Stories of Hope: Dr Waheed Arian
“I struggled to find sources of help which I trusted. Early intervention is key to helping people recover more quickly.”
Our latest ‘story of hope’ comes from Dr Waheed Arian, a British doctor and radiologist, founder of telemedicine charity, Arian Teleheal and the author of memoir, In the Wars.
Born in Kabul in Afghanistan, Waheed’s childhood was marked by conflict. He came to the UK alone as a refugee at the age of 15, with $100 in his pocket and a dream to support his family and improve the lives of others in his home country, and beyond.
We can think of no better day to share Waheed’s story than today – World Refugee Day – a day when the UN calls on us to support refugees around the globe to be protected and included in health care, education and sport.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and your journey to this point?
“My earliest memories are of bombs exploding. I was born in war-torn Afghanistan, and spent much of my childhood amongst death and fighting. I spent many years in refugee camps in Pakistan, living with my family sometimes ten to a room without basic sanitation or access to education. As a child, I contracted TB and suffered from malnutrition, which nearly killed me. But I was inspired to become a doctor after seeing the difference which a doctor in our refugee camp was making to people’s lives.
“My parents gave all that they had to get me to the UK when I was aged just 15, and I arrived with just $100 in my pocket, knowing only a few words of English. I worked several jobs to support my family in Afghanistan while studying for the A Levels I would need to study medicine. I did well enough to be accepted at Cambridge, and I gained additional qualifications from Harvard and Imperial College.
“While working as an NHS doctor, I developed Arian Teleheal, a pioneering global charity that connects doctors in war zones and low-resource countries with their counterparts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. Our volunteer doctors and the local medics save hundreds of lives every year, and help thousands of other people in need.
“While I have been working in the A&E during the COVID-19 pandemic, we changed the Arian Teleheal focus to support our colleagues by advising on COVID-19 case management and developing practical guidelines based on up-to-date research and learning.
“There are two COVID-19 pandemics. The first is the one caused by physical illnesses. We are just starting to fully understand that the second one, which is caused by the pandemic’s impact on our mental health, may last for even longer.
“As a response, I am launching an online holistic mental wellbeing service called Arian Wellbeing. We provide clinical psychologists supported by licensed therapists, personal trainers and nutritionists, so that we can help people address their needs in a truly holistic way.”
How has your mental health been affected by your journey?
“The damage which war and conflict has on people’s mental health is very well documented, and sadly I was no different to millions of others across the world. However, as a child, I did not recognise the issues. It was simply my life, day-to-day.
“When I first arrived in London as a teenager, to safety for the first time in my life, I could not understand why I was still having terrible dreams, or flashbacks to horrific scenes triggered by sudden noises, such as a tube train approaching. It was only when I was at Cambridge University and found my anxiety and my problems were impacting on my studies that I felt able to talk to a tutor. In turn, I was seen by a counsellor, which was the first time I had ever heard the phrase PTSD.
“It was not easy for me to overcome my PTSD and anxiety, and it took many years. You do not cure PTSD, but you can learn to manage it, and it is still something which I have to do to this day.”
How did you deal with this?
“I was alone, thousands of miles from my childhood home, with few friends and no family network to support me. I had developed my own coping mechanisms over the years, and I refined them to help me – I created a version of CBT, used positive thinking, drew strength from my faith and gained power from my exercise and martial arts. Very importantly, I also focused on my dream to help others.”
What support did you seek?
“My tutors were very supportive, and gave me practical advice about thinking about my priorities and where I needed to put my energy, rather than trying to do everything at once. I took advice from counsellors and sought support from my friends, colleagues and my family. When I met my wife, Davina, this was the first time I could truly and fully open up to someone about my experiences and what had happened as a result. She supported me by listening, with incredible patience and by backing me in founding Arian Teleheal and now Arian Wellbeing.”
What did you find most useful on your personal mental health journey?
“I believe very strongly that giving to others helps us heal. When I founded Arian Teleheal, I did not realise that it would not only save the lives of hundreds of people in war zones, but it would be the path by which I would heal myself. All the volunteers report the same benefits – the more we help others, the more we help ourselves. There is significant research which supports this, and I think it is the one thing which anyone can do. Even in just tiny, day-to-day ways, such as giving directions to someone who is lost, or holding a door open, we can all help others.”
What were the moments of hope for you, in your own mental health journey?
“The greatest moment of hope for me was the first time we successfully handled a call on Arian Teleheal, helping save a patient thousands of miles away in an Afghanistan hospital. At that point, I knew that our system would work and we could help thousands of other people. Helping others is what heals me.
“I also found that the work of writing my memoir, In The Wars, which was published during Refugee Week 2021, helped me gain perspective of my hardest times and what I have achieved with the help of so many others. I had to re-visit emotions and incidents which I had not thought about for many years. It was not easy, but I hope that my story, telling people how I have come out the other side, can help others not lose hope with their own battles.”
How easy do you think it is to access relevant mental health support?
“I do not think it is easy at all. The first step has to come from yourself, and this can be the hardest thing that you do in your life. The NHS is superb, but we know the demand on services, and this will significantly worsen when the full impact of COVID-19 on our mental health starts to be seen. As waiting lists grow, people’s needs could go untreated. We cannot respond to this by simply doing what we have always done. Charities and private healthcare providers can play a massive role in supporting people, getting them help quickly. Early intervention stops their health from worsening, reduces recovery times and stops further pressure on hard-pressed NHS services.”
How are you addressing mental health in your own work now?
“In my role as an A&E doctor, I see first-hand the result of people’s inabilities to get the right help. That is what inspired me to start working with psychologists to design Arian Wellbeing. I am sure that we can help many people who would otherwise be struggling. On a personal level, in the A&E, we all look out for each other, and are alert for signs when pressure is getting too much for our colleagues. This happens to everyone at some stage. We need to have open discussions about the issue and ensure that the support is there.”
What changes do you think need to be made to the mental health system to ensure support is more relevant and accessible?
“When someone contacts Arian Wellbeing, we arrange a consultation with the clinical psychologists to determine their next steps. This is vital. Too often, online mental health services use very basic tools to match people with their support. Early professional assessment is the key to effective interventions and people’s recovery.”
What advice would you give to someone struggling with their mental health?
“Take that first, most difficult step. Ask for help.”
What are your thoughts on the Hub of Hop and its usefulness as an early intervention tool?
“The Hub of Hope is an extremely valuable resource for everyone. I struggled to find sources of help which I trusted. Early intervention is key to helping people recover more quickly.”
If you, today, could speak to yourself at your lowest point, what would you tell yourself?
“I would tell my younger self not to give up, ever. And also, that it wouldn’t be easy but that I’d be very surprised by what I’d go on to achieve!”
You can order his memoir In the Wars here.<- Back to news