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Kashmir Beyond Cliches II: Never Seen People So Traumatised, Says Top Kashmir Psychiatrist

Dr Arshad Hussain, a leading psychiatrist and associate professor with 17 years of practice in the Valley, says this is the most traumatic period in Kashmir in at least the last two decades.

Suhas Munshi |

Updated:September 14, 2017, 2:41 PM IST
Kashmir Beyond Cliches II: Never Seen People So Traumatised, Says Top Kashmir Psychiatrist
File photo of paramilitary soldiers standing guard as Kashmiri children look on in Srinagar. (Waseem Andrabi via Getty Images)
Srinagar: For the last one year there has been a steady supply of violent photos and videos from Kashmir. Faces disfigured by pellets, eyesight lost to street violence, bodies torn apart at encounter sites.

Owing to graphic nature of violence, the viewer is often warned to exercise their discretion. But this choice is not available to the people witnessing this violence unfold firsthand. And it’s beginning to take a severe mental toll on Kashmiris now.

Dr Arshad Hussain, a leading psychiatrist and associate professor, psychiatry at Government Medical College, Srinagar, with 17 years of practice in the Valley is an expert on the subject. In this interview, the word that he used most was ‘fear’.

“And I haven’t seen such scared people in my practice of 17 years,” Dr Hussain says at one point.

In the patients that he’s getting, from the current, and more than a year long, spell of violence, he’s seeing intense fear of the sort he has not seen in his professional career.

According to him, this is the most traumatic period in Kashmir in at least the last two decades.

And the most invisible lot in this conflict — the children — are growing up looking at dead bodies, and a suffering from acute traumas.

In an interview with News18, Dr Hussain says for what we’re doing to the youngsters, there will be nobody to blame but us. Edited excerpts:

In the 17 years that you’ve practised here, Kashmir has suffered several spells of violence. Through the patients you’ve been treating all this while, how do you see these years? What has changed all this while?
I started practising on May 1, 2001. There were maybe four, five of us then and only one among us had actual field exposure. When I started out, we were still getting patients of the 90s.

It had taken people years to understand what was happening to them. Till then, they were going to neurologists, physicians etc.

It was in early 2000s that people started becoming aware that what they were suffering from were called psychiatric issues. And then there was this flood of patients. All from the ’90s.

And then there was this phase from 2005 to 2009 when there were really very few number of new cases. Most of the patients we were getting were still from the ’90s.

Then post ’08 we again started seeing new patients, particularly, mothers of people who died in combat. It was a period when the number of patients with mental health issues kept rising but now more psychiatrists were available.

Then in 2010 we again started getting new patients. Most of the patients we received were coping and resilient. These patients had something to help them cope with their mental issues that the newer patients lack. And we’re finding this absence of a ‘resilient mechanism’ more frequently in patients from South Kashmir.

Something strange is happening there.

What’s that?
If indications of what I’m now seeing are correct, I think we are in for a huge mental health disaster. We never used to see mental health patients so frequently. Fear is so intense in south Kashmir… it is trickling down. This did not happen before. Especially, in south Kashmir. Fear is very palpable there. Fear probably is creating havoc with mental health. Intense fear. That’s the difference I’m seeing in the new patients I’m getting. And I haven’t seen such scared people in my practice of 17 years. We recently completed a study in which we found that 90 per cent of Kashmiris have suffered a traumatic life event. I really hope that we don’t witness a repeat of ’90s.

How’s the situation of 90s different from what’s happening today?
A lot has changed since the 90s. We as a culture have moved on. Earlier, we had a belief system, which was part of our culture. It was a religion of the sorts that you don’t find anywhere else. A very spiritual and personal relationship with god. And there was no exhibition of that relationship. A very soothing kind of relationship.
You didn’t have these short pajamas of the sorts that you find now, at that time. Superficially, you might see that Kashmir is becoming more religious, but I tell that god is not living in the most important place. He might be living in the flowing beards or in the short pajamas, but he’s not living here (he points to the heart).
The centrality of our coping mechanism was that. The people who coped did so through those means.

Often, in this conflict that simmers quietly when we are not watching and blows up in our face every once in a while, we tend to forget the young children. In this conflict, where only adults seem involved, the story of what’s happening to our kids doesn’t get talked about. Could you tell us a bit about it?
There is also a huge rise in the number of children who’re witnessing violence, who’re witnessing dead bodies. Think of the restrictions that are placed on what children can see and hear on television. Because watching scenes of violence isn’t good for our children. Then imagine what children in Kashmir are going through day after day. Seeing dead bodies, hearing gunfire and explosions. And imagine how drastically it is affecting their young minds.

If you study about it a bit, you’ll understand that the societies that are traumatised become tormentors in their turn and this cycle keeps going on. And I think we as humans have this responsibility of stopping this perpetual cycle.

If you read biographies of people who’ve left deep impressions on our societies — Ram, Jesus, Prophet or Gandhi — you will find that these people had traumatic childhoods. But that worked the other way round for them.

But you have so many examples of reverse happening also. And I’m really fearful about that. What’s happening to our children right now will affect the kind of future that we have. And all of us will be collectively responsible for that.

Could you talk about any of your young patients whom you’ve recently begun treating?
Last Sunday, I saw this case. There was this child from one of the Shopian villages. Studies in Class 6, is about 10 years old. He has not been able to sleep for a month. In their village, there was an encounter a month ago. This boy lived about 1 km away from the encounter site. Very far away. But the intense fear that percolated in him at that time, listening to those explosions and witnessing fear in other people’s eyes, refuses to leave him. Intense nightmares, of different sorts, are not letting him sleep at all. And the worse bit is that I don’t know how many other kids are suffering from trauma like this.

How will his treatment go? How much will you be able to help him?
We will be able to help him with therapies and treatment. To begin with, we will be able to restore his sleep. I might be able to prevent him from getting into a depression but, will I be able to erase these traumatic memories from him? Never ever. He will live with them. He might not develop with a severe medical problem. But he will live with these memories. And that’s what my worry is. It should not be permissible to traumatise our children, to dehumanise other human beings. But that is what’s happening here.

Do you think that the last year, which has seen regular encounters, cordon and search operations, curfews, internet bans, arrests, pellet guns and hundreds and hundreds of deaths, has been perhaps the most traumatising time in Kashmir’s history?
I think the trauma faced by the people in Kashmir in last one year is equivalent to the most traumatising periods in Kashmir – the 90s or 1800s when half of Kashmir was wiped off by Cholera.

If we were to talk only about the last two decades...
Then, yes. This has been the most traumatic period. Definitely. One trip down South Kashmir and you know it’s true.

(Part 2 of 12-part #KashmirBeyondCliches series)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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