Unlike anything in living memory, Covid-19 has upended people’s lives and stolen away old certainties. When a pandemic happens, the impact goes far beyond physical health.
Divya Dureja, counselling psychologist, LGBT activist and TEDx speaker, sums up the story of a troubling 2020 so far: “On any given day, all of us wish to stay at home but now, since we have been asked to not go to work, we feel shackled.”
A pandemic’s effect on mental health, even among those unaffected by it, could be bigger, doctors suggest. Anxiety, depression and fear are some of the most common symptoms that require attention, says Dr Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences. “For the generation in existence, this is the first such experience of a global pandemic. But it’s important to take it well. Those who are able-bodied or able-minded have a responsibility to support the vulnerable ones, for example elderly, children, pregnant women and people with disability among others,” he says.
“The virus is omnipresent in our minds,” adds psychiatrist Praveen Tripathy. “Through overexposure to information, we are getting to see a lot of mental-illness scenarios aggravated.”
Unlike in the past, when a pandemic like this would cause complete social isolation, people now have the option to stay connected, explains Dr Desai. “We need to focus on the positive things, channelise our energy towards new interests and keep in contact with people through various means,” he says.
Who are most vulnerable?
Those who contract the infection. The department of mental health of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently issued an advisory to support psychological wellbeing of patients during lockdowns because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. “Those with the disease have not done anything wrong,” the advisory says.
Jacqueline Levin of the department of psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital (Manhasset, US), in his book titled Psychiatry of Pandemics, writes that in such a scenario, the loss of functioning because of illness may leave survivors feeling demoralised. “If the patient experiences marked distress or significant impairment in social or occupational functioning, they may meet criteria for adjustment disorder,” he writes, adding, both individual and group therapy can help
Doctors also warn that those quarantined are vulnerable to psychological disorders. “People already have a fear, and by staying at home they are getting more access to news and, also fake forwarded messages on WhatsApp and social media, which is adding to panic,” says Dr Shweta Sharma, consultant, psychology and counselling, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon.
According to Dr Samir Parikh – director, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare – there are multiple factors at play when it comes to understanding mental health in such circumstances. “One is general anxiety because of the virus, which can affect people and their families. Second, there is concern about financial implications. Third is home quarantine, where people are forced to bring in a change in their lifestyle. Hence, they need time to adjust,” explains Dr Parikh.
Healthcare personnel are also susceptible to mental health problems because of prolonged shifts, seeing traumatic images of their patients, and working during surge conditions in overburdened settings with chronically scarce supplies and medication and their own fatigue and burnout.
But impact radius is huge
Doctors say among people who are not affected by the virus but by the impacts of the pandemic, uncertainty and lockdown, some mental illnesses like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety are resurfacing. “Some patients who had come out of depression and anxiety are showing signs of relapse. The reason is a restriction on physical mobility combined with information about the virus,” says Dr Tripathy.
Also, with frequent washing of hands and checking of screens becoming normalised due to the virus threat, the signs of OCD, believe doctors, are being strengthened. “OCD is a situation in which a person repeats a behaviour or thought pattern and can’t stop themselves – like repeatedly washing hands. Now that such patients are getting to see everyone doing it, their symptoms are getting reinforced,” explains Priyanka Goyal, a psychiatrist.
The closure of clinics due to the lockdown also has therapists worried. “Mental health services fall among non-essential medical services and thus psychologists’ clinics and special education centres are all closed at this time. This could lead to regression among patients. Children with special needs could also fall back on the curve,” says Manish Samnani, occupational therapist.
Cut out info overload
Among the counsel offered by mental-health professionals is not let yourself be swamped with information. “Stick to just one source of information; if you read a particular paper, read that each day to stay informed. If you watch a channel, log on to that,” advises Dr Tripathy. “People are sharing messages about taking scheduled drugs as self-medication – they are highly damaging not just for mental wellbeing but for physical wellbeing too,” he adds. “Now is a great time to do some deep cleaning of your house, read books, get some exercise, organise your belongings at home. Do things that you never have time for in the,” advises Goyal.
–Times Of India