Pandemic takes huge toll on mental health

Mental health has taken a massive toll on the people across age segments, right through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Representational image
Representational image

BENGALURU: Mental health has taken a massive toll on the people across age segments, right through the Covid-19 pandemic. The successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic have affected school/college education, led to job losses and salary cuts, domestic squabbles with the lines between office and home blurring in the times of work from home (WFH), loneliness due to death of near and dear ones, lack of closure on being prohibited from performing last rites of family members dying of Covid-19, and the lasting anxiety over oneself getting infected by Covid-19 and fears of dying from it.

A combination of these have played a cruel dance on people’s mental health. Deep-seated depression, anxiety, panic attacks and a constant worry over an uncertainty that was never experienced before, is the result of this, leading to impact on mental wellness.

The long-term impact of WFH has turned homes into houses accommodating family members and their multiple needs and functions with no room for individual privacy. Homes have turned into school-turned-office-into-broadband-driven lifestyles, all crumbled into one ghetto. Cases of domestic violence have gone up considerably since last year, with women having to bear the brunt of it. The helpline (080-46110007), launched by the National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) last year after the pandemic broke out to address psycho-social needs of people, has received over four lakh calls from across India so far.

Eminent behavioural scientist Ali Khwaja says Covid-19 has made the world turn inward; home-bound and in “solitary confinement”. “Humans are social beings. They don’t like living alone or being boxed in. The pandemic has forced people to stay at home. The biggest fear of illness is of going through it and dying alone. Condemned prisoners were put through solitary confinement. We have been in confinement for the last 15 months and it has taken a huge toll on our mental health. These issues are bound to intensify unless we start unlocking mentally,” he says.

The second wave proved overwhelming for many as they lost their loved ones, and grief and fear overtook the last vestiges of hope. The healthcare infrastructure crumbled as Covid-19 cases soared and mounting deaths compelled the government to allocate new cremation grounds. “The loss of near and dear ones and the ensuing grief is very real. At times like these, support is very critical. In fact, support is critical for all aspects to reduce fear, isolation and deal with the grief of loss. Community-level support and response systems are very important to reduce mental distress,” says Dr Pratima Murthy, Director, NIMHANS. “The occasional heart-warming stories of humanity during the pandemic need to occur and be told every day, everywhere.”

She explains that mental distress and Covid-19 can be looked at from two aspects: “One is from the psychological reactions that people have experienced for more than a year now during the pandemic; and secondly, the experiences of being affected by Covid-19 and its neuro-psychiatric sequelae (a condition as consequence of a previous disease or injury).”

Dr Vivek Benegal, Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, says, “The recent edition of Lancet states that one in three Covid patients are likely to develop neurological and psychiatric disorders. We don’t know yet the magnitude of mental health issues. Because of the lockdown, people couldn’t come to the out-patient department (OPD). Not being able to participate in the final rites of their loved ones has had a long-term impact on many people. They are unable to get a sense of closure.”

Absence of school education for almost two years is a big threat to the mental health of children. There are instances of children and parents getting frustrated with each other as most parents lack knowledge of child psychology. The lack of social interaction and absence of friends to play with due to restrictions causes frustration among children.Online schooling cannot replace offline classes, and children’s knowledge cannot be assessed. Absence of examinations has diverted the minds of children with even good students showing lack of interest in studies.

Ashwini N V, Founder-Director, Muktha Foundation, stresses on close attention to children’s mental health. “Children’s emotions often go unexpressed and unexplored. Many suffer in silence. They fear the loss of a dear one to Covid-19, or themselves getting infected; get frustrated due to lack of freedom of movement or adequate social interaction that otherwise happened in schools; or grief over loss of dear ones.”She says anxiety, stress, loneliness, grief and other stressful emotions among children need to be addressed.

Children are also at the receiving end of parents suffering from displaced frustration and stress. Such forms of child abuse too have adverse effects on mental health and overall development of kids.
“When these emotionally stressful experiences go unexpressed, and neither understood nor addressed, it can lead to mental illnesses. This can adversely affect the child’s relational, academic, physical and social well-being,” she says.

“Primary support givers must explore the child’s emotions and thoughts daily, and provide a safety base to regulate their emotions, without letting it get pent up and take adverse forms. It is important for parents, teachers or any primary caregiver of children to be trained in psychological first-aid, so they can provide initial emotional support for a child in emotional distress before taking these children to mental health professionals.”

“Students of different age groups have different experiences of online education. None of it is positive,” says Dr Satish Kumar, consultant clinical psychologist, Manipal Hospitals, Old Airport Road. “Pre-schoolers need a lot of stimuli, which they cannot get from online education. We are seeing cognitive and behavioural issues in this age group.

Among the senior students, many of them feel they are unable to cope with online education and that no one understands them, when they express their shortcomings,” he says. “Students are faced with an uncertain future and rising parental pressure and anxiety.” Especially, among the PU students, the future is uncertain with new methodologies for assessment floated frequently.

Talking about the breed of resilient people, DJ Jasmeet, a well-known name in Bengaluru’s entertainment circuit, is coming out with the “online release” of a new music album. “Business has been shut for a long time. I am trying to stay afloat and have been spreading music,” says Jasmeet.
Some of the best stories of resilience in this testing phase come from delivery partners of online services, who are the reason why we could stay ‘safe’ inside our homes.

The migrant worker, who had walked back home last year with his family, has returned to work. The anonymous writers quote “It doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger,” should be our response to the “intelligent” virus, which is forcing new rules of living upon us.

(With inputs from Divya Cutinho, Prakash Samaga, G Subhash Chandra, Raghu Koppar, Ajith M S and Mallikarjun Hiremath)

Prof Hilda Rayappan, senior counselor and founder of Prajna Counselling Centre says the solution is in people being strong and living one day at a time instead of worrying about the future. Deeper prayer life and spirituality may also help people be calm. To relieve stress, people should go for a walk every day. Mental health issues should be treated as a core element in response to the pandemic and focus should be on helping people think positively and providing them financial assistance.

“I lost a very close family member last year. He was alone overseas. We watched his last rites on video. The family is still to come to terms with his loss and the way it happened. There has been no closure,” says a leading doctor in Bengaluru. For intensivists, the second surge has been mind-boggling. “We watched patients die. Some of them were very young. Even as we battled hard to keep our patients alive, there were so many more out there, who died for want of a bed. We couldn’t find beds for our own family members and friends. We had stopped taking calls,” said the head of a critical care unit at a prominent hospital. 

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