It was a windy but warm September morning, and crowds were gathered outside the outpatient department (OPD) of the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, Kashmir. Navigating past the lengthy queues, this writer entered the government-established drug rehabilitation centre. There were long lines of young men clutching prescriptions, awaiting their weekly medications. They were all patients grappling with drug addiction, primarily intravenous heroin use.
Going past the corridor and up a flight of stairs, this writer met a young woman, Naushiba Jan. Both her arms had mottled marks, bruises, and swollen veins, pointing to heroin addiction. Twenty-two-year-old Jan’s story began in February 2021 when she met a boy and friendship bloomed into romance. Everything seemed perfect for the next 10 months. A small argument happened between the two and the boy stopped picking up her calls or responding to her messages. “I was restless and kept chasing him continuously,” said Jan. “But the world that I had built collapsed in an instant when I learned that he is seeing someone else.”
For days, she wandered aimlessly in her neighbourhood, concocting reasons to avoid returning home to her mother. One day when she left her home, she met a friend. “After I explained what had happened, she handed me a small paper and in it something was rolled, this was the first time I had seen a white-coloured, powder-like substance. She helped me to consume it, I instantly felt relieved but my head started to spin,” Jan said. “I somehow managed to reach home and directly went to my room, and when I woke up, I realised it was next morning.”
Hailing from a village in Budgam district around 15 km from Srinagar, Jan used heroine for about two years. She was at the hospital with her mother, who learnt about her addiction just weeks before. “I am an illiterate person, it took me so many days to understand what was going on with her as I realised that she had exhausted all the resources, including her gold rings, chain, and mobile phone to buy the drug,” her mother said. “I noticed she was struggling, but the specifics eluded me,” she said, her face veiled with a headscarf.
Spreading drug epidemic
Jan is among an increasing number of women in Kashmir who are falling prey to drug addiction. In November 2022, the authorities announced that at least 6,00,000 residents were affected by drug-related issues in the region. They said these people were victims of the transborder drug trade.
As per a consumption surveyconductedin 2022, officials said 90 per cent of users were in the 17 to 33 age group. According to a report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime(2014), Kashmir has an estimated 70,000 substance abusers, of whom nearly one-third are women. In Kashmir, although the number of hard drug users has increased substantially, the data does not reveal the number of female users. There are no recent surveys or studies around the consumption of drugs by women.
Until the late 1980s, cannabis was the traditional drug used by Kashmiri society. Later, codeine-based cough syrups began circulating. In 2010, Kashmir’s drug problem began to swell with the consumption of cannabis and other opioids. Subsequently, heroin became more accessible.
Unlike Jan who turned to drugs after a personal heartbreak, Muhiba Bano found herself driven to extremes by challenging circumstances. Wrapped in a green cloak, a traditional garment, she cradled a Kangri (an earthen pot filled with embers for warmth), her head adorned with a golden and black scarf. Despite her youth, she seemed pallid, her lips dry and chapped, almost as if scratched. Dark circles creased her eyes.
“After my mother died, my father remarried. My stepmother burdened me with all the household chores, and her mistreatment extended to physical abuse,” Bano said. “In my quest for love, I fell for a man and eloped with him, hoping for a peaceful life and some respect. Unfortunately, my fate took a turn for the worse as he turned out to be an abuser.”
Bano sought solace within the alleys of Dal Lake in her neighbourhood, where she spent her free time. Until 2019, she endured the abuse, giving birth to two children. In August 2019, her husband was among those arrested during the tense period following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. “I could not take this and ran away from home even leaving behind my children with my in-laws,” she said. “I thought this was the only escape from abuse and the only chance to leave. I reached Jammu and started a call centre job but my heart would yearn for my children. Going back would mean more abuse.”
Bano was introduced to drugs by her roommate who told her that she would feel better and forget her worries. She did not realise that it would be the start of another endless cycle. After two years, her husband was released on bail, and he traced her whereabouts and brought her back to Kashmir. “Jail has changed him, he kept asking for my forgiveness and is even getting me treated,” Bano said. “But the destruction has been done. I have severe health issues now. Above all, the body ache, mood swings and chills never leave my body.”
Professor Zaid Wani of the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Kashmir underscored the adverse consequences faced by women within the community due to the drug epidemic in Kashmir. According to Wani, women, as primary caregivers, often find themselves on the frontlines of dealing with the repercussions of addiction. He said, “The emotional toll becomes palpable as they navigate the complexities of supporting family members grappling with substance abuse. Along with the usual effects, women who are pregnant can affect the unborn children as well.”
- An escalating number of women in Kashmir are succumbing to drug addiction, with authorities reporting in November 2022 that at least 600,000 residents were affected by drug-related issues in the region.
- A study conducted by the Government Medical College’s Psychiatry Department disclosed that Kashmir has surpassed Punjab in drug abuse cases.
- Doctors and counselors at de-addiction centers throughout Kashmir confirm the link between mental health and drug addiction, as highlighted by a 2015 Doctors Without Borders mental health survey indicating that 41 per cent of the adult population in Kashmir exhibited signs of “probable depression.”
Kashmir worse than Punjab
A recent study done by the Government Medical College’s Psychiatry Department revealed that Kashmir surpassed Punjab in drug abuse cases and was currently in the number two position among the top drug abuser States in the country. Another study, conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, showed that 1.2 per cent of Punjab’s population were opiate users, while Kashmir’s user percentage was 2.5 per cent.
Mehak entered the hospital corridor and her appearance provided no clue about her gender. She was clad in cargo pants, a round-neck sweatshirt, worn-out white sports shoes, and a cap. She willingly agreed to speak to this writer. Mehak, 24, found solace in drugs as an escape from a toxic household environment rife with frequent disputes, which included her father disowning her brother. “I had no idea what I was doing; in those days, there was only brown sugar, and being a tomboy and friends with many boys, I had easy access,” Mehak said. “I felt like my brain stopped thinking, and sometimes, I thought my chest would explode. I never felt normal, and the first time I used it, I felt a sense of relief and numbness. Now, I can understand it was anxiety and stress that slowly turned into depression.”
Overwhelmed by stress, Mehak turned to drugs in the eighth grade, a destructive pattern that continued for the next decade. The toll was immense, resulting in the loss of property as she resorted to selling assets to finance her addiction. When her father discovered the truth, he suffered a stroke and passed away. This loss compelled Mehak to embark on a journey of recovery, and she has successfully maintained sobriety for the past year.
Link between mental health and drug addiction
Doctors and counsellors across Kashmir, working at various de-addiction centres, concur that there is a profound connection between mental health and drug addiction. “When a patient visits us or is admitted, we conduct tests, a thorough examination, and delve into the patient’s background. In 90 to 95 per cent of cases, patients have a history of either anxiety or stress, which, without proper treatment, evolves into depression, subsequently leading them towards drug dependence,” said Dr Manzoor Wani, Head of the Youth Development and Rehabilitation Centre in Eidgah, Srinagar.
In 2015, Doctors Without Borders conducted a mental health survey in Kashmir, which showed that 99.2 per cent of the adult population reported experiencing or witnessing at least one traumatic event. The results showed that 45 per cent of the adult population suffered from symptoms of mental distress. The data also showed that 41 per cent of the adult population exhibited signs of “probable depression”, of which 37 per cent were adult males and 50 per cent were adult females.
“It’s highly challenging to work with patients over time and witness them experiencing relapse. During the three days we operate in the OPD, we see 300 to 350 patients daily, most of them regular attendees for follow-ups and medication. Unfortunately, the recovery rate is low, possibly around one out of 100,” said Dr Fazle, a lecturer at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences’ Department of Psychiatry at the Government Medical College, Srinagar. “The main reason for relapse is that after patients undergo treatment or are discharged, they return to the same environment, the same friends circle, etc. To facilitate recovery, we need a 100 per cent change, so that recovery rates can increase.”
As Bano and Jan embark on their journey towards de-addiction, the outcome remains uncertain. Mehak, determined to reclaim her life, said, “I lost everything to this addiction—my reputation, my family, and even all my assets, and I am at the crossroads of recovery. Once I am off drugs, my sole aim will be to help my friends and acquaintances break free from it, but only time will reveal what will actually transpire.”
Note: The addicts’ names have been changed to protect their identity.
Safina Nabi is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. She covers gender, human rights, health, environment, and culture.