New initiative for families of COVID-19 victims battling mental distress in Kashmir valley

Doctors hope ‘Kath Bath’ programme will help families cope better

March 23, 2022 05:44 pm | Updated 07:16 pm IST - SRINAGAR

A staff member checks the temperature of a student as schools reopened in Ompora Budgam district, Kashmir on March 2, 2022.

A staff member checks the temperature of a student as schools reopened in Ompora Budgam district, Kashmir on March 2, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

While COVID-19 infections have fallen in Kashmir, the pandemic has left scores of families in the grip of mental health issues in the valley, which has “45% of adult population, around 1.8 million, suffering from some form of mental distress” after three decades of conflict according to a 2020 study titled ‘Mental Health in Kashmir: Conflict to COVID-19’.

In response, the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Srinagar (IMHANS), is launching from Thursday an initiative called “Kath Bath” (a conversation) aimed at offering “psycho-social help” to families that have suffered COVID-related deaths.

The initiative has been necessitated by cases like that of Nazima Jan (name changed), a working woman from Srinagar’s Hawal area. Ms. Jan contracted COVID-19 at her workplace during the second wave in 2021. By the time she tested positive for the virus, her father-in-law and mother-in-law were also affected. She survived but both her parents-in-law died. 

“She has been through the phases of grief but thereafter developed a sense of guilt. She blames herself for the deaths in the family and finds it hard to battle out the sense of guilt. She has been on psychiatric treatment,” Arshad Hussain, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Srinagar (GMCS) told  The Hindu.  

In another instance, a joint family of around eight members from Srinagar’s Safa Kadal area required psychological help to come to terms with their loss. The family lost its venerable elder to COVID-19 in the first wave in 2020. “The Safa Kadal family is facing a sense of unresolved grief. The family members think the well-respected family head, who lost his life, did not get a dignified funeral, given his stature in the family and in society. We have already started counselling for the family members,” Dr. Hussian said.

There have been 4,750 COVID-19 deaths in Jammu & Kashmir so far, with 2,423 deaths in the Kashmir division and 2,327 in the Jammu division. Jammu district witnessed the highest number of deaths (1,223) followed by Srinagar (907 deaths).

“We have a list of all COVID-related deaths, which are registered, but we have designed this as a voluntary programme [Kath Bath’] so that people will avail the service without shame or stigma. This programme will help us explore the hidden morbidity of mental health in high-risk populations and help us mitigate suffering,” Samia Rashid, Principal GMCS, said.

Doctors in Kashmir worry that the cases trickling into hospitals might be “the tip of the iceberg”. “We saw a case where the family head lost his wife and developed dementia post COVID,” Dr. Hussian said.

He said the ‘Kath Bath’ initiative will help psychiatrists also understand any interplay between conflict-inflicted trauma and the aftermath of COVID-19 in Kashmir. “We presume the coping mechanism among the people in Kashmir is on a higher side. However, it remains to be seen how COVID and conflict might have [together] impacted mental health. The ‘Kath Bath’ will allow us to peep into society, too,” he said.

“There is a high prevalence of depression (41%), anxiety (26%), post-traumatic stress disorder (19%), and 47% had experienced some sort of trauma,” the 2020 study said.

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