Mental health and mental illness
Mental health is a level of psychological well-being, a state in which a person is functioning well at the emotional and behavioural level. Mental functioning is fundamentally interconnected with physical and social functioning. Mental illness, on the other hand, is a health condition involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behaviour. There are various types of mental illness which are highly prevalent in Kashmir, especially depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a scientific survey by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders) in 2015, 45% of the adult population in Kashmir valley showed symptoms of significant mental distress. Among those surveyed, 41% exhibited symptoms of probable depression, 26% showed symptoms of probable anxiety, and 19% showed symptoms of probable PTSD.
Despite Kashmir being a conflicted valley with life and future both uncertain, with plenty of traumatic experiences and horrific memories, mental health still carries a stigma here. Many people consider it to be a trivial issue and the administration is equally apathetic to its prevalence among Kashmiri people.
Kashmir, where unemployment is high but jobs are few, where education system is paralysed and careers are at stake even though expectations are high, mental health is under severe stress even at the best of times. The most problematic is the conflict that has been going on for the past three decades with the situation only worsening and no end to human rights violations in sight.
The violence and disturbances in normal life that are routine in the valley have not only left their scars on the minds of the present generation but they will haunt future generation too. Daily news of crimes such as torture, custodial deaths, killing of civilians by bullets or pellet guns and sometimes by being mowed down under vehicles, has a traumatic effect on the minds of Kashmiris. Such grim events, before which they feel helpless, are responsible for much of the mental illness prevalent among Kashmiris.
We all grew up knowing that armed forces have legal immunity for their actions under AFSPA. The Supreme Court ended the blanket immunity given to the army in 2016, but nothing really changed on the ground. On the contrary, such judgements only give rise to false hopes that are shattered when incidents like a man being tied to a jeep as a human shield happen the army officer is rewarded for this so-called bravery which actually is a human rights violation.
New Delhi keeps lecturing other countries on human rights while it enacts and implements tyrannical laws like AFSPA, PSA (which allows the state govt to detain a person up to 2 years without a trial), UAPA, etc. These laws violate the fundamental rights of citizens and are undemocratic. In Kashmir, they serve to reduce citizens to the status of subjects.
The MSF in its survey had found that nearly a three-quarter of Kashmiris had witnessed physical or psychological mistreatment of a family member or a close friend. Each of us is shaped by the formative experiences of childhood, and Kashmiri children have grown up witnessing violence and bloodshed all around.
The Jammu & Kashmir economy has been continuously battered by unrest, lockdowns, curfews, internet shutdowns, and an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Last year, the August 5 abrogation of the state’s autonomy and privileges led to a prolonged lockdown from which the economy had not even started to recover when the Covid-19 lockdown was enforced. According to industry estimates, J&K suffered economic losses of Rs 40,000 crore (USD 5.3 billion) since August 5, 2019. With such amount of money being wiped out, the impact on job markets has been equally devastating.
Till December 2019, 5 lakh jobs had been lost due to the military lockdown and internet blackout. The loss of employment due to Covid-19 this year is yet to be assessed. Recently, the JKSSB advertised about 8,500 Class IV posts. For these, more than 7 lakh applicants registered themselves. It is only one indicator of the severity of unemployment in J&K.
This high unemployment rate, high debts of businesses, and enforced restrictions on public movement have all affected the mental health of Kashmiris. This, in turn, has adversely affected the entrepreneurial and business skills of people, their confidence and their ability to take risks. Lakhs of lives are at stake due to depression and a sense of helplessness.
A study conducted in 2005-06 revealed that that the prevalence of depression among Kashmiris was 55.72% and this was much higher in rural areas (84.73%) as compared to urban areas (15.26%). In rural areas there was higher prevalence of depression among females (93.10%) as compared to males (6.8%).
Women are more vulnerable to mental health diseases but they haven’t received any specific attention by the policy makers. Apart from this, the conflict-related violence and abuse that women have faced puts them at a greater risk of mental diseases. A report by MSF in 2006 highlighted that Kashmir has the highest percentage of sexual violence in comparison to other conflicts across the globe.
In the conflict going on in Kashmir for the past 3 decades, the education system has been badly hit. Unfortunately, the administration hasn’t done anything to overcome the problems faced by this sector. It is now a norm for schools and colleges staying closed for months and when it comes to examinations their way out is to reduce the syllabus or to combine semesters in one go. Delays in exams are so lengthy that a 3-year college degree is completed in 4-5 years, with much less learning and understanding. This doesn’t only impact the mental health of students but their careers and ambitions as well.
It is the 21st century and education is a basic necessity, yet our administration doesn’t seem to care. Kashmir needs proper and efficient educational reforms and not various ways to manage the crisis. Also, the parents must understand that a career decision is the choice of the student. Rather than imposing their choice or what the so-called society dictates, one should respect the interests of the child and guide and support them in their decision.
There are thousands of cases where students end up making bad career choices under pressure from parents, leaving them distressed. Sometimes it leads them to do the unthinkable, that is, suicide.
First of all, the conflict needs a permanent solution, acceptable to the people of J&K. The violation of fundamental rights needs to stop and action as per law initiated against any perpetrator.
Second, the J&K administration needs to frame efficient education and job creation policies. An urgent revisit is needed to the existing recruitment policies so that recruitment is fast-tracked and examinations are conducted on time.
The government also needs to encourage the private sector which has ability to provide employment and revive economic growth in the region.
The administration must establish mental care hospitals in every district. Kashmir has less than 60 psychiatrists, which means 1 doctor for more than a million people, which is a grave shortcoming that needs to be urgently addressed. Besides, a psychiatrist and a counselling department must be made available in every hospital at the district and sub-district level. Along with this, there is a need to address concerns related to healthcare facilities for women.
Awareness about mental health issues is much needed to remove the stigma associated with it. Schools can play an important role in awareness programmes. Doctors can hold public workshops regarding mental health issues and the ways to tackle it. Advertisements, shows, podcasts through digital and electronic media in local languages can be a game changer in addressing mental health issues.
We need to take mental health seriously as in recent years suicides in Kashmir are rising at an alarming rate. More importantly, people with mental health issues need support from family, friends and society. Without judging and listening empathetically can lessen the burden of such persons.
If any of your close ones are having any kind of mental health issues, listen to them and support them. Don’t ignore it any further as we are already on the verge of a mental health epidemic.
—The writer is from Sirhama, Anantnag district, and an undergrad student at Delhi University. firstname.lastname@example.org