Children of the Chinar: Special series on young women achievers from Kashmir, Najmun Riyaz

Updated: Oct 14

This is the fifth and last story of Season 1 of Children of Chinar, our special series on women achievers from Kashmir. This story is about how one doctor created a breakthrough platform for talking freely and without stigma about mental health during the Covid pandemic. Zehen Kashmir, started by Dr. Najmun Riyaz, is a social media campaign launched with the sole purpose of raising awareness and educating people in Kashmir, in easy to understand, non-technical understand Kashmiri language. In this conversation with Global Order's Aayushi Sharma, Najmun Riyaz talks about how the was inspired by a tragic incident in her family to start this campaign.


Dr. Najmun Riyaz wants to break the stigma around mental illness.


Aayushi Sharma: Hello Dr. Riyaz, I want to start by asking you about your work. How did you start the initiative of Zehen Kashmir?


Dr. Najmun Riyaz: Okay, so you know how this pandemic has changed the world. I have to tell you, if there wouldn't have been Covid, I would never have done Zehen Kashmir. It began with the pandemic. So I'm a psychiatrist, basically. I'm a mother of three children. I'm a caregiver for my elderly mother. So I was driving a lot for work, taking kids to school.


After school, I was busy with my work. There was no time and then suddenly the pandemic happened, right? So we all started working from home. I've never worked from home. was never on social media. I never had a Facebook or Instagram account. I never felt a need to go on it because there was no time. But when the pandemic happened and I was working from home, I saw this enormous stress. My coworkers, my colleagues, everyone was suffering in some way. Many of my doctor friends themselves caught covid. They were afraid. They didn't know how to help their patients.


People were dying on the hospital floors right and left and so many doctors committed suicide because they couldn't see the misery of Covid. It was gut wrenching and heartbreaking to witness. As this was happening then, you know, I had some time to think . We were all just making sure we're alive. So as that was happening, some folks reached out to me as a psychiatrist, they would ask me "how can we de-stress ourselves?" So some folks approached and I started giving some TV interviews about what we can do when a calamity like Covid hits us. How can we keep ourselves happy and sane?


So as I was talking about it, one of the folks who is a CEO of an organization in Kashmir, it's a tech organization. So he saw that interview. Most of his employees are from India and Kashmir. And when he saw the interview, he approached me and said, "Can you volunteer and do some coaching for my employees?" I said, "Yeah, sure". So I started making small videos for them and I started talking to these employees, some one on one and some in a group setting. That's when I understood the ground level situation in Kashmir.


I thought this was horrible and people are going through depression, anxiety and are having panic attacks every day and they don't know what's going on. So that gave me a little bit of an idea that something needs to be done. I wanted to do something with a bigger impact. So one fine day I was just sitting in my room and I just took the phone and started recording myself. I still remember the first podcast where I introduced myself and recorded a 10-minute video in Kashmiri. It was on the third occasion of recording the podcast, the name Zehen just came out of my mouth. So that was it. That was how Zehen was formed.


I have always been a very private person. I'm shy. So I thought of just doing audio recordings initially. Then I recorded a few podcasts of Zehen about depression, later I went to trauma and other related issues. I thought this needs to be put up. So I tried Spotify, I tried Apple first. Then people said that these applications are not so reachable in Kashmir, then I found the medium of YouTube and that's how it began. After that I found people who helped me. Then I created my first Facebook, which was like three years ago, and my first Instagram and that's it. It became bigger.


People helped me. A lot of women came and some of them volunteered. I hired a couple of girls who helped me because I still don't know how to use Instagram. So, that's how it all began. Then I started knowing what's going on in Kashmir and I realized that mental health is a crisis not just in Kashmir but all over the world but the problem in our countries, including India or, the developing or underdeveloped countries is that the stigma is huge. So that's what I thought, let's do this and let's break the stigma.


I'm so thankful to God, what gives me the most pleasure is when people comment, when they share their problems and they ask me questions. That gives me the most satisfaction, it's so gratifying. But It's a journey. We'll see where, where it goes. But so far it's been, it's been good.


AS: It's actually a remarkable initiative in terms of the work you are doing. So you said that you started recording the podcast in Kashmir. As far as we have seen the work on YouTube also, the content is largely in Kashmiri. I am really curious to know if there is a particular reason for that.


NR: As you know, in our field the most important thing is connection. If we don't have connections, we cannot help a patient, right? So we have to establish that connection. So what I noticed is, as I was talking to my Kashmiri brothers and sisters, initially I was talking to them in English in the group sessions we had with the company.


Somehow I felt that it wasn't fitting. They were Kashmiri and I was talking to them in Kashmiri. I couldn't, I couldn't feel that connection. So I thought more of what I can do. I thought I have to establish a connection and in order to do that, I have to talk in Kashmiri most of the stigma that happens in the mainstream. It happens with people who are not very educated. I mean, we have very educated folks also in Kashmir, they're not as stigmatized.


They will have the courage to go seek help. But it's the mainstream Kashmiri, the mom and dad sitting at home saying, "Don't cry. It's not good to cry. Depression is nothing". So the goal was to reach to the mainstream Kashmiri, to the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, because they're also suffering. They want to go for counseling, they wanna take medicine but they are also stigmatized. So that was the reason.


There was also one more reason because, see, I left Kashmir 25 years ago. I haven't visited Kashmir in the last 13 years. But it's my homeland and what more than as a tribute to my own mother tongue Kashmiri, I wanted to speak in Kashmiri. And yet there was one more guilt because we used to study in a convent and they would discourage us from speaking in Kashmiri.


I remember as a little girl, I used to feel a sense of shame and embarrassment, which is horrible. Which is terrible. That speaks of the trauma we have had that we are ashamed to speak in our own mother tongue. So I thought if I have to tackle that shame then I have to start right from the grassroot. I make content in English for a global audience, but there's a different level of connection when I talk to my Kashmiri brothers and sisters. I have to feel heart to heart. And that only happens with Kashmiri.


AS: Yes. It's a very important point that you've put forward, talking in your own mother tongue and in your own language, because that's when we actually express ourselves in the best way possible. So, yes. I'm actually very interested to also know about the fact that how you are coordinating the work of the Zehen Kashmir? Has it become a full fledged organization?


NR: So it's actually interesting that Zehen Kashmir is really not an organization. It still is a campaign because it's not a registered organization. So I have my psychiatric practice in New Jersey, which is called Zehen Global. So I see my patients who are in New Jersey. So with Zehen Kashmir now I have made a small entity called Zen Global.


So I would say it's an educational campaign. So it's really not an organization because we don't do promotions, we don't donate, we don't collect donations. This is all, this is all my personal income that goes into paying some of the people who helped me. But I have to tell you, the biggest help that we got for Zehen Kashmir is from the folks on the ground level. Even the social media influencers in Kashmir.


I remember this girl who used to help me. Her name is Iffat. She's a student. She's a 21 year old young girl. So she used to help me with this. So she thought let's reach out to the big influencers. And that's what we did. We reached out to a Kashmiri rapper as well. We reached out to him and we asked these influencers if they could share our content with their followers and that's how we grew.


They shared the content, and then some local media channels came and they were willing to share the content. We haven't spent a penny in promotion because they all saw the work. They thought it was good. So they actually spread the word and we had a very positive response. That was it. So this is just education and I am educating people about what mental illness is, what mental health is, and a little bit of coaching and motivational videos. We had another major goal which was to connect the locals with the behavioral health providers locally.


We have a resource section in which we have collected the names of counselors, therapists and psychiatrists.We connect the people at the ground level to these professionals. We have put their contact names and numbers. So that's the goal. The goal is to encourage people to seek help through the local providers. Our job is to just tell them what mental health is, why you need help, why you need to go to the counseling, why people commit suicide. So just education, if that makes sense.


AS: That does make sense. You have talked at length about the kind of work that you aim to do with Zehen Kashmir. I want to know, based on your interactions with the people, how do you assess the situation of mental health in Kashmir?


NR: I wanna be honest with you, as I have seen from a distance and through my interactions, there are honestly many, many mental health places opening in Kashmir. We saw that recently there was a clinic opened in Kashmir that caters majorly to females over there. We see there are many counselors starting practice over there.


But the bad side is, not many people go. The stigma is huge. When people go to counselors, they don't wanna share their personal problems because they're worried the counselor might misuse the information. So the people still don't have a grasp of what a counselor is and what's confidential. So basically when we bring these professionals on the podcast, I try to ask them some personal questions so that people can understand that a psychiatrist is also a human being, a therapist is a human being.


We can have problems too, because we also have a mind, you know, we can have depression, we can have anxiety. We also need to go to professionals. So I try to show them the human side of these professionals so that they feel comfortable to go to them. Mostly what I have seen, especially with women, not many go to the professionals due to the fear of stigma. So I feel it is a long work to break this stigma, this has developed over centuries and it won't be easily broken just like that. I remember when I was growing up, the main psychiatric hospital in Kashmir used to be in shambles.


But I'm hearing now that good work is being done. There are counselors and there is structured counseling being offered, but again, people have to feel more comfortable. So what I'm trying to do through Zehen is to normalize it, make it sound like normal. Make people comfortable in just saying that they have stress or relationship problems or anxiety and that it's okay to go for counseling or go see a psychiatrist. I'm trying to just normalize things. I'm seeing that the younger people are way more braver and I think they're willing to go find and seek help.


AS: Yes, there is actually a lot of work being done by young professionals over here. You have actually talked in detail about the stigma associated with mental health and I understand that mental health professionals deal with this problem a lot. Seeing as Zehen Kashmir is a primarily virtual campaign. What is the approach that you are taking in dealing with this stigma and actually building trust with somebody staying within Kashmir while you are staying all the way in the United States?


NR: That's actually a really good question. That is what I was trying to tell you is like, there is a huge cultural piece to mental health. In Kashmir we have gone through a lot, we have gone through war, turmoil, poverty, health problems, so much. So what I'm trying to do through Zen is to try to commit and create that connection and that trust so let people believe that it's okay to talk about not being okay.


So to be able to develop that trust for people to confide and say that things are not okay, I'm suffering, I'm struggling, I'm sad, I'm depressed, I'm anxious, I'm in an abusive relationship and so on. So to be able to give them that trusting platform, and more than that a nonjudgmental platform is very important. In our cultures and communities and societies we are quick to pass judgment. As you note, in my Zehen videos, I actually have a very strict policy. Anybody who uses personal remarks, I block them because I'm a psychiatrist.


I spend a lot of time making this content for folks out there. I will not be sitting on social media being okay with someone making comments on how I look, how my hijab is, how my skin color is. No, I have a very strict policy. Followers are something I don't care about. I don't care about followers, I care about the connection when people comment. That's what I care about.


I have a very strict policy. This channel is for everybody. For a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, trans woman, men, this is for everybody. In fact I have even stopped saying Salam Alaikum because I want to make it for each and every person. So those are very strict rules for Zehen. To answer your question, trust is built by a non-judgmental environment, by allowing people to share their opinions, but also respecting boundaries which is very important. These are some basic rules that Zehen has.


AS: Wonderful. How do you assess the impact of the work you have been doing? Have you been able to achieve what you sought out for?


NR: So the kind of person I am, people say I should be more result oriented, but I'm not. I just do what I love to do. My work is to make content, educate people and break the stigma, the rest is not in my control. My goal is to focus on the present.


For example, you know, I feel a sense of success if I make a video and somebody comments and asks for my advice. That's all I am looking for. So I will make another video to advise them about what to do next. So that's how I'm trying to build the community. If someone asks me "Doctor, What do I do? I'm pregnant and I'm feeling depressed". I go ahead and make content on postpartum depression. So it's a back and forth process.


It's a dance, it's a relationship that I have with people. I'll just keep doing it as long as I can and I don't have an agenda. Yes, I do wanna break the stigma. When I see other mental health professionals put on their social media and spread awareness about mental health, that encourages me.


AS: So I do agree with you actually on that because raising awareness or creating dialogue on mental health is an ongoing process. It doesn't have a designated end goal. One thing that is making me curious is to know something about your personal experiences. What has been a very significant experience that you've had in your journey of creating Zehen Kashmir?


NR: I'm glad that you asked me that question and I always look for this opportunity. The reason this mental health is so close to my heart is because I have been through it. So my uncle was a PhD in Zoology and he was a really brilliant guy. When he was around 25, he was also engaged at that time, he started developing hallucinations which means he started hearing voices. He had some stress going on in his life, like a job stress and stress does affect mental illness, but when it comes to serious mental illnesses, there is usually a genetic tendency as well.


So my uncle, around age 26, had a psychotic break, which means he became disorganized. He could not work. He had to quit his job and he became depressed and isolated. And as I said, he was engaged. He used to work outside Kashmir. When my dad heard about his struggles, he went and brought him back home.


My dad was a very practical man, he was a veterinarian but also was very interested in psychology. He understood his brother needed help and took him to a psychiatrist against everyone else's wishes. So the roots of my passion have actually come from my dad. He took my uncle to a psychiatrist and got him treated. He took him to counselors. My uncle was diagnosed with schizophrenia.


Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. Usually these people are very disorganized, they can't work, they can't stay married. Some can obviously, but there was a period that my dad had to take him to the mental hospital. And I went there with my father. The situation my uncle was in, in that hospital, was pathetic. Back then they used to lock the patients like animals. I still remember seeing my uncle in that cage.


It was heartbreaking because he was my uncle, I loved him. I remember as a little girl, I cried and my dad cried and he decided that we can't leave him here. They were treating him like an animal. He's just ill. So he withdrew him from the mental hospital and then my dad started treating him in our home. My dad also made sure the home was safe for him. So he created a small separate room for my uncle next to our home. His own bathroom, kitchen were also made. He made sure that the psychiatrist comes every month.


They used to give my uncle medications and with proper medicine, my uncle did well, but he couldn't obviously go to work. He also got a helper who used to cook for uncle and wash his clothing. But the bottom line is that my dad said knew my uncle needed help, he needed treatment. I also remember my dad, he never felt shame in saying that my brother has a mental illness. In fact, remember I told you he was engaged.


My father actually went to the girl's home and told them that his brother has probably developed a mental illness and I don't think you would want your daughter to get married to him. They actually thanked my father, but they of course ended the engagement, which was good because no woman should have to go through this. My father is no more, but I just have this enormous respect for my dad because he got him help, he took care of him, and he did the right thing.


People were ready to term my uncle as an outcast but my father was very assertive. He understood that he needed help. My dad taught me such an important lesson. He taught me that we love our relatives no matter what. And the best way to show love is to get them the right help. Another important thing was that my dad also never forced his wife as many men do in our cultures, to care for his brother. That helped me have compassion and not be scared of someone with mental illness.


The bottom line is that being raised by a father like that and to see someone doing the right thing and treating mental illness as illness, nothing bad, nothing horrible. I think that that probably also instilled in me, and I guess I said I wanna make this for everybody.


AS: Thank you so much for sharing that, honestly. That was a very personal story to you and you have shared that with us. So we really thank you for trusting us with it. A lot of respect for your father as well, for being a role model for you. There's a lot of stigma associated with schizophrenia even now, so I can't imagine what must have been happening back then. Even the situations of the mental health institutes, even though it's slightly better, there's still a lot more work to be done. So yes, thank you so much for sharing that. I think we will end on this note. Anything else that you would want to say in the end? Any last messages for the readers?


NR: I think there's one thing I wanna tell everyone. One, the mind is not a supernatural power. The brain is an organ like any other organ in your body. It can have problems too. We have two choices, one is to accept this and seek help whenever needed. That's wisdom. The second choice is to not accept it and keep staying in denial. You cannot hide your mental illness, so it is better to accept it, be aware of it and treat it because mental illness, like any other illness, is treatable.


AS: Thank you so much Dr. Riyaz. It was lovely to speak to you. It was very refreshing to talk so candidly about mental health issues. Thank you for taking the time out, it was a pleasure.


NR: Thank you very much!

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