Fortnightly Feature: Mental Health Crisis and the Rising Drug Abuse Epidemic in the Kashmir Valley

The identities of the interviewees have been withheld for the sake of their security.

The people of the Kashmir Valley have been enduring mental disorders for over six decades now. They have been victims of both mental and physical torture, as the society has repeatedly been affected by various turmoils.

Due to conflict in the region, the population at large has been victim to human rights violations by Indian forces, leading to widespread trauma. After the 2019 abrogation of Article 370 which took away the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir, a fear was instilled in the society as mass arrests took place. Since the government of Narendra Modi has come to power, the youth of Kashmir have become hopeless for a secure future. Already suffering from the transgenerational trauma, the youth are deprived of job opportunities even though the Indian government claims to be developing the region economically. This deprivation extends even to the educated portion of the population, exacerbating the current mental health crisis.

In addition to this mental health crisis, the adolescent population of Kashmir is increasingly becoming involved in rampant drug abuse. While Kashmir has had a history of tobacco smoking and cannabis consumption, the banning of cannabis has led to widespread use of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. This has become amplified due to the increasing oppression and fear amongst the population in recent years.

The Outpatient Department (OPD) of the Psychiatry branch at SMHS Hospital is consistently crowded with young patients who are grappling with mental disorders. The doctors at the hospital face a significant challenge in addressing the prevalent issue of substance abuse. Out of the total of 150 youngsters with mental disorders who visit the OPD on a daily basis, approximately half are new cases, while the remaining are follow-ups.

This overwhelming use of drugs in Kashmir is largely due to its easy availability in the region. Indian media and politicians are blaming Pakistan for this crisis. However, the infiltration of such amounts of drugs through the border wouldn’t be possible without the knowledge of Indian security agencies. In news briefings, police officials have said that they have unearthed links to Pakistan as it aims to fund militancy in Kashmir through narco-terrorism but many of the drug suppliers inform us that they get supplies from Jammu, Delhi, and Punjab.

The connection to India is more plausible as all routes to India are open while most routes to Pakistan are closed. Officials claim to have registered more than 5,000 cases between 2019 and 2022 under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, seizing drugs in tens of kilograms. Although people complain of the supply of drugs by the police itself, the illicit drug business is only one of the many lucrative sources of business for the police and Indian military forces in Kashmir. Once arrested and released they facilitate the peddlers and agencies ongoing side business in the occupied territories.

A federal minister informed parliament in March this year that almost a million people, or 8% of the population of Jammu and Kashmir, use narcotics of some type, such as marijuana, opiates, or sedatives. Doctors claim that the number of patients has been on the rise over the years.

Of the drug abusers, 90% are addicted to heroin, which isn’t a locally produced drug and around 33,000 injections are being used everyday resulting in the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis. Psychiatrists told us that they test every drug addict and most of them suffer from these diseases. Some of the patients have nodule formations in the arms because of the wrong technique of injecting the syringe.

According to the National Survey on Extent and Pattern of Substance Use in India, which was carried out by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir is home to close to 10 lakh drug addicts. According to the statistics, 108,000 men and 36,000 women were discovered using cannabis, while 534,000 men and 8,000 women were caught up in the opioid dragnet and 160,000 men and 8,000 women were discovered using sedatives of various types. In a survey by the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (IMHANS) 1,500 drug users were survyed as part of research on the prevalence and patterns of substance abuse in Kashmir. The results revealed that one-fourth of them were jobless, over two-thirds were single, and almost 90% of them were literate. Only 2% of people drank alcohol, 11% used cannabis, and fewer than 1% used other drugs, such as sedatives, whereas more than 85% of people used opioids. In terms of substance addiction, practically all districts showed a similar pattern.

According to the survey, heroin was the most often abused drug. While 29.3% of people were discovered to be seeking heroin, 52.3% were found to be injecting it, 3.1% were using tramadol and tapentadol, and 0.7% were using buprenorphine.

Over 7% of them were receiving the injection up to six times per week, with nearly half of them receiving it daily. Tragically, over 53% were sharing the needle and 65% were utilizing it again. More than 13% of drug users had to deal with legal issues, including getting arrested for drug use or distribution. Surprisingly, 88% of them acquired drugs while they were in jail.

They also said that the usage of drugs was widespread among the youth who went to Punjab and Delhi for studies and then came back, bringing the drugs into the state and expanding their network. The psychiatrists at a government hospital in Srinagar complained of less staffing and infrastructure to meet the needs of the society in these dark times. They also said at the rate at which the spread of Hepatitis and HIV is observed, it will become rampant in the coming years in the state. They said that the situation is alarming and the government isn’t taking enough measures to tackle the issue. Having to cater to more than 150 patients in a day at SMHS, the psychiatry department is unable to give them proper time and counseling with only 2 doctors in the OPD and 3 in IPD. There are no specific psychologists for drug addiction in the hospital. Because of the lack of availability of beds at the hospital, some patients needing IPD care have to be sent home. The relapse rate is high because of the large-scale availability of addictive drugs, school-going adolescents are becoming the victims of this. The government of India seems to be boasting about the facilities they are providing at the district hospitals. ATFC-Addiction treatment Facility Centers have been established in each district, yet they have no admission facilities and only a doctor, one counselor, and a nurse to treat hundreds of patients.

According to research done recently by the Govt. Medical College’s Psychiatry Department, Kashmir has surpassed the use of drugs in Punjab. Activists claim that the drugs were introduced in Punjab by the Indian government to divert youth from counterinsurgency and likewise are operating in Kashmir.

The consumption of drugs in Kashmir is not only suppressing the counterinsurgency but also weakening the Kashmiri society economically while increasing the spread of crimes such as homicide and theft.