A little unwell and sleepy, I was lying in bed, about to drift off. It had been a long day. Before sleeping, I checked my phone a final time and saw: “Restrictions imposed in Kashmir, phones and internet to be snapped.”
Seeing what I saw coming out of the blue, the uncertainty consumed my sleep. What ensued was a long, chaotic and stressful night and by morning, there was no internet and no network. This wasn’t 2019, it wasn’t a year ago, not even a month– it was two weeks ago.
Living with the exposure curtailed, the learning curve blunted, the zest drained, an evolution dwindled – such is the life for adolescents living in conflict zones.
For more than a million adolescents living in Kashmir, the situation hasn’t been that different. The age of newfound freedom- marked by an irresistible urge to explore, driven by an innate yet inspired curiosity– teenage is an age like no other. We fall, we make mistakes, we learn, and we rise. It is a time in our lives full of zest and hope, one that overshadows all else.
But, for some, the freedom brought by teenage is the first casualty to circumstances that are in no way in their control.
The conflict in Kashmir has left people’s physical, psychological and emotional well-being compromised for decades now. 45% of the adult population here shows symptoms of significant mental distress, and due to prolonged conflict, the situation of the generation succeeding them, the adolescents, can’t be much different– being at home for so long in their years of growth, dwelling in the uncertainty of what could loom over their futures and simultaneously being the umpteenth generation witnessing a decades-long conflict.
The safety and the necessary predictability their lives once had, has disappeared and the effects have been far-reaching.
With 104 internet shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 alone and 25% of the student population being without a smartphone, online education has been ineffectual in the region. While students in the rest of India have been out of school as a result of the covid-induced lockdown last year, most students in Kashmir have not seen the face of a classroom for over two years now. The final time I attended school, properly, with all my friends and peers, was on the 4th of August, 2019.
Schools did reopen after winter breaks in March of 2020 but it just wasn’t the same– attendance was thinner and settling in after a long break was tough. While we were still busy familiarising ourselves once again, settling into old routines and barely ten days in, the pandemic struck us down and little did we know that that sunny Saturday at the end of summer would be the last time we’d be sharing those spaces with one another.
The halt in the education system severed students from more than just classrooms– studies show that periods without school are associated with decreased physical activity; increased screen time, irregular sleep patterns among others, in adolescents.
The pandemic and the August lockdown have led to thousands being out of educational institutes. Subsequent difficulties in staying in touch with friends have left many without safe spaces and being confined to homes for an extended period has led to personal spaces shrinking considerably.
Miss Mohitha Manoharan, a psychotherapist, says such an environment can become a cause of emotional distress. “In a country like India, where adults in a family hold a lot of power and, being forced to stay inside the family can lead to more friction, feelings of suffocation, being cut off from external support systems – all a lot of emotional stress for adolescents,” she explains. Support systems are extremely important to process stressors and their absence contributes to trauma heavily.
While living with such restrictions, finding distractions seemed like a good way to keep oneself busy and away from situations that weren’t in one’s control. Having something to look forward to was another step in the right direction.
The lockdown in August led me to my studies, not out of interest but as means of diversion when not much was comforting enough. Life became such that of all things, exams were what I had to look forward to– not ideal but decent enough. For some, hobbies helped, for others sports did and for a few, spending time with family did the trick.
But, given the dynamics of the situation, that itself sometimes became a burden too heavy. Zehrah*, a college student, concurred, saying, “It was tough because day-by-day, I was running out of things to do and ended up doing absolutely nothing, just sitting idle and over-thinking.”
For Numair*, 18, finding the motivation to participate and indulge in almost all activities has become troublesome. He said, “Lethargy and fatigue have been the only constants for me in this time. Social interactions became tiresome eventually.”
Forming routines in such a situation gives us a sense of control which helps us cope with larger feelings of uncertainty and things not being in our control. But given how volatile the situation is, it has become immensely harder.
“There have been quite a lot going on here in recent years and people like me have been left in a perpetual dilemma,” explains Numair*.
Uncertainty of this nature makes it difficult for one to form routines and when one does eventually settle in and such situations come and go, the apprehension of it happening again makes one question the point of doing so again. There’s every chance you’ll end up feeling just as helpless again and be made to start all over.
As a result of going through a prolonged phase of the uncertainty of this nature, one may end up with a strong fear of abandonment, feelings of unworthiness, addiction and a distrust of the world and relationships.
In years of development, the environment we grow in has a huge impact on how this development occurs.
Facing trauma at such an age is associated with higher rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety, antisocial behaviours and leaves one at greater risk for alcohol and substance use disorders as adults. The effects of this trauma are clear– adults living in the valley either witnessed or experienced an average of 7.7 traumatic events during their lifetime and 41% of them exhibit probable depression, 26% probable anxiety and 19% probable PTSD.
Studies reveal that among the general populace in Kashmir, isolation, aggression, praying and substance abuse are the most widely prevalent coping mechanisms. A restricted life and a depleted support system to help cope has made it this way.
Miss Manoharan says the kind of unhealthy coping mechanisms that can result from this is diverse. “People learn that relationships are unreliable, unsafe and disengage which has a long-term impact. They can also develop an excessive need for approval to feel worthy and safe. Addictions can develop,” she explains.
The only aspect out of these whose magnitude can be quantified has seen an unfortunate leap- Kashmir has witnessed a 1500% increase in substance abuse in the last three years. Due to the widely prevalent stigma around mental health, it has been difficult to seek help. There is one psychiatrist for every 94,000 persons in Kashmir– a dearth that has been exacerbating the situation.
While several programs have been conducted by organisations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) among others, their outreach hasn’t been enough to support the needs of a population this large.
The generation that is often seen as the future of the community has been hit hard by successive lockdowns and with few avenues to explore in such times, they have been left with little help. Due to restrictions and the absence of connectivity, their lives took a turn they weren’t prepared for– in a time of need, they were robbed of any hope to reach out for help from those they could turn to.
As a result, an entire generation’s outlook on life has changed drastically.
For people like Numair*August of 2019 has been a turning point. Their life changed without their will, leaving them helpless. When that passed, Covid hit. Lockdowns ensued in their lives again, though of a different nature the second time around and it hasn’t been the same since.
The absence of violence doesn’t necessarily translate into normalcy and it has been hard.
Times passed when patience ran thin and suffering seemed inescapable but things have been looking up. In all they have lost, the hope still resides somewhere within– the end feels nearer each day. While immediate effects have been apparent, Zehrah* and many others like her are left to wonder how this time manifests itself in their futures. That, only time will tell.
*Names changed to protect privacy of the individuals.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.