Kashmir Faces a Growing Mental Health Emergency
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One of the world's most militarized regions has more than guns and bombs to worry about.
By Raashid Hassan and Ishtiaq Wani
Ruqaya is only 45 years old, but she looks much older. She is numb. Nothing seems to rouse her from her grief-stricken torpor. She meanders unnoticed through the streets of her locality that lead to the local graveyard, often attempting to dig up her son’s grave. His memories torment her, she says, and silence hangs in a pall over the household.
“She left home a half dozen times without informing anyone and twice we found her at the grave of her son, digging it with her fingers,” her neighbor Nisar Ahmad says.
Adil Bhat had stopped his education after high school to help his family, as his father’s spine disorder worsened. His family had allowed him to join the Jammu and Kashmir police service two years ago. He had become a special police officer and was killed in August 2018 in a suspected militant attack.
Now, his family struggles to make ends meet, surrounded by people who don’t really understand the mental ordeal. Like thousands of families in the Kashmir Valley marred by decades of bloody violence, their efforts at rebuilding their lives have been marred by failure, disappointment and listlessness thanks to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). All four members of the Bhat family regularly take medicines for the condition.
According to the Kashmir Mental Health Survey of 2015, the prevalence of mental disorders and distress have reached epidemic levels in the region’s population, with 37 percent of adult males and 50 percent of females suffering from probable depression; 21 percent of males and 36 percent of females from a probable anxiety-related disorder and 18 percent of men and 22 percent of women from probable PTSD.
There are no doctors who can treat the disease of love for a dead son.
Ruqaya, who lost her policeman son in a militant attack
On the bright winter afternoon of December 27, Ruqaya broke down. “How will we forget the killing? … He took our everything with him. We have been half inside our graves,” she says.
After a long silence, she says she has trouble sleeping. “Ask him” — she gestures at Owais, her teenage son — “even last night he gave me a massage.” Mother and son have been consoling each other this way for a year now. The Diazepam tablets haven’t helped much. Owais failed his grade 10 exams and hasn’t been able to concentrate. He frequently complains of pain in his head. “He smashed his head with a stone when the body of his brother was brought home for the final rites. He fell unconscious and had to be hospitalized,” his father, Manzoor Ahmad, had said earlier.
Ahmad is no longer home, however. He left a week ago and hasn’t been heard from since. “Whenever he feels like, he leaves, and whenever he feels, he will return,” Ruqaya says.
A mother-son duo lies buried in another grave a mile away, in the village of Nadpora. An army firing on Jan. 27, 2018, at Ganowpora killed three civilians. One of them was Rayees Ahmad, who died shortly before he was to meet a woman his mother, Fatima, had hoped he would marry. Three months later, Fatima also died on the same road that Rayees had walked on his last day, wandering in search of her son’s grave. “She couldn’t have a normal moment after hearing about his death,” says her daughter-in-law, whose family lives separately, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She would ask us to keep dinner out for him, force us to keep the doors open for him at night.” The family made many trips to many clinics, but they didn’t help. Fatima would often roam around the village looking for Rayees’ grave, and the villagers would send her back every time.
Most mental health cases in the valley are conflict-related, says Dr. Yuman Kawoos, a psychiatrist at a local hospital in central Kashmir. The social stigma associated with such issues has come in the way of mental health professionals doing their work, she says. Even talking about such issues is taboo, so trauma survivors — most of them women like Fatima — hesitate to consult specialists. “People come to me after four or five years for treatment,” and in this time the problem has become worse. “They have to bear the consequences,” Kawoos says.
In fact, before they meet doctors, survivors often approach “faith healers.” This diversion only delays actual treatment. “People go to these faith healers often out of ignorance and to avoid social stigma. Even educated people — be it in rural or urban areas — visit them,” says Farah Qayoom, a sociologist at the University of Kashmir. People need to start talking more about mental health issues such as PTSD, she says. According to the 2015 mental health survey, adults living in the Kashmir Valley witness or experience more than seven traumatic incidents during their lifetimes (on average), including natural disasters.
“A spike in mental disorders is the direct [consequence] of the conflict that people are experiencing,” Qayoom says, adding that civilians aren’t the only ones affected: policemen, militants, soldiers and paramilitary personnel suffer as well thanks to what she called the “conflict industry.”
After Fatima died, her family threw away her medical reports. Her son Rayees is still known as the awlaad — “obedient” — who was “martyred.” Adil’s family hasn’t been able to make peace with his sudden departure, and his mother’s unresolved grief still weighs her down.
“There are no doctors who can treat the disease of love for a dead son,” she says.
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