Khantzian Fulfills Rare Mission in Armenia


Dr. Edward Khantzian near Haghartsin Monastery near the village of Teghut

By Tom Vartabedian

HAVERHILL, Mass. — Dr. Edward Khantzian is nowhere near retirement. At 76, he serves as a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, consults at a hospital and still plays a mean game of tennis.

He has spent more than three decades studying psychological factors associated with drug and alcohol abuse and just returned from Yerevan where he was a keynote speaker at a regional meeting of the World Psychiatric Association.

The experience left an indelible impression upon him, being his first visit to Armenia and seeing the impact of his presentation upon his prominent peers.

“Being aware of our history as a ravaged culture and country with recurrent disasters and national upheaval through most of the 20th century, I had expected to witness many indications of remorse,” he indicated. “Instead, I was repeatedly struck by many examples of national pride and resilience.”

The professional meeting attracted more than 250 international psychiatrists, including a heavy representation from Eastern Europe. The event was launched by a gala reception at the Opera House, featuring extraordinary performances by an ensemble and renowned opera singer Anna Mayilyan.

The group was housed at the Armenia Marriott Hotel over three days, where keynote speakers were presented inside the large ballroom.

The theme was: “Mental Health in a Changing World.” Special attention was paid to the worldwide impact of disasters. A special symposiumwas devoted to the Armenian Genocide, including the effects of denial and trauma. Almost without exception, the presentations were in English.

Khantzian spoke about addictive disorders such as opium, which, he says, remains a growing concern in that part of the world.

“The problem of alcoholism is very prevalent in Armenia and associated with a lot of other problems, including domestic violence,” he notes. “I was informed there is an emerging addiction to opium.One solution is the use of drug methadone which was emphasized in my presentation.”

Khantzian has a distinguished resume in his field. After working as a technical writer at Raytheon for one year, off he trekked to the medical side. The doctor was born and raised in Haverhill to parents from Malatia, Turkey. Both parents were shoe workers. His mother was a Genocide survivor.

“She did not hide or protect me from that segment of history — a grim folklore of sorts,” said Khantzian. “Her stories were full of resourcefulness.”

He and his wife Carol have been married for more than 50 years and have four children and 13 grandchildren while living in nearby Groveland.

An Armenian-Iranian psychologist at the University of Southern California was familiar with his work on addictions and recommended him to the organizing committee for this conference. It didn’t take much convincing for him to attend.

“One of my goals was to explain how the substitution of a legal medication such as methadone in place of illegal opiumworks best,” he explained. “My hope is that such a perspective will help clinicians appreciate the enormous suffering involved with addiction and how individuals try to self-medicate such pain.”

During his stay, Khantzian visited numerous museums andmonasteries, including Echmiadzin, as well as a day trip to Lake Sevan. He got to sample the very best Armenian cuisine and took advantage of the finest hospitality shown.

The trip served another purpose for Khantzian. It brought him back to his roots.

“Being married to a non-Armenian, I had grown apart from the Armenian community,” he admitted. “But I never denied my proud ethnicity. Although I had seen pictures of the monasteries, visiting these historic sites made a tremendous impact upon me. I was deeply touched by the genocide memorial at Tsitsernakabert and that eternal flame.”

Two examples of trauma, which remain indelible in his mind, are the Genocide and the earthquake of 1988, which took nearly 30,000 lives in and around Gumri and Spitak.

“Through all this suffering and human/natural catastrophes,” he says, “Armenians have remained ambivalent, even during their years under the Soviet regime. The landmarks, lore and historical sites mark the important role Armenians have played toward the development of Western civilization.”

Among the other speakers were Dr. Armen Soghoyan, president, Armenian Psychiatric Association, who directed the conference; Dr. Armen Goenjian, professor of psychiatry, UCLA; Dr. Samvel Torossian, chief psychiatrist, Republic of Armenia; Dr. Hagop Akiskal, professor of psychiatry and internationally-recognized expert on mood disorders; Dr. Vahe Simonyan, psychiatrist; Kristine Torossian, psychologist and Dr. Louis M. Najarian, professor of psychiatry at Hofstra North Shore-LU School of Medicine, who was part of a symposium covering two decades of rehabilitation work following the earthquake.