Abandoned women at psychiatric hospital crave freedom

Even as mental health issues become an ever-more serious problem in Kashmir, many females go to the hospital for help; but some have just been left there…
Safeena Wani

Srinagar: Wearing a grubby blue-and-white salwar kameez, 19-year-old Saima (names of all the patients have been changed to protect their identities) holds on tightly to the wrought-iron fence inside the compound of the Valley’s sole Psychiatric Hospital. Her screams rend the air: “Khodayas paeth, bae chas waen theek, mae kadtaev yatae naebar.” (I swear to God I am fine now, please get me out of here).
Her pleading to ‘be taken home’ continues, but her sister who, according to the hospital staff, occasionally comes to see her, quietly leaves the compound, almost feigning a sort of indifference. Saima keeps shouting for some time, till her ‘regular’ caretakers in the hospital come over, console her, and manage to pacify her somewhat. This, they say, has been the routine for many weeks now.
According to hospital records, Saima is a cannabis addict and was admitted here two month ago on the directions of the Karan Nagar police station. However, cannabis, it seems, was just an escape route, perhaps a twisted and desperate attempt to try and get some relief from her excruciating memories and brutalised past.
A motherless child, Saima, was actually ‘sold off’, and it was called a marriage, for exactly Rs 10 by her father when she was just 11 years old. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the father was a drug addict and the ‘husband’ was an old, alcoholic, acquaintance of his. The ‘marriage’ was, to say the least, abusive and lasted for three years, and so Saima became a 14-year old divorcee. With no support, she briefly took to prostitution for survival, but then landed in the police net. And since then she is fighting those demons of her past, herself and her drug addiction as a schizophrenic admitted in the hospital’s ‘chronic ward’.
She obviously feels a sense of abandonment, even locates her troubles as starting with the lack of a mother. “Had my mother been alive, she would never have allowed my father to trade my innocence and my body,” Saima says, amidst intermittent sobs and silences. One day, she says, her husband returned home very drunk. “He was so high that he burnt my leg, throwing hot tea on my leg for reason at all. I cried in pain, but there was no one to turn for help.” This husband, she says, wasn’t just brutal even when not drunk, but even forced Saima to take drugs every night. “He was a devil. He never bought even a single scarf for me. I used to wear old torn clothes,” she says, remembering what in effect was supposed to be her childhood.
After the divorce, and since her father had died by then, the young Saima approached her two married sisters for help. But her sisters found it hard to help her. And Saima spiralled back into the vicious circle of drug addiction and prostitution, till she finally landed in the psychiatric hospital. “She does not need a hospital for treatment now,” says Dr Arshid Hussain, a senior psychiatrist at the hospital. “She needs family support and a small dose of medication for a period of time.”
But that support is just what Saima is lacking, And, as of now, nine ‘chronic’ female patients, including Saima, are admitted in the hospital. Four of these women are non-locals and others are registered as ‘unknown’. “We call these patients ‘abandoned’ as nobody claims to be related to them,” says Dr Arshid. “Their families cannot be traced. Even if somehow we trace them in some cases, their families don’t want them back.” The social stigma associated with psychiatric illness seems to preventing a chance at rehabilitation for people like Saima.
So where so such women, who should not be in a ‘mental hospital’, go in Kashmir? The doctors at the hospital suggest that there should be ‘half-homes’ or destitute homes for these women where they can get some security, food and clothing after recovering. “In our state, we don’t have any such option. Where they will go? Here, women who should be out have to live with ill patients which only hampers their treatment,” Dr Arshid adds.
There is another woman left abandoned, like Saima, in the ‘chronic ward’ of the hospital. And she is the only Kashmiri Pandit woman hospitalised here since the ’90s. Wearing a red apron and a short haircut, Ritu too suffers from schizophrenia. “Nobody is turning up for her (sic),” says a nurse. Hailing from Habba Kadal, most of her relatives fled the Valley during the early ’90s, leaving Ritu behind, at the hospital.
Hospital records show that Ritu’s sister would, during the early period of her stay at the hospital, visit her periodically. But not anymore. “Such patients need family support,” reiterates Dr Arshid, “in absence of that, their mental condition only deteriorates.” And Ritu, who the hospital staff say often launches into rants and even violent behavior, seems to be confirming that worsening given the lack of familial support.
Neetu, a Punjabi woman, is, unlike Ritu, known as a quiet patient. Four months ago, she was admitted here with “faded memories”. But now the treatment seems to have restored some of her memories. “During the ’70s and ’80s, I used to run a famous tea stall in Lal Chowk near Court Road,” she recalls, speaking in fluent English. “It was a highly visited place then, frequented mostly by journalists and lawyers. I don’t know how I ended up here,” she says.
Records say it was the police from Maisuma Station who found her roaming around Lal Chowk one day. “For many years, she had been eating dirt and everything else she found on the road,” says a nurse, “but now she is getting better.”
Neetu apparently belonged to a respectable Punjabi-Kashmiri family. But life took an ugly turn for this former Mallinson School student (“batch of 1965” she says) when her parents passed away, gradually pushing the rest of her family into poverty. And it was during this period that Neetu, who was already battling a minor ‘mental illness’ since childhood, slipped away further.
These may just be three cases of inmates, but call it mental health issues or psychiatric cases, Kashmir is fast becoming a place where many need attention on this front. According to the records, almost 100 female patients suffering from depression visit the psychiatric hospital every day. And that’s just the women. “Depression is the second most common illness in the world, and in Kashmir it is the first,” says Dr Arshid.
Meanwhile, inside the 20-bed ‘chronic ward’, Saima is still nurturing hope. “Please tell my story in court,” she insists, perhaps thinking this reporter is some sort of official, “tell them I am fine now. I want to leave here as soon as possible. Please tell them to send me to an orphanage.”