Pandemic takes a toll on mental health

Psychologists say extended isolation, loss of loved ones, constant anxiety severely affected mental well-being of many

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that mental health problems could be the next pandemic after COVID-19 fades away,” said Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) senior fellow Akshay Kumar, who is also a consultant in the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Science at Artemis Hospital.

Speaking to The Hindu, Dr. Kumar, said he was overwhelmed daily by the number of clients seeking counselling for mental health issues during the pandemic. Most of the cases pertained to anxiety and depression.

“People fear they might get infected or a family member might catch the virus. Many have suffered loss of livelihood or business or job. Even those who are working fear they might lose their job. A chief executive officer of a multinational company in Gurugram, one of my clients, suffered loss of appetite and developed insomnia fearing that he might lose his job. He is doing well at work but you tend to think illogically when you are anxious. Another client, an eminent engineer, had fully recovered from COVID-19 but felt he could not breathe without oxygen support. Many of my clients have lost their loved ones. They are not able to come out of the shock,” said Dr. Kumar.

“Most of my clients happen to be male. They are usually the breadwinners and are impacted more by uncertainty over jobs and livelihood. But there is no official data by the WHO saying that one gender is impacted more that the other,” Dr. Kumar said, adding most of his clients are in the 18-50 age group, and both men and women come to him for help.

Shweta Sharma, a clinical psychologist at Columbia Asia Hospital, said there could be a “tsunami of psychiatric illnesses” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety and panic disorders, generalised anxiety disorder and mood disorders will be at the top of the list and the impact on mental health could be long-lasting. There are many vulnerable groups who will suffer from psychological distress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide and suicidal behaviour due to economic recession, insecure job situation, unemployment, lower socio-economic status. The affects on mental health will last several years after the pandemic ends. Delay in seeking professional help because of stigma surrounding mental health will cause more issues," said Dr. Sharma.

Jyoti Kapoor, senior psychiatrist and founder of Manasthali, a mental and emotional well-being platform, has been running a helpline with the support of her friends and interns to help those facing mental health issues.

Calls on battling anxiety

“Most of those calling us are in the age group of 30-50, but many call on behalf of their elderly parents or teenage children. We receive calls about teens battling anxiety and depression. A 16-year-old boy showed serious signs of withdrawal after one of his grandparents died due to COVID-19 and later his parents also got infected. Used to being able to move around freely, teenagers are now forced to stay indoors with no real social contact. Long hours of online classes are also a source of stress for them with frequent glitches,” said Dr. Kapoor.

Dr. Kumar said it was “very important” to talk about the mental health issues arising out of the pandemic. “Awareness about mental health is on the rise. Before the pandemic, people were reluctant to talk about mental health issues, stress and anxiety. Even the media is raising the issue. It was not so earlier. But it is still not enough,” he added.

Pursuing your passion, developing new hobbies, spreading good news, meditation, and staying in touch with family and friends over the phone and through social media are some of the ways to battle anxiety and depression, Dr. Kumar said, adding that people should not hesitate to take professional help if required. “Usually, we tend to ignore signs of depression and anxiety. So the first thing is to acknowledge if you are depressed. Create a personal space for yourself inside your home, spend some quality ‘me time’. Keep personal and professional lives separate. Exercise daily,” he advised Dr. Kapoor.

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