Suhail Ahmad* was a good student who loved reading. However, all that changed seven months ago in April when the deadly second wave of Covid-19 hit India. As he stopped reading, lost his appetite, and struggled to eat a few bites of rice during meals, his family realized that it was time for them to seek help from mental health experts.
“The whole day, he would remain glued to the television, watching the news about coronavirus from around the world,” Ahmad’s father, who hails from Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, said.
The worried family took him to the Child Guidance and Wellbeing Centre (CGWC) at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar. IMHANS is the only institution in Kashmir with a multidisciplinary team of 16 professionals. It was established in December 2018 under UNICEF’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS).
His father drives 30 kilometres from their home to Srinagar for his son to meet with health experts every two weeks.
“Dr Sahab told me my son needs some medication for a few weeks. He has also been prescribed counselling sessions,” he said.
In addition to counselling and limiting the time he spends on the phone – they have been told to keep their children away from negative news, make positive discussions at home, and create a livable environment.
After a few weeks, the family says they have seen some improvement.
“I’m keeping him and my younger son engaged in various activities. We go for morning walks together, we play cricket on our lawn, and also take them to the homes of relatives,” he said.
Like Ahmad, there are hundreds of parents in Kashmir who are worried about the disturbance of their children’s mental health. Children, according to doctors, are most susceptible to anxiety and stress. As a result, despair, unhappiness, and helplessness levels have increased manifold.
For three decades, as Indian security forces and militants have fought each other – death, violence, and suffering has been written into the daily lives of people living in Kashmir. However, experts say recent political developments have taken a massive mental health toll on an already suffering population.
The Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to the political and social upheaval brought on by the Narendra Modi’s government’s sudden abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 2019, is a few instances. Most children have not returned to school since August 2019.
Although children across India have relied on online learning to bridge the gap, there are frequent internet disruptions in Kashmir. First, the internet was shut for months after August 5, 2019. Then services were limited to 2G. Now, authorities often shut the internet in parts of Kashmir, citing it as a “law and order problem.”
A 2021 study conducted by doctors at Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital (JLNM) hospital Srinagar titled `Severity of Depression, Anxiety, And Stress Among The People Of Kashmir, India During COVID-19.’ The study says they interviewed 293 people between 31 and 59 years through teleconsultation. “The majority of participants had severe anxiety (94.2%),” the study revealed.
For years, the stigma around mental health kept people from seeking help. But given how many people are afflicted and how pervasive the trauma in the conflict zone is, people started seeking help discreetly, and then more openly, from private psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists.
The CGWC at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences IMHANS has been a game-changer in the Kashmir Valley, home to eight million people.
The 16 member team comprises a child psychiatrist, four psychologists, an occupational therapist, three coordinators, a data entry operator, training coordinator besides remedial educator (female), speech therapist (female) and FMPHW (female).
The outdoor patient department (OPD) remains open on Mondays and Fridays. Each day 60-70 patients visit OPD, and the rest of days, 10-15 patients visit each for counselling or therapies, officials say.
Training Coordinator at CGWC Syed Mujtaba said that the CGWC is well equipped with an experienced multidisciplinary team that provides specialized services like counselling, therapies, legal assistance, pharmacological intervention, community intervention and other psycho-social support programs.
“Since 2018, more than 14000 children have been catered at the CWGC, and the treatment is provided free of cost,” Mujtaba said.
Mujtaba said that the CGWC’s broader functions are OPD services, psychological education, mass awareness, community outreach and capacity development programs of various stakeholders.
CGWC, in charge, Dr Zaid Wani, a psychiatrist, said that most children they see suffer from anxiety, sleeping and learning disorders, and difficulty in reading and writing. Dr Wani noted that three critical reasons for deteriorating mental health were:
“Covid affected everyone across the world. While there has been no schooling for the last two years and very few physical activities for children in Kashmir. They have become addicted to smartphones or social media, which are not good for children. Parents should keep their children away from such things except when there is a need, like in online classes,” Dr Wani said.
View this post on Instagram
Waseem Rashid Karoo, a Kashmir-based clinical psychologist, said that mental health issues have increased among children in Kashmir during Covid.
“In Kashmir, a lot of children are suffering from mental health issues. Increase or decrease in appetite, sleep, shifting of moods, losing of interest are all indications of stress,” he said while asking parents to keep children away from news about Covid-19.
Javid Ahmad Mir, who has done a post-graduation in Psychiatric Nursing and is a research scholar, said any disease significantly impacts mental health, especially on children. He said parents should allow limited use of social media by children.
The pediatric occupational therapist at CGWC, Mohammad Shaheen, said the multidisciplinary team treats children with learning disorders, academic disorders, behavioural disturbance, aggressiveness, screen addiction, breakups, etc.
“We give various therapies like psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, family therapy, speech therapy, use play, storytelling as a tool for treatment,” Shaheen said.
Like Ahmad*, Aabid Bhat,* 13 years old, from North Kashmir’s Baramulla, has been suffering from memory loss and anxiety since last year.
“He was so frustrated that he did not know whether it was Saturday or Sunday. He would wake up the whole night and cry. He became very aggressive and fought with family over small things. He had lost interest in studies,” Bhat’s father said.
In August, when he visited CGWC, he was told to have “positive discussions” with his son and keep him engaged in studies and physical activities.
“He was not prescribed any medicines. I have been following the advice of doctors and counsellors, which has brought good results so far and has aroused his interest in studies through counselling. I also bought canvas and paint for him,” he said.
Mohsin Ahmad*, a 14-year-old boy from Srinagar, has been fond of cricket and studies. However, the multiple lockdowns in Kashmir, first after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, then the Covid-19 pandemic, has taken a toll on his mental health.
He remained glued to the television the whole day, watching the latest happenings by coronavirus across the world.
“He remained very disturbed due to multiple lockdowns. Anxiety has caused him loss of appetite. He takes a few morsels of rice forcibly in the evening,” his father said.
Worrying over his son’s declining health, his family took him to a psychiatrist who prescribed him some medicines and asked him to go for counselling sessions in October this year.
“He misses the school environment. The doctor told me that staying away from school has taken a toll on the mental health of my children as daily face to face interaction with other students and teachers is important for a child to remain mentally fit,” he said.
His father is also keeping him engaged in various activities. “For the last few months, we have been going for morning walks together and also trying to keep him engaged in studies, especially with storybooks,” he added.
(Name of children have been changed at their parents’ request)
Mudassir Kuloo is an Independent journalist from Kashmir. His stories have been published in various national and international publications. He is also the recipient of G Santha Teacher Memorial Journalism Award 2021, and Laadi Media and Advertising Award 2021 for gender sensitivity.
He tweets @mudasirkuloo