With conflict in Jammu and Kashmir taking a toll on the people, British filmmaker, author and therapist Justine Hardy talks of her efforts to help the distressed people of the Valley.

Justine Hardy is a British journalist, filmmaker, yoga teacher and mental health therapist and the author of several books including three based in Kashmir. A few months ago, I read In the 'Valley of Mist', a documentary-style book that gives vignettes of her experiences and conversations over the 20 years she has been visiting Kashmir. I e-mailed Justine with a few questions and was intrigued to learn of her personal connection with Kashmir.

Over the next few months, we mailed each other on and off and I got round to reading her other books as well. Here's the gist of our conversation.

In In the Valley of Mist you wrote about the psychiatric wards in Kashmir.

Yes. Senior psychiatrists at The Government Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Mushtaq Margoob and Dr. Arshad Hussain who feature in the book, believe that up to 90 per cent of the Valley's population of around six million has been affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Most patients get about two minutes with a doctor or psychiatrist in a crowded, noisy and chaotic outpatients' department setting. During a three-hour clinic, a psychiatrist usually sees between 150 and 200 patients. They barely have time to look at a patient's earlier case notes, and only have time to change existing dosages or recommend a different medication.

The Government of India has a good budget to tackle mental health issues in the state and, with the input of various NGOs, this means that there are now more treatments available: counselling, occupational therapy, even music therapy, meditation and multi-behavioural therapy. But it's not easy to access these either due to the numbers of patients or because it's hard to get to Srinagar.

Tell us about your work there.

In November last year, I brought a team of mental health and alternative therapists from the U.K. I had connected with them through their work in Bosnia between 1992-5.

Of the 125 patients currently on the project, 86 have PSTD and the most common symptoms are a combination of extreme anxiety , palpitations, headaches, the inability to sleep, hallucinations, an over-riding and debilitating sense of hopelessness, and uncontrollable emotional outbursts of grief or violence.

Carefully-prescribed medication can help but medication that is wrongly prescribed or in too high a dose results in side-effects, some of which can be even more distressing than the original problem. Another difficulty is the paucity of clean drinking water. People on anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and other anxiety-reducing medications need to drink more water than most of us, and there's a low standard of drinking water in many parts of the Valley. Once a patient becomes dehydrated the side-effects of medication are exacerbated.

You wrote Goat in 2000?

Yes. It's the story of The Goat Company, which I set up while working up in Kashmir as a journalist covering the conflict. We buy pashminas from weavers in Kashmir and sell them to the ladies who lunch-set in London. The proceeds loop directly back to DRAG, an NGO in Delhi. Goat was a dry look at the journey of luxury goods from where they are made to those who buy them and yet have so little knowledge of their story.

In October 2005, there was an earthquake in Kashmir and on top of two decades of conflict, violence, harsh living conditions, it was brutal. I joined with local friends who had set up the Kashmir Welfare Trust building basic shelters, collecting blankets, and arranging to carry food and medical supplies to the higher areas of the Valley. We then began to rebuild homes and buildings that had been destroyed or damaged.

Wonder House tells of the insurgency and how it affected the lives of people at different levels of Kashmiri society.

I used to go to Kashmir with my mother as a child and we were there in the spring of 1989, during that last big tourist season, and the tension was ratcheting up. Hartals and bandhs had become part of the daily round, and though the houseboat-wallahs and salesman kept trying to pretend that the firing from the city was fireworks we knew that the military and paramilitary presence was increasing.

I returned 18 months later, a recently-qualified journalist, steeped in the cockiness of knowing Kashmir well and thinking that reporting on the insurgency would be a big step in my career. What I found in Srinagar was a city paralysed by fear. Most of the Pandits had left and the gap had left a gash in the fabric of society.

I wanted to bear witness to what was happening to the ordinary people who were trying to live through the violence. By the following summer there were no visitors, and the state had lost the entire income of the tourist industry.

There have been many times, over the past 20 years when the only lights on the lake have been those on the boat I am on. There are periods when things seem to be improving, and tourists start coming back, but then another crisis hits and shuts the Valley down again. The people of Kashmir are so tired. As a society they limp from crisis to crisis; from hartal to bandh. The future has to be rebuilt from the ground up as the political roadmaps just get written and rewritten, and little changes.

Dramatic results

Mohammed Shafi Pandit's wife and four young daughters were blown up in a Sumo three years ago. He has had psychotic suicidal episodes since then, ripping his clothes, pulling out his hair, screaming through the night until he collapses with exhaustion. After two weeks of cranio-sacral therapy, homeopathy and Reiki, he told us that his mood had changed completely, as though someone had opened a window and he could breathe again. He elected to come off medication.

Ameena's 19-year-old son was shot by militants four years ago. She was not allowed to see his body and her husband hid or burnt all photographs of the boy. Ameena had been on a high dose of anti-anxiety medication since her son's death. Her doctor at our project told her to find her son's picture. Ameena took the little picture out and wept, stroking the image of her son's face. After her third session of homeopathy, trauma counselling and Reiki therapy, Ameena said she felt a lightness that she could not remember having had for many years. She too elected to come off her medication.


View from the summitMay 5, 2010