While the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are most visible at the level of global health and economy, it is exerting an unseen yet critical impact on our mental well-being as well. In this article, Debdutta discusses the various ways in which the pandemic can prey upon our mental health, and some small steps that can help one stay connected and grounded during the crisis.
COVID-19 is a global health emergency not only in terms of physical health but mental health as well, warn experts. Most of us have not witnessed a global pandemic of this magnitude in our lives. The numbers and the extent are unprecedented, creating a sense of fear and anxiety. In contrast, regions around the world with previous experiences of pandemics appear more prepared. So do small communities with limited healthcare systems.
The constant conversation about the disease, those affected, and the number of deaths, is not helping anyone. “There is seriously no other topic than this, these days,” says Aishwarya, a research scholar in a German university. Uncertainty and the fear of the unknown naturally give rise to the wish to gather information. News highlights negative developments, and this can trigger stressors. Those who are prone to anxiety are especially vulnerable. “Limit the news and be careful what you read,” advises an article published in BBC News. While it is very important to know what’s happening, it is also okay not to be updated about every little detail.
I have found it important to acknowledge that every human being is different, and what works for one may not work for others.
Many of us are used to living structured lives with a fixed routine, which has been disrupted. It has also led to additional responsibilities for many, for example, parents with small children, or people with elderly parents. In this situation, it is important to give ourselves time to process the changes and adjust. It is normal to be having trouble. It is okay if we cannot bring ourselves to be highly productive. All the pending projects need not be finished right now.
Physical distancing has locked people in with others they may not be used to staying with, seriously testing many relationships. Some others have found themselves completely isolated at home. I have found it helpful to stay socially connected with a few people I consider close. I have had that chat with my school friend that we had been postponing for a long time and formed new bonds of friendship with a few I used to earlier think of as acquaintances.
While some have steady jobs and can work from home, others have been caught between jobs, and some have been laid off. There is increased pressure on many people to be more productive, upskill themselves, start on a dream project during this period. This can lead to shame and disappointment. The fear of how the world and our lives will be once this is over, particularly from an economic standpoint, is also adding to the anxiety.
At the crux of the mental health crisis is fear, and human fear stems from the unknown. A lot about this novel virus is unknown even at the forefront of research. The uncertainty of the practical circumstances has added to the stress. “At this point, I am actually scared about whether I will get to see my friends, comrades, lovers, extended family after all this is over,” says Puja, a former student.
Instead of worrying about things that are not in our hands, it is probably a good idea to focus on things that we can do. By actively dissociating ourselves from things in which one has no constructive role to play, we can keep the anxiety away.
The current situation puts many who are vulnerable at greater risk. “People who are already mentally ill, especially those on medication, are not getting the usual medicines, thus have chances of relapse,” says Subhra Sarkar, PhD Scholar, Department of Psychiatric Nursing, LGBRIMH, Tezpur. Preventive measures like washing hands regularly can cause complications for those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who usually find it difficult to control these practices. Those with an anxiety disorder who are already vulnerable to the fear of diseases have been confronted with a situation that can make fighting their anxiety more difficult.
Many Indians have had to face rumour-mongering amongst neighbours, relatives, and even friends after returning to India from abroad. Undue and constant speculations have strained many otherwise stable relationships. “COVID-stigma is real,” says Navin, a PhD scholar in Columbia University, who returned to his home in India just before all international commercial flights were cancelled.
Like the disease itself, such daily problems can amplify, reinforce, and push otherwise mentally healthy people towards a negative loop of emotions, thoughts, and actions. In such times, it is even more important to acknowledge that mental health is as important as physical health. If we are not going about our lives in a reasonable manner and taking care of ourselves, others may not be able to help us with the chores and responsibilities of a functioning adult. We need to ensure that our basic self-care needs are met.
Yastika Kamboj, a mental health consultant, advises, “It helps to remember that this is temporary and just another challenge that will be overcome. Instead of stressing over the situation, we should try to take out a moment during the day to distance ourselves from the worrying. Another thing that is helping me is to try and stay in the present. It is important to remember we are strong and capable of dealing with those challenges.”
Sometimes, we tend to take a lot of burden on ourselves. Probably this is a good time to remind ourselves that we as individuals cannot solve everything. Humanity has the capacity to heal, learn, and grow. With time, it will overcome this challenge. By taking care of ourselves and those around us, we can see this as an opportunity to learn lessons that will serve us for the rest of our lives.