On June 12, the search for 23-year-old Prahlad Singh ended. Villagers found him tightening a rope around his neck. “He was about to kill himself,” says Prahlad’s mother Rajeshwari Devi. That day, he had run away from home, like on many occasions since the day four years ago, when Prahlad, who worked as a porter at the Kedarnath shrine, witnessed death up close.
On June 16, 2013, Prahlad was at the shrine, 87 km from his village Raulek in Rudraprayag district’s Ukhimath tehsil, when the “Himalayan tsunami” struck.
“While he was trying to escape Kedarnath Valley, he saw several bodies strewn across,” says Rajeshwari, talking about how her son never quite recovered from the trauma of the deluge that killed thousands and caused extensive damage to property. Many such as Prahald, considered “lucky to have survived”, continue to live with mental scars that refuse to heal.
Four years after the tragedy, The Indian Express visited at least 15 disaster-hit villages and towns near Kedarnath, where a majority of the population lives under severe psychological trauma. What makes it worse is the near breakdown of the state’s mental health infrastructure.
B S Rawat, Joint Director (non-communicable diseases), admits there is a huge shortage of mental health specialists in the state. “Currently, for a population of over 1 crore, there are only eight psychiatrists in government hospitals across the state. It’s a job not many want to take up in Uttarakhand, perhaps due to the state’s difficult terrain,” he says.
Prahlad’s family had to travel 260 km from his village to Dehradun to go to a doctor and understand why he wasn’t the same since the disaster. His medical report, issued by a private clinic in Dehradun, reads that he “is suffering from schizophrenia, a major mental disorder… triggered by the Himalayan Tsunami”. With the frequent trips to Dehradun stretching their finances, Prahlad’s mother says she often takes him to an exorcist.
A year after Om Prakash Uniyal’s shops and hotel in Gaurikund got washed away in the Mandakini, the 40-year-old killed himself. “He (Om) would stay quiet. He was probably suffering from depression, but didn’t tell us anything. One day (in September 2014), he drank poison,” says Uniyal’s younger brother Prem Prakash, holding back tears.
Rajni Devi from Sirvani hamlet in Ukhimath tehsil, who lost her two sons in the disaster, says she has difficulty sleeping. “I also feel very anxious every time there’s thunder and lightning outside, or if there’s heavy rainfall,” she says.
For two-three months after the disaster, traumatised survivors visited the State Allopathy Dispensary in Guptkashi, about 52 km from Kedarnath. The dispensary, like other such clinics across the state, does not have a mental health specialist or even a counsellor. It only has a general physician and a pharmacist. Many travelled to the community health centre at Agastyamuni, 26 km from Guptkashi, and even to the district hospital in Rudraprayag, but got little relief. A few visited the HNB Base Hospital in Srinagar Garhwal and hospitals and clinics in Dehradun.
Dr Malini Srivastava, clinical psychologist at the Dehradun-based Himalayan Hospital who treated several patients of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the deluge, says, “At a workshop on PTSD held at Guptkashi in 2016, where I was present as a resource person, I could see that people were still traumatised. A lot needs to be done at the level of primary health centres and community health centres towards training their staff so that they can provide basic counselling and psychological first-aid to disaster victims.”
In Kalimath Valley’s Nibhtar hamlet, around 18 km from Kedarnath, Deepak Devi, 36, often complains of headaches and stomach cramps. Deepa’s husband Shiv Singh Tinduri, who owned a shop and a few mules at Rambara in Kedarnath Valley, died in the flash-floods, leaving her with the responsibility of bringing up their four children. “I do visit the nearby hospital and the doctor there gives me medicines, but the aches return whenever I am tense about my children and their future.”