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Failing Mental Health: Grave Corollary of the Pandemic

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 By Dr TARINI MEHTA 

Humankind is confronting one of its worst crises since World War II. Life as we know it has come to a halt in 185 countries. Now, over 4.5 billion people, half the world’s population, are living under social distancing measures. While the economic impacts are being debated and pondered upon, the psychological impacts are not being given due consideration. This is despite the fact that a study undertaken by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and the University of Cambridge has revealed that the psychological repercussions are deep and will be long-lasting. Social distancing has led to a rise in mental instability and illness around the world; in a great many cases this is manifesting as violent behaviour. Across the world, domestic violence has increased and India is no exception.

Data from Google Trends reveals that there has been a steep increase in stress levels in India during the lockdown, far more, in fact, than in several other countries during the same period. A recent survey by the Indian Psychiatric Society indicates a 20% rise in cases of mental illness, owing to fears, anxiety and depression related to work, finance, health and relationship problems arising because of the crisis and lockdown. This has been accompanied by a rise in the search for counselling and therapy.

The Indian Government has responded by establishing helplines. However, this is not enough. For one, these helplines are being inundated by calls, and will not be able to effectively counsel people without more staff that is sufficiently trained to deal with anxiety, depression and other mental conditions. Dr Renu Singh, Founder and Director of Samadhan, the oldest helpline for women in North India, explains that ‘the first 30 seconds are the most important. This is the time when the counsellor has to reach out to the person with great understanding, so that they can effectively help them. In Government-run helplines, however, these crucial seconds are commonly used to record the name, address and such details, rather than connect and provide real counselling.’

Furthermore, Dr Renu Singh adds that no matter how well-trained a counsellor may be, owing to the nature of the work, there are limits to how many patients he or she can counsel in a day. If one exceeds this capacity, effectiveness is reduced. The scale of the problem is such that it needs a larger network of helping hands. Solely relying upon top-down Government-led solutions is not viable; they tend to be implemented ineffectively, too slowly, or are unable to offer adequate support to the most vulnerable. This is where community-based support groups can play a key role in assisting those who are feeling anxious, alone, depressed, or facing violence. Samadhan has initiated such a community group in the form of a Mahila Samiti, and has found it to be empowering and beneficial for the community.

By requiring us to rethink our responses to other people’s pain, this crisis can, in fact, serve as a transformative opportunity to make our societies more compassionate, kind and connected. This is also beneficial for individual growth. Modern society has programmed us to believe that happiness comes from material possessions and achievements; money, professional recognition and fame become our chief goals. By idolising and chasing these, and constantly craving more, the very happiness we seek, in fact, eludes us. This pursuit of such materialistic values has made us and our societies highly consumeristic and self-centred. In the almost frantic desire to achieve these things, we have lost our sense of proportion and have closed our eyes to our destructive activities, depleting the natural world around us, and thereby, inflicting injustice and suffering not just upon other people, but on other species as well. If our own experiences do not convince us of this, research from top universities such as Harvard and Emory prove that lasting happiness does not come from what we amass for ourselves, but from what we give to others – whether it be love, care, understanding, or material support. A study conducted by the University of British Columbia even noticed an increase in happiness among children as young as two years old when giving treats to others, as compared to when receiving treats themselves. Compassion and generosity lead to psychological well-being, which is indubitably connected with improved physical health.

Now, more than ever, the importance of looking beyond ourselves and our own close circles is starkly apparent. To save ourselves and others from anxiety, depression and so forth, we need to reach out and find ways to come together and support one another. This could help ameliorate the negative psychological trauma of this crisis, and also lead to the development of a more united, supportive and caring society.

(Dr Tarini Mehta is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global University’s School of Environment and Sustainability, as well as a lawyer specialised in environmental and human rights law.)