The sound of knocking continues to haunt 31-year-old Adil Ahmad. Until last year, these knocks were from the Pashmina wool suppliers who would come to the shawl weaverâs house in downtown Srinagar to collect their dues. In 2008, when a client bought all his shawls and fled without paying a paisa, Ahmad was left with 26 lakh in debt and a bout of severe depression.
In a bid to battle depression, Ahmad attempted suicide seven times â by consuming sleeping pills and pesticide, and slitting the arteries on his left hand with a knife. He was sent to a mental health centre in Srinagar where he was given electroshocks to control the depression. âI used to hate myself. I just wanted to have a protracted sleep,â he says. âI never thought of my four sisters, parents, wife and two children. They had no meaning in my life.â
His father Lal Mohammad, 55, was forced to sell his property to clear the debt. But he is happy that his son is feeling better and is back on his loom, weaving shawls.
With violence in the Valley at its lowest ebb after 23 years of armed conflict, residents are losing lives to another malaise: suicides. âSuicide has become the second biggest cause of unnatural death in Kashmir,â reveals Dr Arshid Hussain, a consultant at the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital (GPDH) in Srinagar.
In 1989, Kashmir had the lowest suicide rate in the country at 0.5 deaths per 1 lakh population. In 2006, the NGO MĂŠdecins Sans FrontiĂ¨res, which conducted a study about mental health in the Kashmir Valley, concluded that the suicide rate in the region had risen 400 times.
According to researches at the GPDH, more than 15 percent of the regionâs population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorders, and one person in five suffers from chronic depression. Drug abuse, particularly addiction to sleeping tablets or opiates, has increased in recent years.
To add to their woes, there are only 40 psychiatrists working in a region with a population of nearly 7 million.
Ever since the armed conflict began, at least 17,000 people have attempted suicide in the troubled Valley. In 2011, more than 1,100 suicides were reported in the Valley; the number grew to 1,900 last year.
âKashmirâs population is scarred,â says Dr Mushtaq Marghoob, a mental health expert at the GPDH. âTwo generations of Kashmiris never saw a peaceful time. Itâs the underlying poverty, socio-economic issues, trauma of insecurity amid conflict, and dejection at every level that are the root cause for this suicidal tendency.â
The case of Shakeel Mir (name changed) is a prime example. Mir, a 23- year-old commerce graduate, comes from a well-off family, has brothers sending money back home from as far as Dubai and Europe, and has no pressure to contribute to the income. Yet, he is feeling suicidal.
âItâs his second visit to the hospital. He wants to end his life because he fears that he will not find suitable work after finishing his studies. He doesnât want to be dependent on his brothers,â says a doctor, adding that 20 percent of the patients he sees have suicidal tendencies.
But many like Hadia (name changed) never had a chance to explain their mental trauma to anyone. On 10 April, the 17-year-old consumed poison at her house in Baramulla. It was the ninth reported suicide in two weeks. But the actual rate, says a police officer on condition of anonymity, could be higher because of the social stigma attached to suicides in the Valley.
In the case of Akhter Banu (name changed) who allegedly attempted suicide on 20 April, the police believe that she consumed poison after receiving news that she had failed in two subjects in the first-year exams. But inside Srinagarâs Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, her father Mohammad Yousuf Mir, refuses to buy the explanation. Instead he alleges that she may have been force-fed by someone.