Published: 25th June 2020
Mental health matters: Why Young India is depressed and anxious about life in a post-COVID world
While mental health is still stigmatised in a society like ours, it is important that we address the elephant in the room —anxiety, stress, depression, paranoia that has been on a significant rise
Society has a skewed perspective on therapy — I mean the therapy we seek for our mental health issues. Can you imagine anyone being ridiculed for seeking physical therapy for recovery from fracture or tennis elbow? Of course not — no one can expect to heal properly from a serious injury without physiotherapy or an exercise regimen. But as soon as you replace the word 'physical' with 'mental', our attitudes toward treatment tends to shift dramatically. We have all been guilty, at various stages in our lives, of questioning the necessity and effectiveness of mental health practices. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, mental health has not only come to the forefront but the importance of its practices has become evident. With rising numbers in cases of anxiety, stress, depression and paranoia during these testing times, it has become necessary to seek counsel and support.
In April, the Government of Maharashtra, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Mpower, a pioneer in Indian mental healthcare had launched a toll-free 24/7 helpline number for people to reach out and seek help for any mental health concerns during the lockdown. The helpline received around 45,000 calls in just two months of its launch — this could just be the tip of the iceberg as India stares at what experts are calling a "full-blown" mental health crisis post-COVID. The maximum calls are in Marathi at 65 per cent, followed by 27 per cent in Hindi and 8 per cent in English. Even though the helpline was launched for Maharashtra, it has received calls from across the country.
What is quite concerning is that the data shows a whopping 52 per cent of the callers are anxious about what will happen post-lockdown, while 22 per cent were related to isolation and adjustment issues, 11 per cent were for depression, 5 per cent for sleep-related difficulties and 4 per cent were for exacerbation of previous mental health concerns. While the overall range of callers has been 18-85 years, the highest number of calls have a young profile in the 26–40 years range standing at 55 per cent. It is surprising, yet alarming to see that almost 20 per cent called the helpline but disconnected the call before they could speak to one of the mental health counsellors, reinforcing the stigma around mental health in the country and the pressing need to take the leap of faith to open up about one’s concerns.
Most of the callers are worried about the future of their business, job loss, anxiety due to COVID cases near them and worried they may contract it too, frustrations with the constant renewal of lockdowns and being unable to step out of the house, and the anxiety of being separated from their families. Dr Vinod Kumar, psychiatrist and head, Mpower-The Centre in Bengaluru, who is in charge of supervising the psychologists who take the calls, says that some of the most evident fears included employment anxiety, job changes or losses and the changes in public transport norms as the lockdown starts easing. "There is this significant COVID-related anxiety — what if when they go out they contract the illness and then pass it on to their family members? It's the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic that is making most of the people anxious. For the youth, especially students it is quite unsettling when it comes to the fact that there were halfway through exams and now they don't know whether to prepare or not, how much longer they have to wait and thus feel lost," he explains.
These conditions can take the form of high levels of stress or unrelenting depression. Outwardly, we may all appear fine, but internally, we suffer. It gets even worse for people who already suffer from mental health disorders. Dr Vinod also tells us that there were quite a few calls from people about cleanliness — hygiene is of utmost importance in these times. "For people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is doubly worrying for them. What should I touch, how close should I stand — people who already worry about these things more than the ones who do not have the issue, are extremely troubled and anxious to step out. With the general stress levels at an all-time high, it's going to be worse for them as the stress is uncontrollable," he adds.
Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when she was 23, Nilova Bose, a young professional from Kolkata, agrees, she tells us how she's quite anxious about stepping out of her house. "I haven't stepped out since the lockdown began in March. We haven't had physical contact with anyone for over three months. It's a brand new world out there and I will have to acquaint myself with that which somewhat scares me. There's this sense of discomfort, unfamiliarity with the roads I have been taking for so long, even with the people — I can't stop but think how they have grown or come to terms with this new normal in the past few months," she says. Nilova reveals that she had little regard for personal hygiene and now she feels guilty about it, which makes it a bit harder for her to deal with the new normal — wash hands, cleanliness at all times. "It's a health emergency and it's not just me who can be harmed. If I am not careful there's a chance I can jeopardise someone else's health, that kind of gives me the chills," she adds.
Nilova hasn't had any major setbacks or violent outbursts for a while now. The last one she remembers was around one and a half years ago. She also isn't on medication currently, but she says that pranic healing (a no-touch energy healing system based on the fundamental principle that the body has the innate ability to heal itself) has worked wonders for her. "I do struggle with loneliness and a sense of isolation. It was even when the lockdown wasn't there I had these feelings but my friends have helped me through this tremendously and I have been well-connected virtually," she says.
Talking about your feelings, communicating with people around always helps, adds Dr Vinod. "If it becomes difficult to share, I always suggest people maintain a journal regularly, which is therapeutic. However, when it's beyond that level, seeking professional help is advised. Even during a crisis, online counselling sessions come in handy and they are now quite affordable and accessible," he adds.
While it is difficult for people already suffering from mental health disorders, it has been an equally tumultuous time for youngsters who are in the midst of their examinations, or the ones starting off their careers and the ones who fear salary cuts or a job loss.
Arkaprabha Sanyal, a student at Kota, who has already appeared for his Class 12 boards has been waiting endlessly for the JEE Main and Advance examinations. "The dates have changed numerous times since the pandemic hit and I have been quite unsure if the exam will take place this year. I am a bit more relaxed currently as the examination is scheduled to take place in July. However, it's still quite uncertain because the NTA can make changes to it," says the jilted JEE aspirant. This pandemic has proved to be a major obstacle for the JEE and NEET aspirants in our country. With the MHRD and the NTA modifying dates every month due to the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, the students have been left in the lurch.
This, however, hasn't put a halt to Arkaprabha's preparations, even if the dates change again, he says he will be patient and continue with his studies as this is what he wants to do. "It's frustrating, to say the least. There's this uncertainty surrounding the exam - studying the same thing for a longer period of time, it gets monotonous but I am still continuing to study," he adds. Akraprabha has been attending coaching classes in Kota, they are sending revision material currently, but he is also solving previous year papers on alternate days.
The JEE aspirant says that studying at the coaching centre is definitely better because you follow a fixed schedule and it helps maintain a specific momentum. Speaking of what will happen after the lockdown, he says, "I am also a bit worried about the Class 12 board results, everything is running late because of COVID. I am waiting in anticipation for the JEE to finish then things would get back on track," he says. With the cases increasing every single day, the fear of contracting the disease is also on a rise significantly and he's worried about that too. He also adds that the exam halls will look different, with social distancing norms be in place, it will obviously be a very new experience.
As the world came to a virtual standstill with the pandemic and public at large being confined to their homes to fight the Coronavirus, the sectors which are affected the most are travel and hospitality. A recent report by Naukri.com states that the hotel, travel and airline sector has seen a negative hiring trend of 91 per cent, highest across numerous other industries in April. The national average, as per the report, stands at a dip of 62 per cent. This has left the youngsters working in these sectors anxious.
Srija Bose*, a flight attendant with a private airline says that as COVID-19 hit and had a significant effect on the aviation sector, their regular lives on flights changed rapidly. "We started getting scared of passengers coughing and sneezing, something that was very normal inside an aircraft earlier. This is the first time in six years that I haven’t flown in the past three months and it does affect a lot of things on a daily basis. The aviation sector is crumbling down. Crew and pilots are losing their jobs with each passing day. There have been major pay cuts as the travel demand is close to zero, people are scared to fly and be inside a confined space. For a flight attendant, flying almost 20 days in a month is something very normal but with COVID it seems life has taken a different turn. Even though my airline has started flights I wasn't back to the grind until a few days ago. From having a monthly roster to being on standby for the three months, it became quite stressful due to the uncertainty of the situation. Does it scare me every morning to wake up and think about losing my job? Yes, it does. Because pay cuts so far are just a small step taken by the company to support its business but soon enough we all know that someday we might lose our dream jobs, and there is nothing that can justify it." she says.
Speaking of how flying would be a completely different experience (read wearing PPEs, masks at all times), the 25-year-old adds, "We will no longer be judged on the basis of our perfect makeup and hair and smile but on how well we wear PPEs and on how well we are trained to keep ourselves and others safe. As a crew, our regular lifestyle is to travel the world and also take good care of those customers who expect a comfortable journey, while taking care of their safety inside that aeroplane. However, since COVID-19, I think all crew around the world have missed doing their job. I hope things go back to how they were before and I’m sure if it happens, we would all appreciate our jobs a little bit more," adds Srija.
Ranjit Kar*, who works as a front desk staff at a prominent star hotel in Mumbai, says that his company has treated its employees with utmost care amid the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Despite this, the young professional could not help but be anxious about contracting the virus every time he serves the guests at the hotel. "I stayed at the hotel for the entire time of the lockdown. We don't have the option to work from home. Our clientele mainly includes company heads, CEOs, and people from the nearby US Consulate — employees who permanently stay here. We started losing a lot of business even before lockdown started. Around the second week of March, we had 20-50% strength while normally in a week five days out of seven it's a full house. Numbers began plummeting, we were left with people who stay permanently and some guests who came from abroad and then they left eventually," he says while explaining the scenario during the lockdown.
Ranjit adds that the company hasn't let go off any of its staff yet, despite these tough times. "We haven't faced issues with our job security or salary as such yet. However, at least for a year now we won't get regular guests, there's a bit of anxiety about that as we will lose revenue. I am not planning to shift right now as there are not many jobs around. They are treating their employees pretty well. We have also begun implementing new processes where we will have the least contact with guests," he adds, giving us an insight into what will hotels look like in a post-COVID world.
Even with lockdown easing and things crawling back to normal, the general consensus among youngsters is that they are anxious about finding a job as a lot of companies have shut down and creating the demand again in the market would be a challenge. Smiti Gehrotra, Head of Programmes at the Sambandh Foundation and a trained social worker in the area of mental health feels it's like a vicious circle in itself. "The major stressors now that everything is slowly opening up could be earning a livelihood as a lot of people have lost their jobs, people who migrated do not want to come back with the fear that if there's another lockdown they wouldn't be able to survive. People with mental health issues — the anxiety still hasn't gone down, fear of contracting the disease hasn't gone down, they do understand the precautions but anxiety might trigger other symptoms. They need the right kind of support structures, resources made available to them so that they can develop their own coping mechanisms," she adds. Sambandh is a community-based organisation, which has been working with people with severe and chronic mental illnesses for the past eight years.
Mental health has come into the mainstream now and has become a crucial component for our overall well-being. However, we still need a lot of awareness, understand what mental health entails and how it affects our daily lives. Only then can we build resilience for an issue like COVID and become capable of developing our own coping mechanisms.
Until then, stay safe and ask for help when you need it.
*Names have been changed upon request from sources for anonymity