Kashmir, Under Siege and Lockdown, Faces a Mental Health Crisis

Years of strife left a generation traumatized. India’s clampdown disrupted daily life. Now the battle against the coronavirus has further isolated and scarred a people with little access to help.

PAHOO, Kashmir — Sara Begum’s suffering began on Aug. 3, when masked policemen barged into her home, badly roughed up her son and whisked him away.

Ms. Begum’s son, Fayaz Ahmad Mir, 28, was one of thousands of civilians arrested or detained by order of the Indian government after it moved forcefully to cement its control over Kashmir, a largely Muslim region of about eight million people claimed by both India and Pakistan. The clampdown has disrupted daily life, with many people feeling besieged and afraid to leave their homes.

Since her son was arrested, Ms. Begum has become gaunt and unsteady, but she and her family say her worst afflictions have been mental and emotional. She now takes sertraline and lithium, both antidepressants. She tried twice to commit suicide, once by consuming rat poison and again by jumping into a river.

“When I close my eyes,” Ms. Begum said, “I see my son shouting, ‘Mother, I want to see you.’”

Eight months after India revoked Kashmir’s semiautonomous status and brought the region fully under its authority, doctors here say a state of hopelessness has morphed into a severe psychological crisis. Mental health workers say Kashmir is witnessing an alarming increase in instances of depression, anxiety and psychotic events.

Hard data is difficult to come by, but local medical professionals say they are seeing a rise in suicides and an increase in already disturbingly high rates of domestic abuse.

A nationwide lockdown that India imposed across the country in recent weeks to fight the coronavirus has worsened the problem, the medical professionals say. Police officers block roads with coils of glistening concertina wire. Any residents who step out of their homes, especially in Kashmir’s towns and cities, risk getting beaten up.

A roadblock in Srinagar last month.
A roadblock in Srinagar last month.

Doctors and researchers say the Kashmir Valley, tucked into the Himalayas, has few resources to cope. This area has been mired in conflict for decades, with its majority-Muslim population agitating for independence or at least more autonomy from India, which is majority Hindu and controls most of Kashmir. Pakistan controls a smaller slice.

Even before the events of recent months, decades of violence between Indian security forces and Kashmiri militants had taken a physical and mental toll on the region and its people. Nearly 1.8 million Kashmiris, or nearly half of all adults, have some form of mental disorder, Doctors Without Borders estimated after surveying 5,600 households in 2015. Nine of 10 have experienced conflict-related traumas. The figures are much higher than in India, according to other surveys.

A leading psychiatrist said he was overwhelmed. Dr. Majid Shafi, a government psychiatrist, said that last year he saw a hundred patients a week. Now he sees more than 500. Overall, Kashmir has fewer than 60 psychiatrists.


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