Insomnia, anxiety, depression and crippling uncertainty about the future. As days pass into weeks and the cracks in their town widen and deepen, hundreds of people displaced by land subsidence in Joshimath and forced into relief camps are battling a range of mental health problems, say residents and experts.
With no end in sight to the crisis, hundreds of others in Uttarakhand’s fragile mountain town still lucky enough to be at home are frantic with worry about when – not if – they too will have to move into government-run shelters, hotels or just leave town.
“The land subsidence event last month has had an impact on everyone. The major symptoms among affected people are insomnia and anxiety," Dr Jyotsana Naithwal, a psychiatrist from AIIMS Rishikesh deployed at the community health centre (CHC) in Joshimath, told PTI in a phone interview.
She is part of the team of three trained psychiatrists and one clinical psychologist deployed in the town of over 20,000 people to help people battle mental trauma.
Naithwal’s own home in Singhdhar area has developed cracks and she has been living in a hotel with her family.
Studies have found natural tragedies such as landslides, earthquakes and floods are traumatic and may result in a wide range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Effective screening and awareness programmes among survivors should be strengthened for the prevention and treatment of psychiatric morbidity among the survivors of landslides, said experts.
According to Atul Sati, convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (JBSS), fewer people are coming forward to report their problems because mental health is still a taboo topic.
"We had been warning that an epidemic of mental health is on its way. Many people our volunteers have been in touch with are facing trauma and mental issues," Sati told PTI.
Being forced to part from their damaged homes and the fear that they may never be able to return to their childhood homes is leading to a spectrum of problems.
Ask 19-year-old Neha Saklani.
On February 3, just a month after Neha and her extended family of 14 people shifted to a hotel, her father got an anxious call that their house had been razed to the ground.
"All of us rushed to the spot and found it still intact. But the call only compounded the already anxious lives that we have been living ever since our house started developing cracks almost a year ago," Neha told PTI.
The Saklani family, which lived in the Sunil area on the way to the famous skiing resort Auli, said it was the first to report land subsidence in Joshimath when their house developed cracks in May last year.
Neha's mother recently underwent a surgical procedure at a local clinic, and the family doesn't know how she can recuperate in their cramped hotel room.
"We keep thinking about our house. Imagine the trauma of living in a sinking house for a year. It is horrifying," she said.
"Initially, I was not able to sleep. Even now I sometimes feel low and anxious. My sister is not in a position to continue her studies. She wanted to join college this year. I guess that will have to wait," she told PTI.
That businesses have shut down in the town has added to the extreme anxiety about what tomorrow will bring.
Suraj Kapruwan had a laundry shop in Manohar Van, which was heavily damaged during the January 2 subsidence event. He said he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep since.
“I am depressed and hardly get any sleep at night. I keep thinking about my business on which I spent lakhs. There is no compensation still in sight. I don’t know how to cope with the situation," the 38-year-old hotel management graduate told PTI.
Naithwal added that gauging the burden of mental illness is difficult as people don't report symptoms to medical practitioners unlike other health disorders and symptoms can surface anytime up to a year.
"We have been doing rounds of the affected areas. If someone exhibits symptoms, a counsellor helps them to cope through relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises," she told PTI.
"If somebody has chronic symptoms, they are treated accordingly," the 32-year-old doctor said.
According to Sati, the situation will only get worse if the authorities don't act faster and come up with a proper and prompt rehabilitation plan for the people of Joshimath.
In his view, the overall situation in Joshimath has only gotten worse in the last month.
"Cracks in more houses have been reported recently. The fissures in the land around the danger zone have only gotten bigger," he added.
The number of structures, according to the government, which have developed cracks so far stands at 868, an increase since January 20, when the number was 863, Sati said.
Authorities estimate that present 878 members of 243 disaster-affected families are in relief camps.
"Basic facilities like food, drinking water, medicine etc. are being made available to the affected people in the relief camps," according to the Twitter handle of DM Chamoli.
"In Joshimath, an amount of Rs 505.80 lakh has been distributed so far for damaged buildings, special rehabilitation package, one-time special grant for transportation of goods and immediate needs and purchase of household materials as advance relief to the affected families," another tweet on Thursday said.
However, Sati alleged there are serious discrepancies in the official survey of damages and compensation.
"Many people who deserved compensation didn't receive it while others who were not affected got it instead," he added.
"Joshimath is not suitable for a township", the government appointed Mishra Committee report had warned in 1976 and recommended a ban on heavy construction work in the area.
The warning was not heeded. Over the decades, the place exploded into a busy gateway for thousands of pilgrims and tourists.
Joshimath is a gateway to several Himalayan mountain climbing expeditions, trekking trails, and pilgrim centres like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, and the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO world heritage site.
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