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Rafiqa Bano, with prevalent anxiety on the face, was among many, sitting in a disorganized queue outside the ward of Clinical Psychology department in Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), Srinagar, to meet one of the six psychologists—ever occupied.

Her inability to conceive a child—after three years of marriage—forced Ms. Bano, 37, into medication. When that didn’t work out, the resident of Handwara, north Kashmir, was asked to visit SMHS. Alongside her, Raja Bano, the mother, who stands with her during panic and anxiety attacks, fears for her getting divorced—soon.

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A 2015 study by Meds Sans Frontier (MSF), an NGO, reported that a populace of almost two million in Kashmir is suffering from significant symptoms of mental disorders. Every one person in five adults, that is 19 percent of the adult population, has significant symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Dr. Athiya Khan, a Post Graduate Psychiatrist, who received eighty patients in a week alone for psychiatric consultancy at SMHS hospital, firmly said, “Due to financial dependency, reluctance to talk, citing societal stigma, and other issues, women in villages are more prone to mental health issues.” 

Adultery has come ahead as a major issue, triggering worse conditions for women from rural areas. Khalida Jan, 30, a resident of Batpora, Shopian recently married to her second cousin. After a year of, what she calls, a happy marriage, she came to know about her husband’s extra-marital affair. Her resistance in coping up with the reality was replied with physical abuse at the hands of her husband. 

Checking her phone with every passing minute, sitting in District Hospital Pulwama’s park, Ms. Khalida said, “A psychiatrist at the hospital had me that I have an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).” As per her companion, and cousin, Bilkisa Jan, her behavior has changed drastically, which she notices in small things as, changing clothes three times a day.

A clinical psychology researcher, Dr. Nadiya Ishfaq Nahvi, at SMHS hospital explains that psychologists counsel numerous mental health matters, including depression, which could arise after sexual or physical abused. “One of the most usual reasons is domestic and mental violence.”

Ms. Jan’s cousin, compelled her to visit a doctor. “Her in-laws are taunting her for her illness,” said her cousin, Ms. Bilkisa. “They think she has gone mad.”

Talking about dealing with OCD, and similar matters, Dr. Nahvi said, “People around them should also understand that it’s a health problem, and that the patients need emotional support.”

Conflict | Women | Mental Trauma

Mental health in Kashmir is worsening over time. As per a 2016 report, Mental Health Illness in the Valley by Action Aid India, before armed insurgency made its way in Valley, merely 775 patients visited the only hospital offering psychiatric services in 1985, State Psychiatric Disease Hospital. While in contrast to it, as per the record, in 2015, around 1,30,000 patients visited the two state hospitals, the SMHS hospital and State Psychiatric Hospital, Srinagar.

During one of the clashes between protestors and government forces, one dispersed pellet found the eyes of Mymoona Akhtar’s son. 

The uncertainty of light entering her son’s eyes pushes Ms. Akhtar, 50, to the wall. Suffering from OCD, she is visiting Shifa Mental Health Clinic in Batamaloo. “Her son is getting operated in his eyes,” said Dr. Arif Magribi, a mental health specialist, and owner of the clinic. “She overthinks about it. Whether her son will be okay after surgery or will he lose his sight?”

Reviving dialogue around mental health

Like Ms. Bano, Madiha Bhat, 35, was pushed into depression, as she recalls, collectively by society for her inability to conceive a child. “Go, your father will heal you,” her in-laws had taunted her. Her husband, a businessman, divorced her and it only triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. She has been visiting Dr. Magribi’s clinic since.

However, the number of mental health clinics, especially government-backed, didn’t rise with the number of patients. Though, after being shut, the SMHS hospital is positive in starting a mental health clinic again. “It has many advantages, including the majority of female consultants,” explained a practicing scholar and a senior nursing psychiatrist, Shabnam Bashir, posted at SMHS, citing the role of gender in such issues. “Women are more comfortable talking to women.”

Discovering initiatives, recently, Dr. Magribi came up with an idea: Heal By Storytelling, in which women who visit the clinic, including Ms. Bhat, assemble in a hall, sit together in groups and express themselves. “That way they can empathize with the pain they go through,” said Dr. Magribi. “It is helpful as one hardly supports a woman with mental health matters.”

This article originally appeared in 1-7 July 2019 print issue of The Kashmir Walla.