The Demon of Depression Has Returned to Haunt Kashmiri Women In Lockdown

Curbs, clampdown and crisis have been depressing Kashmir since long now. Last summer’s political crackdown along with the springtime pandemic lockdown has only escalated troubled thoughts in the valley.

Text by Rabia Noor
Photos by Abid Bhat

A fidgety mental state reached a crescendo for Rabia Amin with the arrival of the virulent spring in Kashmir this year. Suddenly, the 27-year-old felt haunted by a sense of worthlessness, despair, and suicidal thoughts.

Confined to her home since last summer when Jammu and Kashmir lost its semiautonomous status, the soon-to-be bride had a tough time dealing with a year-long troubling routine of grim moments, family mood swings, distressing dispatches, uncertain income, and frequent fights in the family.

The trouble only grew after Kashmir entered into the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

“Throughout this disconcerting period, there was this question constantly haunting you: What’s the way out of this situation,” Rabia, holding a master’s degree in Social Works, recounts her ordeal.

“At times,” she continues, what sounds like a disturbing monologue, “there was this feeling of getting wasted inside those four-walls of home. You wanted to read or watch movies to kill your time, but for how long? You felt like a captive for carrying that cursed identity of a Kashmiri. And this can be a very troubled feeling in times like these.”

It took four fortnights of rigorous clinical treatment to restore some sanity in Rabia’s fast derailing mindset. But sadly, she isn’t alone in the woeful vale to suffer the silent mental assault.

‘Therapist’ at Task

Her ability to attend, document and fix some women-related worries makes Nighat Shafi Pandit a therapist for many stressed souls of Kashmir.

Pandit has been dealing with Rabia-like cases since 2000 when she started Help Foundation — a non-governmental organisation dealing with women in distress.

“When we started to catering these cases, nobody was willing to accept that women suffer from depression or other psychological illness,” Pandit, Chairperson Help Foundation, says. “But I’m happy to see some change now.”

Even though Pandit might not be the go-to-person under the present circumstances, she has been dealing with women of Kashmir, including several young girls, suffering from depression and anxiety.

“They frequent our NGO for mental health counselling,” she says. “And our counsellors make sure to deal with them with a sense of empathy.”

Once a college principal in Nawa Kadal area of old Srinagar requested Pandit to counsel their students, who would get palpitations every time an untoward situation took place in the vicinity.

“We sent our counsellors there and witnessed such incidents on numerous instances,” she recalls.

What otherwise is being dismissed in Kashmir as a regular restlessness—“Dil Chu Raawaan” type of feeling—can be a stark sign of depression, warn counsellors.

“Whenever we visit villages to conduct general health check-ups, the women often complaint of pain in abdomen, but the issue remains psychological,” Nighat informs.

“Some women in Pattan area in north Kashmir had resorted to substance abuse as a result of acute depression.”

Poverty Pathos

Much of the depression in Kashmir today stems from the ‘fast disintegration’ of its social institutions, experts opine.

Several girls of marriageable age in the valley aren’t able to get married due to the prevailing situation.

“Thing is,” Pandit continues, “girls getting married late often suffer from depression and anxiety. They also face certain behavioural issues, like irritability and shattered self-confidence, which sometimes results in frustration.” The lockdown has only deepened this marital mess.

Besides, there’re numerous women in Kashmir, who live in abject poverty with no source of income.

“All such situations lead to severe depression,” says Pandit, adding that it would not be wrong to say that the state of mental health in Kashmir is alarming as far as women are concerned.

Situational Stress

The trouble, however, doesn’t start and end with destitution itself. Kashmir’s protracted political problem is itself making depression as some kind of a pervasive-plagued phenomenon in the valley today.

In an uncertain terrain where CASOs, gunfights, unknown guns and regular home wreckages have somehow become a part of life, women constantly have to worry about the safety of their loved ones.

“In a conflict-ridden region,” says Dr Sabreena Qadri, Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Srinagar, “each day can be stressful for an individual, and women are no exception.”

Most women keep on checking if the situation is normal, whenever their children step out of their home, Dr Qadri continues.

“Such things can be quite stressful for women,” she says. “Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are a routine affair in Kashmir, which can depress a person every day.”

Most Urgent Health Issue

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has ranked depression as the fourth among the list of the most urgent health issues worldwide and has predicted it to become number two “in terms of disease burden by 2020 overriding diabetes, cancer, arthritis and so on”.

Earlier, it was believed that depression in women was the result of hormonal changes that they undergo throughout their life cycle. It was a well-accepted theory.

But over the period of time, it was found that the role of hormones has been highly over-rated.

“Hormones have a role to play,” agrees Dr Insha Rauf, Registrar, Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Kashmir, “but they don’t affect you to the extent that was previously presumed.”

If you remove three factors—poverty, gender inequality and domestic violence—from women’s lives, Dr Rauf says, the rates of depression in males and females are going to be almost similar.

“This is something that was recently found in a study by WHO,” she says.

The study notes that the ratio of depression in males and females is 1:1.2, that is almost equal.

“Conflict can add to all of these three factors [poverty, gender inequality and domestic violence] which in turn can add to depression,” Dr Rauf explains.

“Even males vent out the stress generated through conflict situations on women back home. It further takes a mental toll on women.”

Study Findings

As per ‘Muntazar: Kashmir Mental Health Survey’ report published in 2015 by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) India, IMHANS Srinagar and University of Kashmir, 50 percent of women suffer from probable depression as compared to 37 percent men, while 36 percent of women suffer from a probable anxiety related disorder in comparison to 21 percent men.

The study also found that 22 percent women and 18 percent men suffer from probable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — a clinical syndrome that is triggered by a traumatic event.

The finding of the study confirmed “a serious mental health situation, with highly prevalent common mental disorders and distress having continued to increase to reach epidemic levels among the traumatised population of Kashmir”.

Another study titled ‘Life in Conflict: Characteristics of Depression in Kashmir’ published earlier by International Journal of Health Sciences has found that women in Kashmir had a higher prevalence of depression in all the age groups than men, and was the highest in the age group of 26 to 35 years, viz., 68.66 percent.

In fact, the study says, in rural areas, the prevalence of depression among women was found to be 93.1 percent.

It also found that prevalence of depression in Kashmir was 55.72 percent—higher than other places—which the researchers attributed to conflict situation in the Valley.

Pertinently, according to the United Nations’ latest report, one person in five suffers from mental health condition in conflict zones.

The study has used data from 39 countries published between 1980 and August 2017.

Around 22 percent of those affected suffer from depression, anxiety or PTSD, as per an analysis of 129 studies published in the reputed medical journal The Lancet.

Contrary to the past studies, which seemed to underestimate the magnitude of mental health conditions in conflict-hit areas, the revised estimates show increased rates of severe, moderate and mild mental health issues.

Healed Yet Haunted

Despite being a depression survivor, Rabia Amin today fears that the searing stress getting normalised inside Kashmiri households amid lockdown might come to haunt her again.

“It somehow affects your mind when you get to read how women are facing domestic violence and militant moods of their men sitting home these days,” she says.

“At the end of the day, the conflict in Kashmir boils down to home, where it makes women its certain victim.”

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