World Mental Health Day

October 10th commemorated the World Health Organizations’ World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme was ‘Make it a Reality.’ That is a call that we at the World Kashmir Awareness Forum heed as we aim to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment and advocate for those seeking treatment. Currently, the people of Jammu and Kashmir are enduring one of the worst mental health crises of this century.

Raising awareness

For those suffering from mental illness, it can often be difficult to not only find treatment, but also to receive support from loved ones for the treatment. For too many, it is preferable to suffer in silence than ask for help.

Fortunately, there has been a greater effort around the world to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health care. The COVID-19 pandemic put unique pressures on people around the world.

According to the World Health Organization, “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on people’s mental health. Some groups, including healthcare and other frontline workers, students, people living alone, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, have been particularly affected. And services for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders have been significantly disrupted.

Yet, there is cause for optimism. During the World Health Assembly in May 2021, governments from around the world recognized the need to scale up quality mental health services at all levels. And some countries have found new ways of providing mental health care to their populations.”

A long lasting issue

Kashmiris were already suffering from elevated mental health crises before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted much of the world. This issue goes back to even before India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy. In fact, a 2016 survey by Doctors Without Borders found 45 percent of the Kashmiri population (nearly 1.8 million adults) experiencing some form of mental distress.

The impacts of this hurt women far more than men, with 50% of women, compared to 37% of men suffering from depression. While 36% of women to 21% of men suffer from anxiety. Nearly a quarter of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder while approximately 18% of men experience the same.

The Indian-led siege which began on August 5th, 2019, has only exacerbated the problem, with violent acts on behalf of military and police officials such as prolonged detentions, beatings, and protracted sieges. With the eradication of cultural and economic life in the valley, life has become a grueling struggle for survival.

Suicide is now the leading cause of death in the valley

Suicide rates for Kashmiris rose over 250% between 1994 and 2012, and the problem has only gotten worse. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in the valley. There have been 6,000 documented cases of suicide reported by the National Crime Records Bureau between 1990 and 2019.

However, for every suicide, there are approximately four more that attempt it.

Worse, there seems to be a growing movement of copycat suicides.  A news report from the Kashmir Observer quoting Dr. Yasir warned about the “copycat phenomenon” wherein distressed and vulnerable persons feel influenced to end their life by consuming an overdose of information about suicides through media.

He suspects this phenomenon could be media coverage of suicide incidents with glaring headlines and graphic details. The dissemination of “last videos” of suicide victims proves counterproductive. Some people with mental issues unfortunately begin identifying themselves with the victim and internalize the negativity in these videos and see suicide as a solution.

Few options available

Compounding the crisis is the fact that even if there were still not the ingrained stigma against mental health, there are few resources the people of Kashmir can utilize to treat their mental health conditions.

A 2011 census found that for the 12.5 million people in Kashmir, there were only 41 psychiatrists. Most of the valley’s mental health services were concentrated in Srinagar (GMC Srinagar and SKIMS hospitals).

In the intervening decade, the number of psychiatrists has risen to approximately 61, according to a report by the New York Times in April 2020.

One of the psychiatrists interviewed for that article, Dr. Majid Shafi, stated that in [2019] he saw one hundred patients a week, and in [2020], he sees 500.

The root causes of his patients’ trauma are related to the siege – teenagers traumatized by violence, mothers worried about their children in Indian jails, and businesspeople who are overburdened by a mountain of debt because of a military lockdown that shattered every life in Kashmir.

End the stigma

It is the oft-quoted mantra that the first step toward fixing any problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem. As we said at the beginning of the article, we believe that we can help erase the stigma against mental health treatments and draw attention to the mental health crisis in Kashmir. If you have received successful treatment, please, tell your story through social media. Studies have shown that stigma and prejudice against those with mental illness fall when a close friend or family member is open and honest about their journey. Use the #WorldMentalHealthDay.

Also, you can use the same hashtag and share this article or individual facts about the mental health crisis in Kashmir.