By Aamina Hamid
The turmoil in Kashmir has had a profound and long-lasting impact on the youth of the region. Those who have grown up in the shadow of it have been exposed to violence, displacement, and uncertainty from a young age. This has led to high rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The turmoil has also limited employment opportunities and led to social isolation. As a result, many young people have turned to substance abuse as a way to cope with their pain. However, there are also some positive coping mechanisms emerging, such as art and music.
One study found that 60% of young women in Kashmir have experienced anxiety or depression, and 40% have had thoughts of suicide. The study also found that young women who have experienced violence or displacement are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. Another study found that the prevalence of depression is 55.72% among the youth of Kashmir. The prevalence is highest (66.67%) in the 15 to 25 years age group followed by 65.33 % in the 26 to 35 years age group. Females have an overall prevalence of 60 per cent while males have 51.34 per cent. The turmoil has also had a negative impact on the education of young people in Kashmir. Schools have been closed for long periods of time due to it, and many young people have been forced to drop out of school. This has made it difficult for them to find jobs and build a better future for themselves.
In my opinion, the youth of Kashmir who are trying to look for an escape from substance abuse as a (an unhealthy) coping mechanism should be directed towards seeing poetry, especially escapist poetry as an ideal alternative. Alice Osborn argues that poetry is important for its ability to help us understand and appreciate the world around us. She writes that poetry “bares open the vulnerabilities of human beings” by revealing their thoughts and feelings in a way that is both honest and beautiful. This can help us to connect with each other on a deeper level, as we realize that we are not alone in our experiences. Emily Warn agrees, stating that poetry “binds solitudes” by creating a sense of community among readers. When we read a poem, we are not only connecting with the poet but also with all of the other readers who have ever read that poem. This can help us to feel less alone and more connected to the world around us. Daisy Fried says that great poetry “reinforces and deepens our humanity” by helping us to see the world through the eyes of others. When we read a poem, we are invited to step into the poet’s shoes and experience the world from their perspective. This can help us to develop empathy and understanding for others.
The best form of poetry or literature in general suited for this purpose is escapist literature. Abbigail Mazour, in her research paper “The Reality of Escape in Fantasy” (2018) writes that escapist literature is fiction that provides a psychological escape from the everyday world. This type of literature can be helpful for people who are struggling with pain and suffering as it can provide a temporary reprieve from the challenges of life. It can allow us to forget our troubles and immerse ourselves in a different world. This can be a helpful and healthy way to cope with stress and anxiety.
Escapist literature can also provide us with new perspectives on the world. When we read about characters who are facing different challenges than our own, it can help us to see our own problems in a new light. This can be helpful in developing coping mechanisms and finding solutions to our problems.
Back home, an Associate Professor of English and Principal of GDC, Kashmir, Gazala Gayas says, “Escapist poetry has helped poets to leave the conflict-oriented society and seek solutions to conflict through subconscious mindscaping. People try to leave the stage and enter a world of peace and love through poetry. This genre of poetry has helped the young generation to become more strong and positive. As a poet, I always felt a sense of security and peace when I leave the conflict-oriented world and enter into the world of peace and love through my art of poetry. It helped us to build a strong psyche where love and peace is the ultimate goal. This is not possible in the contemporary world of conflict and hate. What Keats calls negative capability. I believe that confessional and personal poetry is the ultimate connection between self and subconscious.”
To augment this argument, I had a conversation with a few Kashmiri youths who expressed their views on how poetry has been helpful for them like an anchor in a storm. They find comfort in escapist poetry, which provides a temporary escape from the harsh realities of their surroundings.
Youhana Yasoob, an ardent reader of poetry, says that it can help people relate to each other’s experiences and feel less alone. He says, “When I read poetry by other Kashmiris, I feel like I’m not alone in my experiences. I know that other people have felt the same things that I’ve felt, and that makes me feel less isolated.”
Sehrish Shafi Lone, an English Literature student, agrees, saying that literature can be a source of solace and connection for people from conflicted areas. She says, “When you’re living in a place where there’s so much conflict and violence, it can be really isolating. But literature can help you to connect with other people who are going through the same thing. It can make you feel less alone and more understood.”
Zahir Wani, a writer himself, says that escapist poetry can be a lifeline for people in Kashmir, providing a sense of hope and normalcy. He says, “When the world around you is constantly in chaos, it can be hard to find hope. But escapist poetry can offer a glimpse of a better world, a world where things are peaceful and calm. It can give you the strength to keep going.”
Zohra Kanth, another English literature student, says that reading escapist poetry can help her to hope for a better future. She says, “When I read poetry about a better world, it makes me want to work towards making that world a reality. It gives me hope that things can change.”
The views mentioned above are substantiated by experts of Psychology and also by some forerunners of mental health improvement research studies. For example, in her article ‘The Poetry of Grief: Beyond Scientific Portrayal,’ Margaret Stroebe, a researcher from Department of Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology, University of Groningen, highlights the unique role poets play in enhancing our understanding of the emotions that arise after losing a loved one. Through their expressive depictions, poets make these feelings more relatable and intimate. Stroebe emphasizes that poets not only articulate grief effectively but also emphasize the impact of putting feelings into words. She suggests that poetic expressions offer metaphors to help us process ongoing attachments and incorporate loss into our lives.
David Hansen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi, in their work titled ‘A Look Back and a Path Forward: Poetry’s Healing Power during the Pandemic,’ discuss how poetry has proven effective in helping individuals manage pain and cope with stressors. Previous studies and reviews indicate poetry’s positive influence on patients, aiding pain management, stress coping, and personal well-being (Lepore and Smyth 2002). Poetry also equips patients with additional strategies for handling unexpected or stress-inducing situations. Earlier research has shown that engaging in reading and composing poetry briefly enhances working memory, potentially empowering individuals to proactively navigate stressful scenarios. Expressive writing, commonly found in poetry, has been associated with reduced physiological stress markers, such as muscle tension, perspiration levels, blood pressure, and heart rate (Smyth et al. 1999). This form of writing encourages introspection, allowing patients to reflect on their lives and accept their circumstances with composure and tranquility.
Quoting Heimes, “Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life.” According to Wassiliwizky, poetry wields emotional power, reminding us that we’re not alone. Amid collective voices, we find resonance and connection. Reading poetry can provide solace and great hope to us, as it reaffirms our place in the world and, in those moments when we come across a poem or certain lines that strongly resonate with us, it is as if we are jolted with electricity at the sheer joy of knowing we can share a bond with someone who we may have never met.”
Back home again, Consultant Clinical Psychologist Wasim Rashid Kakroo states, “Escapist, confessional, and relatable literature or poetry can play a significant role in supporting youth in conflict-impacted zones like Kashmir. Escapist literature provides a temporary escape from harsh realities, allowing young individuals to experience relief from stress and emotional burdens. Relatable literature or poetry, especially if it reflects their own experiences, creates a connection and validation of their feelings. This can promote a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation. Through literature, youth can explore various perspectives, build empathy, and better understand their emotions. Instances from conflict zones like Bosnia or Syria have shown that literature and art provide an outlet for expressing emotions, reducing psychological distress, and enhancing coping mechanisms. Creative expression can empower youth by giving them a voice and a way to reclaim some control over their lives.”
Masood Maqbool, Lecturer of Clinical Psychology at IMHANS, Kashmir, adds, “Escapist literature can act as a good distraction with which sometimes a person can identify and can help develop new interests while coping with issues. This healthy distraction can be a good coping mechanism for Kashmiri youth in conflict in place of the unfortunately prevalent substance abuse being used as an escape.”
In a conversation with Dr. Yasir Hassan Rather, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at IMHANS, GMC Srinagar, he opined, “Escapist, confessional or relatable literature and poetry can be incredibly helpful for youth in conflict-impacted zones such as Kashmir. These works can provide an emotional and creative outlet to help youth process their experiences and make sense of the world around them. Studies have shown that literature and poetry can help foster empathy and understanding, and can even have a positive impact on youths’ mental health. In Kashmir specifically, several projects have used literature to help bolster social cohesion and encourage youth to engage in dialogue and creative expression. For example, the Poetry and Conflict Initiative (PACI) uses poetry workshops to bring together youth from different backgrounds and empower them to use their voices constructively. Other organisations, such as the Himalayan Writers’ Guild, use literature to help youth in conflict zones express their feelings and experiences as well as to help them better understand and appreciate the experiences of others.”
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