On the chilly night of 13 January at around 10 PM, 17-year-old Aijaz* complained of chest pain. His family immediately took him to the Sheri-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences hospital but doctors pronounced the handsome teenager from Srinagar’s Lal Bazar pronounced dead on arrival.
Consequently, social media was flooded with his pictures and netizens’ wishing peace to his departed soul. He was presumed to be yet another victim of a heart attack — a phenomenon that has spiked among young Kashmiris in recent months.
Some, however, blamed his drug addiction and a possible overdose of heroin as a possible reason for the death. “He had lost his mother a couple of years ago and had taken drugs after that,” said Ali Zaffar, 19, his neighbor. Aijaz could have been saved, said Zaffar, had the family acted on time and supported him through his struggle with drug addiction. “As soon as his family got to know about the addiction they were not supportive, instead they treated him like a criminal.” According to doctors at the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, 15 percent of the total individuals who arrived at the hospital to address their addiction in 2016 were addicted to heroin but the proportion has increased exponentially in 2020 —90 percent reported addiction to heroin.
Simultaneously, the number of patients has also increased. According to a report by an international publication, 489 individuals with drug addiction had visited the out-patient department in 2016 while the number was 1,095 in just three months of 2019.
During the August clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir — as New Delhi abrogated the region’s limited-autonomy — there was no let-up in the number of patients arriving at the drug de-addiction centres in Srinagar. In a worrisome development, the abuse of heroin has seen a surge in Kashmir. According to Arif Maghribi Khan, a community psychiatrist who helps individuals cope with drug addiction, the opioid drug “slows your heart rate and breathing. If you overdose, anybody will stop breathing and die.”
Even if the individual with drug addiction survives, the drug leaves long-lasting effects on the body. “Infections of heart lining and valves, skin infections like abscesses and cellulitis. A higher chance of getting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C Liver and kidney disease Mental disorders. If somebody takes it once he gets addicted for life, which is short-lived.”
Khan further said that families have a role to play along with Imams of the masjid. “The best option is Imams on Friday giving awareness on drug abuse, as heroin abuse is like slow suicide — and suicide is forbidden in Islam….School, college-level awareness is also a must.”
Individuals with drug addiction need to be treated well and their addiction must be seen as a disease, said Khan. “These drug abusers need unconditional love from their family,” he said. “If you don’t treat them well, they get agitated and which leads to further abuse.”
Mohammad Imtiyaz is among the few who found support from their family as they deal with drug addiction. “I abused every drug that is there,” said the 26-year-old, who has stayed away from drugs for the past seven years and counting. “If for not my family and cousin, I would have died like so many here die.”
While it was not clear whether Aijaz had actually died of a heart attack unrelated to his heroin addiction, the fact that many individuals with drug addiction are extremely vulnerable to heart attacks should be a cause of concern — and something for families to be aware of.
Imtiyaz’s struggle was not easy either. He relapsed twice but his family did not give up on him. “I was put in two rehabilitation centres in Delhi, although it was hell, it is due to that hell that I am alive today,” he said. Apart from families, there needs to be an understanding of the society that the drug addicts are actually sick and need care not abuse.
According to the American Drug Addiction centre, “Addiction is not a choice that an individual can control; it is a compulsion, so they are unable to stop consuming drugs or alcohol without help. The risk/reward center of their brain has been rewired with repeated reinforcement of these cravings.
Blaming them or trying to protect them from consequences will not help a person struggling with addiction; this is because neither the person nor their loved ones, has control.” The support group further maintains that loved ones hold a great deal of influence on the lives of persons struggling with addiction. Gathering a group of loved ones together to stage an intervention – as long as it is thoroughly planned and focused on helping the addict – can be a way to show love and support while also setting boundaries around addictive behaviors.
The Doctors Association of Kashmir (DAK) recently expressed serious concern over the rising deaths due to sudden heart attacks in Kashmir. In a statement, Fayaz Bhat, a noted physician and a spokesperson of the association said: “Lately we are witnessing many such deaths especially since past few months in which more than 50 people have lost their lives. The majority of these types of deaths have occurred in the young and many have died on the way and could not even reach the hospital.”
The doctor’s body also blamed rising drug addiction behind sudden deaths due to cardiac arrests. “Rising drug addiction of substances like heroin, amphetamines, and marijuana among our youth is one the important contributing factor for young heart attacks and sudden deaths,” Bhat said.