotion shown by most alumni in the institute, looking at it like a “second household”, where they are always welcome to seek counselling for their hardships and traumas.

One interesting point about the NGO's training is that participants in the previously-held courses, who consider themselves to belong to a more extended family, have since volunteered to serve participants of the new courses freely without any material expectations.

They see such initiatives as an effort to spread kindness and friendship and bring them into what they call "the chain of love".

Iranian society is going through generalised anxiety disorder, while the regime’s policies in dealing with ongoing protests have polarised society, a fact acknowledged by state officials.

“We were friends and we had dialogue, but we no longer listen to each other. We have broken up. I wish everyone would get familiar with this method and learn these skills to enter the path of awareness and conscience,” noted Zahra before adding: “Then I think the situation would be entirely different and we wouldn’t see the expansion of this vicious cycle of violence and enmity.”

Although similar NGOs are faced with daily-growing restrictions in the provision of services and lack any policymaking tool, one must accept the fact that any change in society would materialise gradually and that such small-scale measures can bring about profound changes within Iranian society in the long term. That explains why Zahra persuades more people to attend the courses, concluding "this is the only way to make our reality more liveable."

Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist and analyst of Iranian affairs based in Tehran