mental health

Experts Explain How India's Ongoing Unrest Affects Our Mental Health

It turns out that trauma can not only stay in your body forever, it can also continue for generations.

by Pallavi Pundir; photos by Pallavi Pundir
24 January 2020, 11:28am

An artwork created by one of the child protesters in Shaheen Bagh, south Delhi, appears to inadvertently talk about the impending mental health crisis amidst the ongoing social unrest around Citizenship Amendment Act. 

It’s around noon in Delhi and the rains have just washed over the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia. Under the dark, gloomy skies, multiple graffitis in stark red and black stand out conspicuously, even angrily, on the drenched walls of this south Delhi university. A little more than a month ago, the Delhi Police had entered the campus, fired teargas shells and assaulted students. Even today, the anger is palpable, especially through the messaging on the walls that say everything from ‘End saffron terror’ to ‘Kaanoon ke hatyaare (The murderers of law)’, to ‘Liberty once lost is lost forever’.

“These writings on the walls weren’t there before December 15,” Ahmad Azeem, the PRO and media coordinator of the university, tells VICE as he walks us past several such walls. “All this anger came out only after that. Some kids are emotional, while some are too scared to come back to the library, even to pick up their bags. There’s too much trauma. You see that on the walls.”

caa protest delhi mental health
Remnants of December 15, 2019, include broken furniture, blood-stained tissues, and bags of students who haven't come back for their belongings.
caa protest delhi india mental health
Angry graffiti has sprung up all across the Jamia Millia Islamia campus after police brutality on December 15, 2019.

Conflict and violence can disrupt just more than your daily schedules. It can disrupt your thinking, your response to your surroundings and people, and even your sense of self. Over the last month or so, the social unrest caused by the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), has raised concerns over how people are responding to it, physically and mentally.

Because this isn’t the first time conflict has had a terrible impact on its people—it’s happened before too.

At Shaheen Bagh, for instance, where men, women and children have been spending all day and nights to protest CAA for over five weeks, VICE spoke to several protesters who admitted to being overwhelmed on an unprecedented level. “I come here everyday, leaving my family and my regular life behind. Of course there’s trauma of some kind,” Rizwan Khalid, 50, one of the protesters, tells us. “I’ve sacrificed everything to be here. I have a sugar (diabetes) problem and need to be hospitalised every now and then. We get threatened, there are rumours everyday, and there’s always the fear of being attacked. And yet I come everyday with the only hope that we will wake up to a better tomorrow.”

caa protest india delhi mental health
Rizwan Khalid, one of the protesters, on a weeknight at the protest site in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi.

But it’s not like trauma goes away once the state of instability is over. Trauma, as studies and testimonials from survivors will tell you time and again, never leaves. “Once it enters the body, it stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical chain of events that changes not only the physiology of the victims but also the physiology of their offspring,” wrote American author David J Morris in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And while symptoms can be resolved, there is no actual cure for PTSD.

Trauma has a complex impact when an entire generation or social group is at the centre of violence.

Abdul Kalam Azad, Guwahati-based journalist and researcher, tells VICE that unlike “just another episode of violence”, the current unrest involves the state inflicting violence on certain groups of people in order to instil fear in them. The fear of being stateless, he adds, can induce trauma, which could be “trans-generational” in nature. “Research has found that when a social group experiences historical trauma, it continues for generations,” says Azad. “A paper published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy says, ‘The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300 per cent among the referrals to a psychiatry clinic in comparison with the representation in the general population.’”

So while the embattled sites of anti-CAA protests across India may not have reached a breaking point just yet, it’s imperative that we look beyond the conflict, and into the mental health of the people. After all, India has one of the highest rates of psychiatric disorders in the world, and studies have shown that any form of conflict and violence can expose people to mild-to-moderate forms of psychological distress such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.

caa protest india mental health
Women, children and men spend all day and nights at protest sites, like these women in Shaheen Bagh. It's never too late to address the mental health aspect of the movement.

A terrifying testament to this is taking place in Assam at the moment, where the government has put over 1,000 “foreigners” at six detention centres after the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) that seeks to pick out “illegal immigrants”. Many in those detention centres are reportedly suffering from severe mental health problems, while some have been driven to suicide. Azad, who works with the victims of NRC and other forms of citizenship contestations and detention centres, says people have no access to medical care and “literally millions are living with mental health issues without acknowledging it”.

So what exactly happens to people when they’re caught in the middle of conflict?

To answer this, Azad first reminds us of a recent news report that saw Dilip Ghosh, the BJP head of West Bengal, talk of the CAA protesters as ‘dogs’ which the cops were proud of shooting down.“Ghosh’s statement and what is happening in UP, Delhi and Assam gives an interesting psychosocial perspective,” says Azad. This is an example of one of the first things that happens in conflict: dehumanisation of the persecuted or targetted group.

In fact, professor Thomas Homer-Dixon (University of Waterloo) called this condition of dehumanising “necessary” for a severe conflict. One can see it through recent news reports from anti-CAA protests—from protesters being killed with impunity to alleged rape of minor boys in police custody. “Our police forces are not trained to kill people or rape young children,” says Azad, whose research involves understanding the impact of conflict on the women and children of Assam. “But it seems they are being ‘appropriately organised’ to see certain groups of people as subordinate, less than human-like how even Amit Shah called certain groups of people as ‘termites’.”

caa protest delhi mental health
The state police across India have come under the scanner for reportedly dehumanising and debasing protesters, something that can escalate a mental health crisis.

Anirudh Kala, a prominent psychiatrist and one of the four authors of #KashmirCivilDisobedience, a report on the trauma of resistance in Kashmir two months after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution—which stripped the state of its special status and led to the ongoing heavy militarisation, unrest and communication blockade—agrees with the process of dehumanisation, especially when things happen when and where they least expect it.

This adds another layer to this process of debasement: Objectification.

“This is when you feel like you’re being played like a toy,” Kala says. “That’s what happened in Kashmir. You’re reduced to an object—anybody can come around and pick you up, or ask you to step out of your homes. Your existence is abused in front of everybody’s eyes, your own eyes, and, worst, your own children’s. And this can happen inside your own home. This leads to humiliation and great insecurity.”

One can connect the dots with what happened in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh (UP) last month, when the police, along with members of Hindutva groups, entered houses in two Muslim neighbourhoods, attacked the residents, destroyed their belongings, and looted their money and jewellery. “These types of stresses cause long-term PTSD, because it triggers helplessness and the trauma from those who were supposed to protect you (the police),” says Kala.

The fear of being attacked in what one previously considered a safe space is something students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University are experiencing too. It led to solidarity protests by students across the country, yes, but VICE found that the violence has altered their way of functioning and thinking considerably—they all spoke about fear, paranoia, depression, anxiety and chronic helplessness and restlessness.

caa protests india mental health
Hundreds of students and former students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) gathered inside the campus on January 7, 2020, to condemn the violence on JNU students by a right-wing affiliated student group on January 5, 2020. The incident has shaken several students and professors, but their resolve to unite and fight all forms of fear is strong.

Prarthana Shamsunder, a Bengaluru-based mental health expert who works with counselling and mental well-being organisation, Alternative Story, says that such situations have debilitating impact on people. “Even when things are going well, a person with trauma will constantly have a sense of foreboding. They can’t really trust their environment,” she says.

Another outcome of this scenario is also marginalisation, which is usually difficult to identify and acknowledge.

“One feels like this is how things are—being made to feel like a second-class citizen, not deserving of a safe space, denied citizenship or even some rights,” Shamsunder says. “Alienation would seem normal. If I don’t believe that a particular community or social life is possible for me, I will not reach out to opportunities to achieve a good life. And if I don’t believe that a safe environment is possible, I may think that violence is the only way the world works.”

Of course, things get worse when children and youth are caught in this state of instability. Even the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights issued an order this week to the district magistrate of southeast Delhi, to identify children in Shaheen Bagh protests and send them for counselling because they “may suffer from mental trauma.”

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The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has ordered the district magistrate of southeast Delhi to give counselling to the children on the protest site of Shaheen Bagh.

“Unfortunately, children and the youth are the ones to get most affected because their brains are still developing,” says Kala. “They are going to carry this lifelong. This quality and extent of stress changes the structure of the brain permanently. Unless they are helped or specifically treated for prevention of trauma, they will grow up very sensitised in the sense that they will either be too rebellious or too cowardly in front of the authority. They would think that anybody and everybody is the enemy, which points to trust issues.”

It’s then inevitable that those growing up amid conflict may also have difficulties building relationships and lives, and will constantly struggle to find a “safe space”—a prerequisite for healthy, functional psyche—only to fail time and again. This sense of distrust also extends to those who are currently experiencing disagreements and conflict with their own family members, who do not agree with their political views. Young people standing up to the rigid sentiments of parents—in a society that places huge premium on parental authority—may just be harming you in the long-term too. “When you realise that your family does not agree with your politics, it can have long-term impact on your relationship with them, like not finding support the way you used to, in the future,” says Shamsunder.

But in all this darkness, there might just be a sliver of hope.

Many experts feel that protests have brought together people like never before, at least in our generation, and forged connections they find empowering. “That’s probably the only positive thing I see, that people are in solidarity with each other in large numbers. Empathy and solidarity are healing agents,” says Azad.

caa protest india mental health
A lot of people have spoken about finding connections and feeling empowered after attending protests. For many, this has been the first time on the streets to show solidarity. Empathy and solidarity, researchers say, are big healing agents.

Shamsunder agrees too. “It’s not always despair,” she says. “A lot of people have been telling me that they’ve been going for protests for the first time, and that it’s been a very powerful experience for them. There are a lot of mental health benefits of finding connections or support systems that are more in sync with their political and ideological ideas. That's the best scenario out of these kinds of experiences.”

Towards the end, Kala likens the current state of trauma with a complex process of grief, not just of the past but also for the future. But there could be a way out. As Morris says in The Evil Hours, “The first duty of every survivor is to simply acknowledge the existence of trauma, to accept that there are things in this world that can break us. Only then can we begin to make meaning out of everything that comes after.”

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