Vargas is attempting to bring his own experience in Colombia to fill this gap in Nepal. His mission is to spread awareness about mental illness, and make painting more accessible to traumatised people through his movement #TheArtListens. He is using the technique with children at a shelter for rescued children in Godavari, where they paint, sketch and draw.
As in Colombia, mental health is still a stigma in Nepal, especially for families of the disappeared, children who witnessed violence and victims of war rape.
These survivors rarely seek help, even though a 2012 study showed 80% of conflict-affected people suffer anxiety and depression, 50% have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and former child soldiers are far more likely (45-50%) to suffer from these symptoms than children never conscripted (20-37%). Social reintegration continues to be a challenge, and many former combatants and relatives suffer stigma.
Suraj Koirala of TPO (Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation) has surveyed and counselled many conflict-affected Nepalis, and says the most common problems are depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“Children and women have suffered the most, and it is prolonged for victims of sexual abuse and family members of the disappeared,” says Koirala.
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One of them is Bhagiram Chaudhary of the Conflict Victims’ Common Platform, whose brother and sister-in-law were disappeared during the conflict but who has never sought counselling or therapy.
“If I see anyone who looks like my brother, I still take a second look, wondering if it is him,” he says. “We are unable to perform his last rites, because we don’t know if he is still out there. Not having closure means that we are still undecided about how to take our life forward.”
Gita Rasaili of the Conflict Victims’ National Network was 13 when she saw soldiers taking away her sister. Her family later found the decomposed remains of her body. After that, Rasaili’s mother used to faint often and was unable to perform household chores. After years of therapy, she did get better.
“There are many war victims like me who suffer from mental health crises, but we do not recognise it and never seek help,” says Rasaili. “If you go to a mental hospital people think you are mad. A lot more needs to be done for the nation to heal.”
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Like Rasaili, other war survivors suffer from symptoms like lack of sleep and concentration, inability to focus, disruptive memories and depression. The bigger concern is that these problems could transcend generations.
“If parents are unable to deal with trauma and express their mental state in unhealthy ways, their children could be impacted as well,” says Koirala of TPO. “Social reintegration is already difficult for combatants, and this could create another generation of outcasts.”
As in Colombia, some victims of the conflict and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal have found ways to express themselves through art. Rasaili keeps a journal, saying it helps her find relief from stress, and she knows others who paint and sketch. But they all found these outlets through personal effort — there is no systematic approach to artistic therapy in Nepal.