Mental Health Awareness in Kashmir

May 14, 2021
Author: Dr. Ghulam N. Mir

The month of May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health and access to mental health care are often stigmatized and can be out of reach for many people. Globally, only about 1% of all government spending is on mental health care. The funding level drops precipitously for poorer countries. 

In Kashmir, the situation can be even more pronounced because of multiple overlapping crises that seemingly have no endpoint. 

A crisis that continues to worsen

The current crisis in Kashmir has its origins in the partitioning of India in 1947. Three separate wars between India and Pakistan have been fought, the most recent in 1999. Caught in between the two countries is a never-ending struggle and cycle of violence, retribution by the Indian occupation forces in Occupied Kashmir. 

According to interviews conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in two conflicts that affected rural districts of Kashmir between 1989-2005, the average adult living in the Kashmir valley has witnessed over seven traumatic events in their lifetime and seventy percent had witnessed a sudden or violent death of someone they knew. One in ten have lost close family members and a third have lost an extended family member.

This amount of grief weighs heavily on the survivors with nearly a third of participants having suicidal thoughts.

The International Journal of Health Sciences and Research has documented that from 1994 to 2012 there has been a 250% increase in suicide of Kashmiris. In 2015, Doctors Without Borders estimated 1.8 million Kashmiris or nearly half of all adults have some form of mental disorder. And nine out of ten have conflict-related traumas. All of these numbers are from before the recent annexation of Kashmir that began in August of 2019 and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Stolen loved ones, stolen lives

Sara Begum, a resident of Pahoo, Kashmir had her son abducted by Indian Military Forces on August 3, 2019, as part of India’s annexation of Kashmir. He has been unlawfully detained since that time. India has also repeatedly broken its promise to allow her to communicate with her son, keeping her in limbo. 

Ms. Begum suffers from depression, and though she takes medication, she has attempted suicide twice. 

On May 19, 2020, a woman in Srinagar, identified only as Nighat (her name changed for her protection) was awoken during a fight between the Indian military and a counterinsurgency. When the fighting had ended her home was destroyed. She states that Indian forces used heavy explosives to destroy her home. In an interview with Women Under Siege, she stated that while she was able to see a psychiatrist, she suffers from severe insomnia. “I try my best to stay strong in front of my children. But with each passing day, I am mentally weaker.”

The mental health crisis places an uneven burden on women. A 2015, MSF’s Kashmir Mental Health survey found that “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)”.

Kashmir, a region of over eight million people, has fewer than 60 psychiatrists. Dr. Majid Shafi, a government psychiatrist treats 500 people a week. His patients range from children who have suffered from violence to parents with missing loved ones, to business owners struggling under a mountain of debt caused by the Indian occupation. “This is just the beginning,” Dr. Shafi said in an interview with The New York Times. “The crisis is growing.”

A haunting stigma

Even if there were enough psychiatrists to treat the wounds of an entire nation, the stigma of mental health issues remains an obstacle for many into receiving treatment. 

Syed Zahid Rizvi is a Kashmiri-born student of philosophy, sociology, and nursing at the University of Washington. In January of 2021, he returned home to Kashmir and documented his findings on the state of mental health of those living in Kashmir, including friends, and family, and documented them in an article for the Daily Maverick

He opens his story of a family friend by the name of Gulrez who had recently committed suicide by ingesting poison. In life, he had been a hard worker, someone who supported his family. “He had a different way of thinking, talking, and acting. People in the community had labeled him as a ‘pagal’ (crazy). And was often teased because of it.” 

Being labeled as a ‘pagal’ can cause difficulties finding work and finding marriage. For many people, the stigma of that word is too much to bear. However, in a society where over half of the population suffers from common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and acute stress, it means that everybody has someone who could be labeled as a ‘pagal’ in their family. 

Suffering from mental health disorders not only affects the person with the condition, but it affects the lives of their friends and family as well. One of the worst aspects of mental health disorders is that it often causes people to suffer alone. Isolating them from their loved ones and making self-harm and suicide more likely and increasing the likelihood that those disorders will be passed on to the next generation. 

Until Kashmiris are granted their U.N. recognized right to self-determination through a free and fair plebiscite, the mental health situation will only continue to deteriorate under the brutal Indian regime.

To close this blog, if you suffer from any of the conditions listed above, know that you are not alone. Help is available through the crisis hotline. You can text HOME to 741741 to receive assistance.