Kashmiris were already under lockdown for over six months before the pandemic started, and it is now triggering a mental health crisis.

Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Adjusting himself in his chair, placed a few meters away from the counsellor amid fear of the coronavirus, Omar Mukhtar Dar (name changed) asks the counsellor to save him from becoming mentally ill like so many others in Kashmir over the past thirty years of conflict.

Dar has attempted suicide and has been taking medication to overcome depression. Dar developed depressive symptoms since August 5 last year when the Indian government scrubbed the Special Status of Kashmir and put the Valley under lockdown, eventually forcing people to sit home frustrated, idle and jobless. The situation worsened after the Narendra Modi government in March this year announced a nation-wide lockdown to fight the pandemic. 

Narrating why and how the 26-year-old Dar tried to commit suicide, he says, “ I am a sumo (taxi) driver by profession, but every time the situation would worsen in Kashmir, there would be curfews, strikes and the drivers would become jobless for a year or so.”

He says that in December of 2018 he took out a bank loan of around $13,000 to start his own business, but, "before the business could start properly, the government imposed curfew in August last year and business was shut.” He says that when the situation started to normalise after around seven months, the pandemic started and everything shut down again.

In July this year, Dar – who lives in northern Kashmir’s Pattan area – tried to end his life after he failed to repay his loan.

“The guilt of sitting idle and not able to work and earn for me and my old parents was so much that I started taking pain-relieving tablets and soon I was addicted to it. And one day I took some 8-9 tablets and found myself in hospital and from there I was referred to the psychiatry hospital,” Dar says.

Continuous lockdowns

At the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) Dar has been put on treatment and is being monitored by psychiatrists who are counselling and convincing him not to try to commit suicide ever again.

But Dar seems unconvinced like many other Kashmiris who grapple with mental health disorders since India removed its autonomous status.

In August last year, a doctor, who wishes not be named, tells TRT World that a patient who had tried to commit suicide came to Srinagar’s premier hospital, Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital with complaints of acute manic behaviour. “He had started beating his wife, children and then one day he had tried to commit suicide and was referred to a psychiatric hospital and put on medicines.”

The reason for his behavioural change was that he was a small-time labourer and managing family had become tough for him during curfews. He thought ending his life would be the best way to escape poverty, the doctor said.

A survey conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres in 2015 estimated that nearly 1.5 million Kashmiris have some sort of mental health disorder. And in 2016, IMHANS and Action Aid put the number of people suffering from mental health disorders to be at around 11.3 percent.

Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir
Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir (Shafaq Shah / TRTWorld)

Since last year, there has been an increase in cases of mental health disorders because of the frequent curfews and lockdowns.

Zoya Mir, a Counselling Psychologist at IMHANS says, “First the curfews and then the lockdown affected the mental health of people. We have people coming to us with mood instabilities, aggression and drug abuse.”

Giving an example of how consistent lockdowns have worsened the situation in Kashmir, she says, “an 18-year-old boy from Srinagar’s old city had started consuming drugs because his parents were living in an unhappy marriage and the regular fights at home forced him to consume drugs.” 

She says it all happened in lockdown because the boy couldn’t go out to vent his frustration or be with friends, so he turned towards drugs.

There has been a surge in cases of mental health disorders, Associate Professor at Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Dr Yasir Rather, said, “Unfortunately our valley saw an extended lockdown since August 5 last year and the consequences of that are, there is an increase in cases of mental health issues.”

Dr Rather believes that the next pandemic we should be prepared for is the mental health pandemic, "for the back to back lockdowns has had a toll on peoples' minds.” 

Opinion up old wounds

The lockdown has not only triggered depression, anxiety or other clinical disorders for the first time in people but has also worsened the situation of those fighting hard to overcome existing mental health disorders. Relapses are overflowing in the psychiatry hospital.

Talking about one such case, a psychiatrist says, “When the government imposed the curfew in Kashmir last year a patient who was already a psychiatric patient and was under treatment had developed anxiety and fear because of the curfew, for he thought his business will collapse. He was a fruit grower. He woke up in the middle of the night and visited his orchards because he feared losses.”

And then there are patients, the psychiatrist says, “who have lost their near ones in this ongoing conflict and have developed a mental health disorder because of the trauma and now they fear for their own lives. We have seen all types of people coming to us. The prolonged lockdowns did a lot of damage to the people here.”

The continuous lockdowns have affected the psyche of Kashmiris be it children, adults or the elderly, says Dr Rather. 

“People with pre-existing mental health issues and were in remission are suddenly having a relapse either due to not being able to reach out to hospitals or due to continuous stress.”