Conflict takes a heavy toll on mental health of kids in Kashmir. Experts warn of dangerous long-term consequences
The playground of Shah-I-Hamdam Leaders School, Siligam, Anantnag fills with laughter and giggles every day for thirty minutes of recess time. The playground also fills with stories symbolic of complex child psyche. One such story is of Fusain who shouts “Hum kya chahte? Azaadi!” with his hands holding an imaginary Kalashnikov up in the air. He and his friends enact different scenes of encounters every day in school’s playground.
The psyche of Kashmiri children is being affected by the long-standing conflict in Kashmir. The exposure to the hostile environment has made them resort to toy Kalashnikovs and fake grenades. They show symptoms of extreme paranoia, intermittent explosive disorder (extremely volatile aggression) and even depression. Irregular class work, frequent internet outages and shutdowns deprive them of a normal and healthy childhood.
Growing up in a conflict is different. A child as young as 5-8 year old sounds more like a teenager or an adult who keenly wants Azaadi. “Why are we not being given Azaadi? What is the government doing in Delhi? We will continue our fight for Azaadi!” says Fusain who likes to play the role of mujahid (militant) in the encounter role-play.
According to Mallika Narang, a Delhi based Psychologist; childhood is the most crucial time for the development of a healthy mind. The young developing minds also need a good and suitable environment for the same.
“An environment full of violence/conflict leads to a sense of mistrust and lack of faith in the system, all of which can be seen in the narratives. Such an environment can also lead to resorting to violence as the only way to resolve conflicts,” she says.
She believes that Kashmiri children, who are brought up in a conflict-ridden environment, have higher chances of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, phobia and issues pertaining to aggression.
“Children brought up in such an environment is only resulting in a generation which is developing a conflict within, leading to a more difficult personal journey ahead,” she concludes.
According to research conducted by noted Kashmiri psychiatrist, Dr. Arshad Hussain, the prevalence of PTSD in the valley is higher than expected.
“The mind becomes vulnerable to mental health issues when it gets exposed to traumatic events. From a young child to an elderly person, one can see the signs of high levels of stress in them. At this age when children are expected to enjoy stress-free lives they are seen role-playing with guns, enacting dead bodies, discussing blood and revenge,” he says.
The children in Kashmir have also developed a fascination of going to the funeral processions. The chaotic and mournful ambience of processions leaves lasting impact on their fragile minds.
“I go to funeral processions to pay homage to the martyrs. I feel sad and inspired at the same time,” says an 8-year-old Ubaid.
According to Purwai Pravah, a Chennai based psychologist, “Young children in Kashmir are exposed to a variety of environmental variables that place them at risk of anti-social behaviour.”
Regression analyses has revealed that witnessing violence and victimisation prior to age 10 predicted delinquency and violent behaviours.
“Exposure of violence to children has been associated with the development of conduct problems in children,” says Purwai Pravah.
Conflict has resulted in many structural constraints and has created many barriers that shape the access of people to employment, livelihood and essential services, thereby, affecting people directly as well as indirectly.
The survey conducted in 2015 by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers) found out that 45 percent of the adult population i.e. nearly 1.8 million adults in the Kashmir valley show symptoms of significant mental distress. The seeds of mental distress are sown in the childhood itself.
In Dr. Arshid Hussain’s opinion, in order to create a society free from mental illnesses, the government should at least take some measures and set up counselling centres in schools which will help in monitoring the psychological state of children from the effects of political unrest in the valley.
“These counselling centres would help children to channelize their exposure of violence into a relatively healthy mechanism,” he concludes.