Appalling Suicide Rate in Kashmir Valley

Even though the guns have fallen silent in the Kashmir Valley, the memories that linger refuse to let those who have borne witness forget. After the deaths of 123 protesters by the Indian security forces since January 2010, the Kashmir Valley is coping with another problem.

It is no surprise that the suicide rate here is the highest in the world, but Kashmir also tops as the most militarized zone on earth. The United Nations has also included Jammu and Kashmir in its list of the oldest, unresolved disputes of the world.

In the last six months of violence, senior doctors at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), the Valley's apex medical facility, say that there has been a marginal increase in the number of cases of suicide due to the violence that surrounds this mountain-locked region and despite restrictions on movement of patients due to months of strict curfew and the social stigma attached to it.

Doctors in the valley don't doubt that more than two decades of warfare have left the locals depressed, fatigued, traumatized and broken. The rate of suicide has gone up 26-fold, from 0.5 per 100,000 before the insurgency to 13 per 100,000 now, said Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist from the state's only Psychiatric Diseases Hospital.

Nearly 24,000 men and women, mostly young, have attempted suicide in the last 17 years in Kashmir. Of those, about 3,000 have been successful. Shockingly, most of them were between the age group of 16 and 25. The figures point to a psychological catastrophe in the conflict-ridden Kashmir Valley.

Despite these high numbers, the Medical Superintendent, SKIMS, Dr Syed Amin Tabish, said that there has been a "marginal increases in the number of patients" who are being wheeled into his hospital as cases of "attempted suicide" by poison. "Yes, our studies confirm that 65 percent of the urban and rural population in the Valley suffer from depression. Anxiety, stress and depression are some of the factors that contribute to suicide. Suicide is also more prevalent in teenagers and youngsters, especially females."

Being a conservative society, suicide is considered un-Islamic in the Valley, but that has not stood in the way of the soaring rates. Relatives resist getting psychiatric help to victims after attempted suicide, a doctor revealed.

Some reasons for suicide, doctors stated, are depression, unemployment, broken relationships, failure in exams and marital disputes.

Speaking to Kashmir Dispatch, Dr Natasha Thakur from SKIMS said, "Yes, there have been more cases coming in to us since the unrest began. In fact, I remember, a boy as young as eight or nine was brought into the emergency ward with this problem. He had tried to poison himself. This is happening because of the depression and the oppression that people are undergoing. To make matters worse, there's no outlet for these feelings."

Dr Thakur explained that there have been cases of hysteria in females, now more than ever before. "Most of those who attempt to kill themselves are in their teens and early twenties," she added.

Dr Hussain said, "There have been two to three cases of attempts a day at SMHS Hospital."

Police records revealed that there were 188 deaths in 2008 in Kashmir. In 2009, the number increased to 239.

Psychiatrist Dr Muzafar Khan feels that the increase could be due to several factors. He said that the channels of distress that were available to the teenagers and young adults have been blocked due to the curfew. "Patients used to tell us when they used to go to the college, and be around their friends, or play it would help them cope with depression. But because of the curfew, there is no physical activity. There's a direct link between depression and physical activity."

Dr Khan says the patients in other cases could become angry, abusive and frustrated at the prevailing situation and turn their aggression on others, and in cases of suicide, on themselves.

He observed that in Kashmir, people visit shrines as a coping mechanism, but that has also stopped because of these circumstances.

"Also due to the increased proximity between the family members, there is friction and later, maladjustment. Those already under treatment for depression are relapsing due to non-availability of medicines and the changes in our lives in the last three months."

Dr Khan, who also runs a de-addiction centre links the rate of suicide with the non-availability of contraband drugs and treatment to addicts.

As the resolution of the dispute is a far cry, even international human rights organisations and aid groups have been refused entry in the region. Even international aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) suspended their services in the region due to the prevailing violence and restrictions in their movement. Doctors say that rise in the intensity of violence and the prevalent curfew conditions have a direct corresponding impact on the mental well being of Kashmir's population. Unless there's change in the environment, there's not even a slim chance of the situation improving for the people. Unless there's justice, peace will continue to elude the region.

This article originally appeared in the Kashmir Dispatch in November 2010.