The people of Kashmir are going through a mental health crisis largely due to the long-standing political conflict between the Indian armed forces and militants in the Valley. According to the Kashmir Mental Health Survey conducted in 2015 by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), India, University of Kashmir and the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Srinagar, 1.8 million Kashmiris reported symptoms of mental distress. With over 415,000 Kashmiri civilians meeting the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive disorder as revealed by this survey, interventions aimed at improving mental health in the Valley must be understood as a major policy objective for all concerned.
Moreover, this mental health epidemic has also manifested in the surge of prescription drug use. While illicit drug consumption has often been linked to large-scale unemployment, administrative apathy and corruption in the Valley, the rise in the sale and purchase of benzodiazepines is particularly worrisome. This trend is partially indicative of the devastating implications of living in a conflict zone.
However, the stressors associated with the political and armed conflict in the Kashmir Valley, which includes Kashmir’s geographical relevance to destabilising relationship between India and Pakistan and the army’s presence in residential areas, are often beyond the realm of control of the average citizen. However, one can understand the effects of the conflict on Kashmiris by examining their sources of everyday stressors and how they cope with them.
A pilot study conducted in the months of September-October 2018 by the author as part of his post-graduate dissertation examined the coping responses of Kashmiri as well as non-Kashmiri students aged 18-25 in response to certain daily stressors. The quantitative study was conducted on 60 undergraduate students with thirty students each belonging to Kashmir and New Delhi.
The study also included interviews with 20 Kashmiri students. The questionnaire administered in this study was structured upon the COPE inventory which has long been used as a measure of coping styles in psychology research. The daily stressors measured included exam stress and stress pertaining to intimate relationships. These stressors have rarely been studied in the context of conflict-affected populations and its pursuit allows us to look at the mental health implications of conflict that go beyond its macro-consequences i.e. depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety symptoms.
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Over the course of interviews with the Kashmiri students, many reported the ‘lack of structure’ in the school curriculum and the uncertainty of attendance due to frequent hartals or strikes, as being a major source of mental distress. One of the interviewees recounted that “Out of 250 schooling days, at least 150 days were lost due to hartal. School life went like that only.” Thus, the conflict in Kashmir has made schooling sporadic and irregular. This irregularity drastically affected their healthy socialisation with peers. For instance, one interviewee spoke about how they spent most of their schooling days sitting at home and watching TV all day.
“We couldn’t go out because of the curfew. There were no tuitions at home either, so essentially we just became lazy by sitting at home.” Apart from irregular schooling, the interviews also cited the “collectivistic nature of Kashmiri society” as being stress-inducing. Collectivistic societies tend to emphasise group interests as superseding the choices, preferences and beliefs of the individual. Thus, the existence of tightly-knit communities in Kashmir — wherein information regarding one’s life is public knowledge — can be a major stressor for young adults.
The link between exposure to political conflict and a heightened sense of collectivism may not be intuitive, but most of the interviews with Kashmiri students seem to suggest that the aforementioned association is an important one. With the ongoing conflict and large-scale presence of security personnel in the Valley limiting avenues for young adults to socialise and attend school regularly, the family becomes the primary social system for people to engage with. Moreover, this heightened importance of family — partially attributed to the effects of the conflict — renders a sense of collectivism as a likely consequence, which also leads to forms of examination stress that are unique to Kashmiris. As one of the interviewees said, his family would stand outside the exam hall eager to know how he fared.
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Core coping strategies employed in Kashmir
Analyses of the responses helped the study isolate four core coping strategies out of the 13 laid out in the COPE inventory. These scales were: Turning to religion or Religiosity; Acceptance; Seeking social support; and Avoidance.
As can be seen in the pie chart below, the most commonly reported coping strategy by the Kashmiri students was that of ‘Turning to religion/Religiosity’ followed by the use of ‘Acceptance’. The belief in Allah/God assists in coping with distress in Kashmir.
The importance of religiosity was reflected in the interviews we conducted: “If you are connected to your Lord, you find peace in your heart. When I go through the Quran, I feel at peace. Pray to God and you will find your soul.” This excerpt from the interviews embodies the importance of understanding the adaptive use of religion in a society plagued by political conflict and violence. Along with the use of religion, the Kashmiri sample also frequently reported the use of ‘Acceptance’ to deal with daily stressors. ‘Acceptance’ as a coping mechanism could be understood as the tendency for individuals to assent to the reality of a stressful outcome without trying to actively change it. This popular pattern in dealing with stressors in the Valley emerged from an analysis of the responses.
A comparatively unpopular coping strategy reported by the Kashmiri sample was that of ‘Mental disengagement.’ This strategy could be understood as steps taken to divert attention from the stressor by engaging in activities that take one’s mind off the problem at hand. Examples of this could be watching a movie, daydreaming and so on. This strategy being infrequently reported by the Kashmiri sample further shows how the socio-religious context in Kashmir governs an individual’s relationship with stress.
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Possible explanations for findings obtained
The findings suggest that popular coping strategies of the Kashmiri students invoke an external locus of control. In Kashmir where hartals and curfews can curb individual freedoms and often dictate the dos and don’ts for a given person, coping strategies preferred also reflect the aforementioned lack of control by using strategies that ascribe agency over stress management to an external entity.
Conversely, the lack of mental disengagement strategies used by the Kashmiri students could be attributed to the comparative lack of facilities to disengage. Some of the facilities compromised in the Valley include the closure of cinema halls, absence of any ‘urban’ multi-engagement avenues such as malls and sporadic and irregular internet connectivity that can be revoked at a moment’s notice.
‘Negative peace’ which involves the mere evasion of physical violence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in the process of rehabilitating victims of political conflict. The governments in Srinagar and New Delhi must consider a concept of ‘peace’ transcending ‘negative peace’ while dwelling into the discourse surrounding peacebuilding strategies in the Valley. To look beyond the physical imprints of conflict and assess the effects of psychological trauma on victims is imperative. Moreover, investigations of this nature that examine stress management in conflict zones help design more effective mental health intervention programmes.
Thus, even if there is no short-term fix to the political complexities in Kashmir, mental wellbeing could still be improved by understanding the socio-cultural and socio-religious uniqueness of Kashmir emanating from such complexities. Integrating strategies around peacebuilding would contribute to the inclusion of mental wellbeing as a crucial caveat in the policy formulations around rehabilitation and the prospects of peace in the Valley.
The author is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Mumbai.
The research cited in this piece was jointly conducted by Prithvi Iyer and Nethra Palepu.
This article was first published on ORF.