Victims of substance abuse

‘Confinement’ has assumed a new dimension and definition for the people of Kashmir. ‘Confinement as politics’ has shifted to ‘confinement for survival’. During this spell of confinement due to COVID-19, I had a lot of time on my hands to think and reflect on multiple issues. One of the issues that is close to my heart is that of people suffering from substance abuse in Kashmir.

Differentiating between issues that are ‘important to be addressed’ and those that do not fit into the label, I found myself pondering upon a neglected section of people dwelling in our society and how their grievances remain unaddressed in these challenging times. People, young and old, men and women, suffering from substance abuse are not at the top of any list of priorities this time. Such people bear the brunt of the confinement in a much more agonizing way.

Substance abuse in Jammu and Kashmir has sky-rocketed in recent years, as reported in a number of surveys conducted on patients suffering from Substance Abuse Disorders by The Department of Psychiatry, SMHS, SKIMS Medical College Srinagar, AIIMS New Delhi and many other local NGOs working in collaboration with the United Nations Drug  Control Programme. These surveys lead us to the alarming conclusion that the widespread menace of drug abuse and addiction requires immediate, concrete and unflinching attention at all times, and particularly focused attention during turbulent times. Although the economic and social costs of the pandemic receive round-the-clock coverage, the lives of thousands of people going through drug addiction in the Kashmir valley seem to be relegated to the background.

While the ongoing pandemic and its consequent repercussions have taken a huge toll on and disrupted our lives in innumerable ways, the lives of those suffering from Substance Abuse Disorders and those seeking treatment have undoubtedly reached rock bottom.  Those undergoing therapy are the hardest hit, since their daily progress to combat their life-threatening enemy has come to a halt. Substance abuse is often characterized as a disorder which carries with it the risk of relapsing or falling prey to the trap of addiction at any given time after recovering from it. The restrictions in daily activities and the level of mental and emotional stress associated with it can have serious implications on the mental well being of any healthy individual, let alone people undergoing the mentally challenging rollercoaster of drug addiction. This can act as a stimulus for them to turn to drugs as an escape from these trying times once again. The risk of relapse associated with addiction increases immensely due to challenging external factors. While we feel caged amidst the snug walls of our homes and whine about not being able to visit our favourite restaurants, we fail to acknowledge the misery and mental trauma of a significant number of people living among us who are not receiving any provisions to help them tackle their misery.

Regular treatment is of utmost value to a person undergoing treatment for addiction. This I learned firsthand while interacting with a number of patients in The Drug De-Addiction and Rehabilitation of Youth Centre, Srinagar, while working on a school project intended to highlight the growing rates of substance abuse in the valley. What I observed was that continual, uninterrupted treatment had placed many people on a track of hope and conviction of getting better. The anticipation of fruitful results and successful therapy plays a huge part in maintaining the mental equilibrium of a person. This equilibrium is totally skewed in today’s world, as we continue to be pre-occupied with battling the fatal Corona virus. This has lead to a shift in the trajectory of recovery, which now tilts widely towards hopelessness.

Moreover, the lockdown has raised some serious concerns over the upsurge of cases pertaining to domestic violence, as stated by the National Commission for Women. The manifestation of frustrated and bundled emotions has taken a very ugly turn since the initiation of the lockdown and the onset of the Corona Virus. Among the 70,000 people reported by the United Nations Drug Control Programme, 4000 women in Kashmir suffer from substance abuse in one form or the other. The vulnerability faced by women in these trying times has also increased to a large extent. The WHO has stated, time and again, the significant impact of gender and culture on mental illness. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the rates of substance abuse in women might undergo yet another dramatic increase in the coming years.

The pattern of substance abuse has proved to be very erratic since the past few years and many shifts in paradigm have been observed with regard to the substance in question – the most vulnerable age group/gender and many similar factors. Familial conflict, inability to attend social gatherings, feelings of helplessness, inability to achieve certain pre-set goals on time, become factors that trigger unruly and unconventional behaviour among people, especially children and adolescents. Turning to illicit substances for momentary relief becomes the easiest way out, especially in our part of the world, where the availability and abundance of these substances comes as no challenge.

In such (politically, economically, emotionally or mentally) challenging times, it is easier to overlook and disregard such a topic for discussion. The plight of those in a state of recovery and those who had mustered the courage to seek help, hardly garners any attention. Many psychiatrists and psychologists of the valley have extended a helping hand by providing telephone and online helplines for counselling and advice. Though a very welcome step, it is unlikely that hardcore drug abusers will avail such facilities.

These are unprecedented times in which everyone is suffering in one way or another. However, there are some ways in which some of the problems of people suffering from drug abuse can be mitigated.

Being immuno-compromised, they are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus. NGOs or functionaries of the health department of the government should provide protective gear and hand sanitizers, face masks, gloves and other requirements to keep them safe. All identified cases should be tested, irrespective of whether they live in red zones or not. It needs to be ensured that prescribed medicines are available without any hassle. Doctors treating them can keep checking on them through phone calls and video calls where necessary, as it can give some solace to the patient to see his/her health care provider. We as a society should be more empathetic towards such patients and their families. This last measure is one for all times and not just for the lockdown period. Our empathy, help and de-stigmatisation of drug abusers can go a long way in helping them heal in a much more holistic and positive way.

Maryam Munawar Mir is a Psychology student, Class 12th, DPS Srinagar