The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown and economic slowdown has resulted in a drastic increase in mental health issues among people. Chief among mental health experts' concerns is the prevalence of anxiety and depressive symptoms among people.
"There are a lot more cases of anxiety and depression. A lot of anxiety we see now is due to one or two things. One is the fear of getting COVID-19 and the other is the financial effects of the pandemic," said Dr Soumitra Pathare in an interview with BOOM.
"The messaging around COVID-19 has been poor in so many ways that instead of giving people some sense of control over it has resulted in too many anxieties. So there's this constant fear of 'have I got COVID-19?' The anxiety around the economic situation and the anxiety around the health situation are two broad headings under which anxiety is being clustered. Depression are also under the similar kind of headings," Dr Pathare said.
Dr Pathare has witnessed an increasing number of people with a history of mental illnesses experiencing a recurrence or relapse of their existing illness. However, a majority of cases being reported are from people who were previously unaffected by mental health issues.
"Young people in schools and colleges are definitely being hit hard but they are probably not being seen in the system. Elderly people have also been hit hard and that is largely to do with social isolation. The elderly population is such that they may not actually seek help. The people who are talking the most about it and turning up everywhere are actually the people who never had a mental health problem, who didn't expect to have a mental health problem and who are now experiencing some kind of mental distress. Either because they are in a lockdown, they have no social contact or they are worried about their jobs," Dr Pathare added.
A study conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society in April found a 20% increase in people suffering from a mental illness. The United Nations has warned of a global mental health crisis arising due to the pandemic and urged nations to address the impending crisis as a priority.
How to identify mental health issues
Like physical ailments, mental health issues have a number of conditions under it. Anxiety and depression are the two most widely reported conditions during the pandemic. While Dr Pathare urged individuals not to self-diagnose, he also advised people to keep a track of changes in their routine or bio functions to recognise early signs of mental distress.
"If you notice any change in your daily routine or in your bio-functions like your sleep being affected, a loss or increase in appetite or becoming irritable or withdrawn, you should seek help. The change needs to be significant. I didn't sleep for one night does not qualify for a mental health problem. If it's happening for 10-15 days then you have an issue which you need help for," he said.
What can you do
Are there any measures people can take to shield themselves from mental distress? Self care and a good support system can be helpful according to Dr Pathare.
"If you face some initial problems, the simplest things to do is self-care. Simple stuff like maintaining your daily routine, getting up on time, sleeping on time and exercising can help. You can talk to someone in your family or call up a friend and have a chat with them. If that doesn't work still, you can try calling up a helpline and speak with a counselor. If even that doesn't help, then maybe that is the time you need to see a psychiatrist. We need to have a graded response to mental health problem in the same way you do for a physical health problem," he said.
Mental health and the way forward
That it needed a global pandemic to mental health awareness into the spotlight says a lot about the importance given to it. While calling the increased awareness of mental health issues a welcome change, Dr Pathare rued that it required a global pandemic costing millions of lives. He also called on people to remember the mental anguish the pandemic caused when things get back to normal.
"It's a terrible thing that we have to say that it required a tragedy and a pandemic for us to realise the whole issue of mental health. You have got ministers talking about it, you have the health secretary writing an article in a broadsheet about the mental health challenge. While we have been talking about mental health, we haven't really done a lot about it. While there is a lot of interest, there has not been much happening on the ground.
"The pandemic and the lockdown has sensitised people to mental health issues. There is a lot of conversations that are happening. What is now required is for those conversations to continue and for us to do some policy actions. We should not forget how it was during the pandemic," he said.
- An increasing number of people with a history of mental illnesses experiencing a recurrence or relapse of their existing illness.
- Anxiety and depression are the two most widely reported conditions during the pandemic.
- Self care and a good support system can be helpful in dealing with mental illness.
Catch the interview on YouTube or click on the link here.
If you or someone you know would like to work on improving your mental health, please refer to these resources.
The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers you can call to seek help.
The NIMHANS helpline can be reached at 080-4611 0007.
The iCall helpline can be reached at 022-25521111.