A year of uncertainty, a year of confinement, and decades of turmoil. This is how Kashmir can be described in most simple words. Though it remains less to describe the mental health crisis in Kashmir. A year has passed when the government of India abrogated Article 370 of Indian Constitution and ripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. The state was made into a Union Territory, a year ago on 5th August.The whole year has taken a toll on people’s mental health.
When the decision was taken, the government had closed down everything, implementing a curfew and a communication blockade throughout the region. People were confined to their homes for what seems like eternity. The problems were nothing less when the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the nation.
The dual attack on healthcare services has led to a severe mental health crisis in the valley. Mental healthcare is already an often ignored issue in the country, and it becomes even more difficult for Kashmir, where whole generation is left in traumatized.
Although, it is difficult to get official data, but health experts say that suicide rates have increased in the valley.Dr. Mohd. Akmal Shah, a clinical Psychologist, says, “Since one year, we are in this situation. The economic uncertainty is creating problem for people. And social distancing adds to it.”
He adds that “Counseling is centralized. We need to decentralize these services and spread them to all areas,” revealing the inaccessibility to the necessary healthcare services. The crackdown of the valley led to shortage of medicines and people are unable to reach out to therapists as well.
Dr. Shah adds, that due to all this, “patients who had recovered earlier, are getting back signs of depression.” He says that the inability to get therapy and medicines added with the social stigma attached to mental health causes patients to relapse.
He told us, that “All the psychologists have put their phone numbers online on their social media platforms.” This, he says will help more and more patients to reach out for help. Although this is not a universal solution, as there are people who cannot have access to internet facilities as well.
He adds that even though the patient reaches the Psychologist, then also medicines are not available as it needs a prescription which should not be older than two to three weeks. Though the medication is used with serious patients only, who have a tendency of causing self-harm or injuries to others, he further explains. Dr. Shah emphasizes that “The Lockdown is fuelling a very big mental health emergency. If we do not deal with it now, it will be very difficult.”
The uncertainty of past one year has affected people badly, forcing them to take severe steps. Mohd. Umer (name changed for privacy reasons), an Assistant Recruiter in an HR company in Bangalore, tried to kill himself in September last year. He took the step after slipping into depression because of government’s sudden action. He could not contact with his parents in Kashmir as the phone services were down. The fear, anxiety and loneliness led him to take such a step.
He says, “During initial days, I thought that the phone services will be restored within days, but it did not happen for months. With days ahead, I felt more loneliness and this took a toll on my mental health. Now, I was developing symptoms of depression.”
He recalls that how claustrophobic he became during that time. He said that he used to have panic attacks, and sometimes he cried for whole night. He describes an incident saying, “One day, when I was coming back from office, I was so much depressed that when I tried to open the door of my room, my hands were shaking so much that I could not open it. Then I broke the door of my flat.”
He remembers that during whole that time, he could talk to his sister only for 2-3 minutes. On the night of 1st September, when his roommate had gone home, he cut his both arms with a knife. He was saved by his office colleague who had come to visit him. When he did not open the door, he broke the door and took him to hospital.
Umer says that his colleagues did show some empathy towards him, but that was insufficient to take him out of that depression. Later he told whole incident to his sister who convinced him to take therapy. He says that though the medicines did not help him, yet he continued to take the doses to get rid of the depression.
He finally met his parents on 8th November, when they travelled to Bangalore. He claims that spending time with his family actually cured him. He still gets the flashbacks from that time, which traumatizes him till date.
Umer is not the only person who has gone through this. Many in the valley suffer from such problems. And taking professional help is also difficult due to accessibility and the stigma attached to mental health.
Dr. Shah says, “There is a social withdrawal in patients due to social stigma. It is the responsibility of the society to accept patients.” When people do not accept the patient, especially in cases of substance abuse, it causes the patient to relapse, he explains. He also tells the importance of support from family, saying, “If the family is empathetic, it really helps.”
According to Kashmir Mental Health Survey of 2015, “Nearly 1.8 million adults (45% of adult population) in the valley are experiencing symptoms of mental distress with 41 percent exhibiting signs of probable depression, 26 percent probable anxiety, and 19 percent probable PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”