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Don’t Dismiss Distress - the impending Epidemic post the Pandemic

In the midst of the pandemic, Mental Health is likely to be an epidemic which is going to erupt soon - we need to take these concerns seriously and not be dismissive of those struggling.

TW: This article will make references to the current #Coronavirus outbreak (also known as #COVID19) - If this is a topic area which is unsettling for you or makes you anxious, it is advisable to not read ahead.

Social distancing, state run quarantines, restaurant closures - the world we currently live in has become a very strange and turbulent place. Coronavirus has transformed everything we thought we knew about our daily lives, our government, and our health into a kind of world where virtual hangouts and panic-buying toilet paper are the new norm. It’s taking a toll on even the most optimistic of us as we try to stay positive amidst what feels like bleaker and bleaker news each day. Now, imagine how this already unsettling situation feels for those already living with Mental Health conditions. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTS, substance abuse, and other forms of chronic conditions are some of the most vulnerable right now in terms of loneliness, isolation, and potential for self-destructive behaviour due to a lack of consistent support and a disrupted routine.

In the midst of the pandemic, Mental Health is likely to be an epidemic which is going to erupt soon. There have been a steep increase in cases of individuals reporting concerns related to depression, stress and anxiety during these times as reported by crisis helplines, messenger services and Mental Health professionals in India and around the world. Individuals have reported feeling isolated, lonely, left out, nervous and a constant sense of worry and loss of interest in doing things - and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

In a recent survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society, the sudden rise in those suffering from mental illness is up to 20 per cent as the crisis emerged in India.

Adding to this is the lockdown that has made people live in fear of losing their businesses, jobs, earnings, savings or even basic resources.

For starters, one sign of the impending crisis has been the number of suicides in India amongst individuals who have either tested positive or fear that they are infected. This is a sign our Mental Health system is failing our citizens. There needs to be counselling provided to those in state-run isolation or quarantine facilities or those who are getting treatment to help them deal with the anxieties and trauma around the situation along with helping boost their recovery. While that has been said, it is also important to provide Mental Health care to all our carers, doctors, nurses and first responders who have also been dealing with this crisis head and are constantly in the ring of fire.

‘You have absolutely nothing to be upset/ depressed about - you have food and shelter..’ ‘Why are you worried? Have you even thought of those who have it so much worse than you do?’

How many of us have reached out to family and friends in this time of the pandemic and encouraged them to take care and reach out for help? And yet, how often do we find ourselves either making or thinking of such callous remarks when they share their distress over the situation?

If there’s one thing as someone who advocates for Mental Health that I’d like you to know during this time it is this -- If you feel anxious, depressed, uneasy or angry during this time, you should know that this is normal. It is acceptable to feel the way you are during these uncertain times irrespective of what your living conditions might be or what others might tell you. It is ok to not be ok - every single emotion that you are experiencing is valid and real. Don’t let the opinion of others make you doubt, discount or dismiss them.

Wash your hands, keep your distance, be flexible: These are difficult for many, but, for many people with mental illnesses, these can be a huge problem. We fear for our lungs - and forget the most vulnerable among us. For those with Mental Health conditions or vulnerabilities, this situation can be nothing less than torturous. Individuals with a mental illness carry a rucksack on their back. There are times when this rucksack is relatively light, and they get along quite well in their everyday life. And then again there are times when the rucksack becomes very, very heavy: When external stress factors occur or stress situations last for a long time. The times we are living in are undoubtedly high intensity and stressful scenarios for even those with no history of mental illness, so let alone how hard it might be on those who are already suffering. The added stress and anxiety from the news and isolation can lead to deterioration of their condition as well. It is in these times that we need to be even more sensitive and not dismiss the way others are feeling, especially if they feel that they can share their deepest vulnerabilities with us. Don’t make them feel small about them or tell them that there are others who have it worse - that is definitely not going to help their cause. Show empathy and be there for them in their distress - you never know, you could be the only support system they have.

With some 2.6 billion people around the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting arguably the largest psychological experiment ever.

This will result in a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020 and taking action now can mitigate the toxic effects of COVID-19 lockdowns. Human beings are social animals, isolation is not something which comes naturally to us. Even the most deep-rooted introvert will be finding this kind of isolation hard, no matter what presumptions are being made about their nature. In treating the pandemic, the world is scrambling to build enough tents to treat those infected with a deadly, highly contagious virus. In New York, we see literal field hospitals in the middle of Central Park. However, we are missing out on another aspect on the bigger picture - we’re not setting up the second tent for psychological help and we will pay the price within three to six months after the end of this unprecedented lockdown, at a time when we will need all able bodies to help the world economy recover.

While Mental Health concerns are not new, the intensity of the situation triggering it certainly is. This time, ground zero is not a quarantined village or town or region; a third of the global population is dealing with these intense stressors which can potentially cause long term emotional damage as well.

The best time to set up the second tent was yesterday, the next best time is today. Better late than never.


Written by: Vedica Podar

April, 2020


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