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The Unquiet Minds: The Mental Health Crisis In Kashmir 

Studies have shown that years of conflict have left the people of this region struggling with mental illnesses  

In January 2018, Fatima Begum of Nadpora in Shopian district of Kashmir was busy making arrangements for her son Rayees Ahmad’s engagement. She had sent him to a nearby village — Sedow — to meet his fiancée and finalize the celebrations.

However, Ahmad didn’t get to meet the girl; he was brought back dead shortly after he and two other men were killed, allegedly by Indian Army firing.

Begum was distraught.

“After my brother’s death, my mother went ‘mad’. She would roam around the village looking for Rayees and would force us to keep our doors open at night and lay food on the table in case he returned,” said Khursheed Ahmad Ganaie, Begum’s other son, to Zenger, at his two-story home at southern Kashmir’s Shopian.

“When we took her to a doctor, he said that my mother was highly depressed and showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He told us to keep her happy as she was suffering from mental trauma. We tried everything to get her back to her original self but couldn’t,” said Ganaie.

On the night of May 13, 2018, Begum silently left her home. At dawn, she was found lying dead in a shallow canal, not far from where Ahmad was killed.

Khursheed Ahmad Ganaie holding a picture of his mother Fatima Begum who died on May 14, 2018. (Nusrat Sidiq)

A 2015 survey by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), “Kashmir Mental Health Survey,” found that 45 percent of the Kashmiri population (nearly 1.8 million adults) experience some form of mental distress.

Kashmir is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world. The state has been caught in a territorial conflict for years with India, Pakistan and China claiming portions of the region as their own.

According to the report, 50 percent of women (compared to 37 percent of men) suffered from probable depression; 36 percent of women (compared to 21 percent of men) had a probable anxiety disorder; and 22 percent of women (compared to 18 percent of men) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The survey findings made it clear that there was higher proportion of mental illnesses among women as compared to men.

The two-story house of the late Fatima Begum whose eldest son, Khursheed Ahmad Ganaie, lives here now with other family members. (Nusrat Sidiq)

“Women have been the worst sufferers in the conflict and the magnitude of the crisis has increased over the years,” said Farhana Yaseen, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS).

Like Begum, Rukaya Bhat, a woman in her late 40s, has been suffering from stress and trauma after her son — Adil Ahmad Bhat, a policeman was killed in a militant attack along with three other policemen on the outskirts of Shopian on August 29, 2018.

“She cries constantly and remains in isolation,” said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, Rukaya’s husband. “We have often found her digging up the grave of our son. We are helpless and can do nothing to alleviate her grief,” said Bhat to Zenger.

Though Rukaya has been taken to many doctors, her condition has worsened over the years. “She doesn’t like to talk anymore.”

Begum and Rukaya’s are not just one-off cases.

Rukaya went into severe depression after her son Adil Ahmad, a policeman, was killed in a militant attack on August 29, 2018. (Nusrat Sidiq)

A report released in May 2019 by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) documents the cases of 432 victims of state torture and violence and says that many people who have suffered torture carry the psychological scars long after their physical wounds have healed.

“The different forms of psychiatric disorders that these people suffer from are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, insomnia, dementia and weak memory,” the report states.

The MSF survey mentions that adults living in the Kashmir region have either witnessed or experienced an average of 7.7 traumatic events during their lifetime; only 0.3 percent of the adult population surveyed had not experienced a traumatic event ever.

Medical prescriptions of Rukaya. (Nusrat Sidiq)

“Another problem that we face is that many patients do not take the advice or treatment of mental health experts because of the stigma attached to mental illnesses,” said Nasir Geelani, a valley-based clinical psychologist.

A 2016 Action Aid study states that only 12.6 percent of people with mental illnesses have sought help from health services in the conflict-torn region.

“This study has confirmed alarming levels of mental health disorders in the population of Kashmir; 11.3% of the respondents were suffering from a mental health disorder which is significantly higher than the Indian national average,” said the study.

Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 53, holding photo of his son, Adil Ahmad Bhat, who was killed in a militant attack. (Nusrat Sidiq)

“The report has also analyzed the prevalence of mental health disorders across different socio-economic groups and found a higher prevalence among those who were poor, among women, and those who were low educated.”

“The study has also found a disturbing high treatment gap of about 88% with only 6.4% of suffering population having received treatment by a qualified mental health professional (from a psychiatrist).”

Picture of Rayees Ahmad who was killed, allegedly by Indian Army firing, in Gunanwanpora area of Shopian district on January 27, 2018. (Nusrat Sidiq)

 

(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Uttaran Dasgupta. Map by Urvashi Makwana.)