Mindful of how the triple lockdown has left many vulnerable, isolated and in danger of participating in the ever dubious drug addiction activities, three young Kashmiri women, including author of this piece, have created a virtual space for the distressed youth of the valley where they freely express themselves and pass through a therapeutic experience.
By Hameeda Syed
IN a frosty fall day in Kashmir, a tired voice full of anguish and concern started speaking hesitantly through the earphones.
“I have tried my level best to reason with my parents,” it said as others play captive audience.
“My cousins tell me I am being disrespectful. But is it disrespectful to not allow myself to be defined by how everyone else wants to define me? Is my worth defined by my productivity in school or in a job? I feel so useless, so utterly useless. I don’t know what to do. I’m so tired. I have slipped into depression. I barely eat. I barely sleep. I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m sorry.”
The listeners were silent. Some, even shocked. The tale of woe etched in this speaker’s life was sordid and sad. How could they have endured this by themselves all along? How were they living day by day with this constant pain and worry?
It was unfathomable.
But faintly understandable.
For this was the reality of living in the strife-stricken valley. On top of the dominated lives, the speaker and the listeners had to bear the brunt of silent societal oppression that suffocated their dreams and led them to a path of eventual surrender and imposed mediocrity.
Another day, another cold night. Another cross to bear.
The line went quiet for a few seconds before the speakers left the Zoom meeting. It was obvious that they had been triggered, that it had been too much for them to speak out. Others unmuted themselves and spoke in a flurry of passionate support, unaware that their responses were to an empty seat.
The moderator, Zarqa Binti Zia, realising the chaos that had unfolded in a mere few seconds, cleared her throat and gently drew a line.
“I don’t think they are in this meeting,” she said. “Perhaps they wish for some time before they join us again, which we will be happy to give them. Let’s remember what they’ve said about their issues and realise that such academic and cultural pressure on a student can be extremely traumatising.”
It is better, she continued, that we, as Kashmiris, realise this sooner or later and do our best to mentally help those around us who are having a hard time.
“You never know what someone is going through,” she said.
Soon after, the session ended and everyone went back to the familiar recesses of the mind to make sense of this unsettling verdict. What did Zarqa mean by saying how traumatising such pressure could be? Was it just a surface observation she had made or was there more to the story?
Unbeknownst to them, Zarqa dialled a familiar number and waited patiently for the person to pick up, her mind racing with thoughts of distress and a deep affection for her community. They needed help, and she wanted to.
“Hey, did you see what happened?”
A sigh. “Yes. It was sad, hearing all of this…”
“Right? I have a suggestion.”
The voice perked up with curiosity. “Go ahead. I’m all ears.”
“Let’s teach them about anxiety.”
A short pause. “Hmmm…”
“What that person spoke about, Hameeda, was anxiety, only that person didn’t know it was anxiety. We need to make them aware of the different mental illnesses. We need to teach them the definition, the signs, the symptoms, the course of treatment so that they can at least have the tools to deal with their issue. Professional help is still a stigma.”
I was quiet, mulling over her words, noticing how my own mind nodded fervently back. She was right. We needed to teach them. We needed them to understand. This could be a matter of mere life or die by suicide, and we needed to do our best as middle-women in the battlefield.
“You’re right, Zarqa,” I said confidently. “Let’s do this. Let’s teach them about mental health.”
“But you’ll have to make a powerpoint presentation for it.”
We both chuckled. “Oh well,” I said. “As long as it helps them.”
“Yes,” she replied, satisfied. “That’s all that matters.”
And so, our journey began.
The realm of mental health in Kashmir has been a personal choice to discover and understand. We have yet to uncover aspects of ourselves that are folded in the linens of society, and growing up, a personal responsibility of wanting clarity has consistently pricked me. Having had my own share of traumatic and core-shattering experiences in different phases meant wanting answers regarding questions that seemed too difficult for my loved ones to delve deep into.
For instance, what did it mean to be a young Kashmiri? What were the problems that we were collectively facing? How did our personal conflicts cross with political trauma — and more importantly, how were we expected to get rid of this helplessness?
As heavy and uncomfortable as these topics are, the need of the hour, with Kashmir facing a raging pandemic and the stark political reality led me and another colleague, Zarqa Binti Zia to kickstart “Mental Health through Lived Experience” sessions on Zoom.
The sessions were developed with one common goal in mind: Create awareness regarding mental health, and facilitate a friendly, kind and empathetic space for participants to share their issues and listen to others in return.
Zarqa and I were vehement in creating this space — we both passionately believed that the youth of Kashmir needed someone to hear them out without judgment.
The triple lockdown had left many vulnerable, isolated and in danger of participating in the ever dubious drug addiction activities. What was required was intervention, but not the technical kind.
And so we set out, with our lived experiences on understanding mental health and my Bachelors’ degree in Psychology leading the way.
We started with addressing the elephant in the (virtual) room—Mental Health in the context of COVID-19. The platform of operations was through Telegram and we would regularly advertise and inform about the sessions via our personal Twitter handles.
Two months and twenty-four sessions later, I can say with positivity that more than the participants, the impact of these sessions will stay with us for a long time.
“Thank you for creating this initiative,” a student’s tired voice floated through my earphones during one of our earliest sessions. “It’s very important especially for people like us when we’re dealing with so much stress. I’d like to request you to please do a session on depression and how to deal with it. That’s all I have to say.”
For the first few times, the interactions started with similar suggestions from students, job-seekers and interested netizens. We spoke about a topic, and opened the floor for interaction, wherein questions would be asked and a general discussion around them would ensue.
We made it clear from the get-go and reiterated time and again that we weren’t professionals. We were just concerned people who were spreading awareness and giving a non-reactionary space to talk about them.
“Why are we as Kashmiris so judgmental?” a quipped voice said. “Why can’t we leave people alone? Why do we have this concept of superiority over everything? Sab toh insaan hay na? And why can’t we talk about our issues? Hume chup karaaya jaata hay in the name of keeping the discourse on domination alive, jabki we are the same people who are actually talking about the establishment discourse!”
It was a monumental task, staring at the Zoom screen on our phones and bracing ourselves for questions we would be too stumped to answer. What if they asked a question we didn’t know anything about? What if someone expressed a wish to kill themselves? What if we failed in delivering a comfortable space?
Initially, it was a nerve-racking exercise. We listened carefully to every person’s account and understanding of our topic and were extremely cautious in maneuvering around the inquiries.
“Why am I anxious, Hameeda?”
“Is there a way to control this anxiety?”
“Please suggest ways through which I can feel less like this and more like my old self.”
Zarqa and I were aware of the intensity and intention behind these words. Hearing fellow Kashmiris speak out hesitantly, yet with growing conviction gave us strength that we were on the right track.
We gave them examples on different techniques through which they could try and understand themselves and stressed continuously on communicating with loved ones.
At the end of the session, we exhorted them to seek out professional help, to break the stigma prevalent in their minds and to make them take a second chance on themselves.
We covered anxiety, its disorders, eating disorders, and relevant, timely topics like social media and anxiety, how to seek professional help, drug addiction and mental health and so forth.
One of the topics we were passionate about was “Patriarchy and Mental Health.”
In the session, we said, “Patriarchy is prevalent on both individual and societal levels. We have internalised it so much that we do not think twice before considering it as the accepted norm. For instance, your individual liberties and identities as a man are suppressed because you do not adhere to the accepted patriarchal definition of what it is to be a man, i.e, strong, powerful, devoid of emotion or anything that is remotely considered feminine.”
However, that particular day, the number of participants strangely dwindled from a strong 12-20 to merely 6.
Was it because of the topic or because of the IPL season? We couldn’t say. But we both knew that we had a long road to walk ahead.
Soon enough, we were joined by a concerned netizen who volunteered to help us out.
Having done her Masters in Clinical Psychology and previously worked on ground in Kashmir, Sofiya Nazir spearheaded the Self-Assessment program, in which our participants would fill out forms that would find out the intensity of a particular mental illness, for example depression, that they thought they had.
Once the results of the self-assessment would be calculated by her, individual emails would be sent out to all those who had filled the form, informing them of the next mode of exercise to help them combat their illness.
Sofiya also took sessions explaining in depth the topic of Personality and its disorders, giving relevant local examples.
“We as Kashmiris need to learn how to give a helping hand, how to be kind to oneself and to others,” she said to a riveted audience during our session on “Drug Addiction and Mental Health”.
“My experience has taught me so much, one of it being how desperately the youth of Kashmir need our help. And unconditional help. My personal request to all of you listening is to create a space like the one we have created here, and never, ever show a negative attitude. You have no idea how much it can drive Kashmiri youth to do things that destroy them in the end.”
Every Monday, we dropped two topics to write a journal entry on the Telegram channel, to facilitate a conversation between themselves and help them create kindness in the path to growing into mentally resilient individuals. One participant remarked how the journal entry helped them organise and express their thoughts out.
In this way, we were successful in creating a space for Kashmiri youth, with the realisation that our prophecy had been self-fulfilled: they just wanted someone to listen kindly, without judgment.
We’re often told by our elders to be understanding, to be humane in our approach in dealing with others. But in Kashmir, with the sword of political uncertainty hanging on its head, many personal and individual issues or discussions take a significant backseat without hope for reviving it in the future.
The creation of this space and the sheer necessity of it voiced by our participants has led us to believe that the time of the hour is to create harmony, extend support and do what is in our capacity as Kashmiris to help others.
These words coming from a mere graduate can seem preachy and unsolicited, but the youth have shown themselves on this platform to make known that their issues are just as imperative to be talked about.
The sessions operated under the banner of “Project Hope and Beyond”, a name Zarqa proudly gave to emphasize the esoteric nature of our work: a platform of hope and much more to come.
The hope is extended to everyone in the anticipation that this experience will embolden us to create such a space in the contours of our house or amongst ourselves virtually. As the cliché goes, “We rise by lifting others.”
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