New Internationalist

Suicides up in the Valley

Even though the guns have fallen silent, the memories that linger refuse to let those who have borne witness forget. After the deaths of 123 protesters at the hands of the Indian security forces since January 2010, the Kashmir Valley is now coping with another problem. It is no surprise that the suicide rate here is the highest in the world, but Kashmir is also the most militarized zone on earth. The United Nations has included Jammu and Kashmir on its list of the oldest unresolved disputes in the world.

In the last six months of violence, senior doctors at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), the Valley’s apex medical facility, say, there has been an increase in the number of cases of suicide, due to the violence that surrounds this mountain-locked region. This is despite restrictions on the movement of people during months of strict curfew and the social stigma attached to taking one’s own life.

Doctors in the Valley don’t doubt that more than two decades of warfare have left the locals depressed, fatigued, traumatized and broken. The rate of suicide has gone up 26-fold, from .5 per 100,000 before the insurgency to 13 per 100,000 now, says Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist from the state’s only Psychiatric Diseases Hospital.

Nearly 24,000 men and women, mostly young, have attempted suicide in the last 17 years in Kashmir. Of them about 3,000 have been successful. Shockingly, most of them were between the age of 16 and 25. The figures point to a psychological catastrophe in the conflict-ridden Kashmir Valley.

Medical Superintendent of SKIMS, Dr Syed Amin Tabish, says: ‘Our studies confirm that 65 per cent of the urban and rural population in the Valley suffer from depression. Anxiety, stress and depression are some of the factors that contribute to suicide. Suicide is also more prevalent in teenagers and youngsters, especially females.’

Being a conservative society, suicide is considered un-Islamic in the Valley, but that has not stood in the way of the soaring rates. Relatives resist getting psychiatric help to victims after attempted suicide, a doctor revealed.

Among the many reasons for suicide are depression, unemployment, broken relationships, failure in exams and marital disputes, according to doctors.

Speaking to Kashmir Dispatch, Dr Natasha Thakur from SKIMS opined: ‘Yes, there have been more cases coming in to us since the unrest began. In fact, I remember, a boy as young as eight or nine was brought into the emergency ward with this problem. He had tried to poison himself. This is happening because of the depression and the oppression that people are undergoing. To make matters worse, there’s no outlet for these feelings.’

Dr Thakur explained that there have been cases of hysteria in females, now more than ever before. ‘Most of those who attempt to kill themselves are in their teens and early twenties,’ she added. Dr Hussain says that two to three cases of suicide attempts a day are brought to his hospital. Police records revealed that there were 188 suicides in 2008 in Kashmir. In 2009, the number increased to 239.

Psychiatrist Dr Muzafar Khan feels that the increase could be due to several factors. He says that the ways of dealing with stress and distress that used to be available to teenagers and young adults have been blocked due to the curfew. ‘Patients used to tell us when they used to go to the college, and be around their friends, or play, it would help them cope with depression. But because of the curfew, there is no physical activity. There’s a direct link between depression and [lack of] physical activity.’ The patients, he continues, may become angry, abusive and frustrated at the prevailing situation and turn their aggression on others, and in cases of suicide, on themselves.

He observes that in Kashmir, people also visit shrines as a coping mechanism, but that has also stopped because of these circumstances.

‘Also, due to the increased proximity between the family members, there is friction and later, maladjustment. Those already under treatment for depression are relapsing due to the non-availability of medicines and the changes in our lives in the last three months.’

Dr Khan, who also runs a de-addiction centre, links the rate of suicide with the non-availability of contraband drugs and treatment to addicts.

With no resolution to the dispute in sight, even international human rights organizations and aid groups have been refused entry in the region. International aid group, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) suspended their services in the region due to the prevailing violence and restrictions in their movement. Doctors say that the rise in the intensity of violence and the prevalent curfew conditions have a direct corresponding impact on the mental wellbeing of Kashmir’s population. Unless there’s change in the environment, there’s not even a slim chance of the situation improving for the people. Unless there’s justice, peace will continue to elude the region.

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