The mental health perils of a pandemic

Seamless pattern of a crowd of many different people profile heads. Vector background.

Oft neglected, mental health awareness has become the need of the hour during the stressful times of the pandemic.
NT NETWORK examines how the outlook towards mental well-being has changed and what has been done so far to enhance it

Danuska Da Gama | NT NETWORK

In the circle of our lives, we encounter dilemmas, both small and big. There are the trivial ones

which get pushed away, and others that linger on causing bigger problems. In fact, the hurdles that we face whether in school and college, at work, in our relationships, with family and friends, and in the community are often due to our mental health well-being.

And while we now talk at least somewhat openly of our mental well being, it is important to note that mental health conditions are still increasing around the globe. But despite 20 per cent of the world’s children and adolescents having a mental health condition and suicide being the second leading cause of death among the age group of 15-29 years, the global median of government health expenditure for mental health is a dismal two per cent.

Theme 2020 and COVID connection

World Mental Health Day was first observed on October 10, 1992 to raise awareness, demystify various notions, and create support for loved ones to cope.

Each year an apt theme is chosen, around which several events and campaigns are organised. This year has been a trying one owing to the pandemic. The uncertainty of the times, isolation, social distancing, guilt, and more, has had a negative outcome on people’s mental health condition.

Thus, there is increasing emphasis being put on mental health, which has been ignored otherwise with this year’s theme being ‘Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access’. The crux is about creating dialogue, shelling out importance on the need to invest in mental health programmes at various levels, local, national as well as global levels.

In fact, these months, while challenging for everybody, the ones who have been facing mental health issues have been going through an even tougher time with no much access to mental health care, etc, as the entire focus has shifted to COVID.

Indeed, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of the countries. Furthermore, it notes that the pandemic itself can lead to mental health issues.

The WHO statement reads: “COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke. People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection – they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death.”

And looking back at past emergencies the world has witnessed, it is expected that the need for mental health and psychosocial support will increase substantially over a period of time.

Investing in mental health beyond monies

To help out in a small way in ensuring good mental health of people, especially the youth, assistant professor, psychology, St Xavier’s College, Fr Ramiro Luis recently initiated a video song ‘One Love’ where teachers show awareness through singing and acting in an activity where they tell everyone that all is well. For him and like-minded teachers and youngsters, it’s their way of investing in mental health. Having heart-to-heart stories, creating some know-how on conditions and recovery, and more, he says, is his and the Psychology Department’s way of empowering the youth and helping their minds cope with stressors and difficulties that they may not want to talk about.

In fact Luis believes that in these gloomy times of the pandemic, the learning of psychological tools to cope up with life‘s uncertainties is more essential than ever before.

“Learning to be positive, learning to be strong emotionally, learning to support others in their dark times is the most important need,” he says, stressing that we all need to understand a lit bit of psychology and pay attention the human mind and behaviour. “It can help individuals, especially young students to respond to the times with great prudence,” he says, while advising people to look and around and observe their fellow beings. “We will be able to spot how abnormally people have been behaving during these times. People are scared of contracting the virus. The fear psychosis right now is at its peak and the rational response to the happenings around us are have hit rock bottom. This calls for attention towards their mental well-being. The misinformed and misattributed behaviour should not be discounted, and needs to be tended to, sooner the better,” he says.

Hopeful and dejected, both at the same time, senior psychiatrist, North Goa District Hospital, Rajesh Dhume meanwhile believes that it is rather unfortunate that we needed the COVID pandemic to highlight the that ‘we’ are important ,’our’ mental health was important and ‘our’ brain is important. “’We’. ‘Us’. ‘Our needs’. ‘Our Sadness’… did we really need Corona to come and tell us how vulnerable we are?” Dhume wonders.

The government for its part has been playing an active role in creating awareness about mental health. In fact along with the NGOs, and the Psychiatry Society of Goa, a number of programmes have been conceptualised.

During the present COVID time itself an initiative was launched under Dhume by Directorate of Health Services to start 24×7 counselling where people who are in home isolation, are counselled with dedicated phone lines.

Also as part of another initiative done jointly with The Psychiatric Society of Goa, any person can book an appointment to have an online consultation through the platform collaborated by the government. Initiated on August 3, this was initially meant for COVID patients, but now it is open to the general public.

Psychiatrist, Shaheen Saiyed tells us that the COVID
pandemic has put patients in difficulty, but it is their duty to ease that by following SOPs. “From using social media platform for awareness, training, etc and using telemedicine for our patients, we are trying hard to take care of the needs of people,” she says.

While being a stressful time, the pandemic, Luis believes, has also been a great tool for learning. “The best element that the youth can really pick up from the experiences of these times is ‘to act responsibly’. We can help the youth in various ways, by making them understand the value that is inherent in them. We could make them realise a number of values that they can pick up from this once in a lifetime experience,” Luis shares.

At the same time, he confesses that indeed the youth are the most vulnerable lot who are easily inflicted with depression and that further leads to suicides.

Luis through his experience with youth tells us that they go into deep depression and through suicide ideation only because they have felt that their future is at stake. Thus, he believes that there have to be collaborated efforts to make mental health accessible to youngsters. “It is of utmost importance to have well trained counsellors in all schools and colleges every single day and not on piecemeal basis,” he says, while adding that all the other achievements in schools and colleges that educationists strive to inculcate and help students achieve, is of no use if in the bargain youngsters lose out on their mental health.

‘We’ for mental health

Making mental health a priority is no easy task. It requires efforts from various ends to align. From the stigma that surrounds mental illness to lack of affordable and accessible health care, the obstacles are many. Not given enough importance as physical health care, the neglect is always there.

Earlier mental health was akin to being mad or lunatic, but with education, and dialogues in society we now know how having a healthy mind is something we should work towards.

Senior psychiatrist North Goa District Hospital, Rajesh Dhume has been practicing psychiatry for close to three decades. Talking about how there has been a transition towards accepting mental illness and the willingness to get treated and open up he tells us: “When I started people would not come to me even to check their BP, because of the fear of ‘what will people say if they come to know I visited a psychiatrist? But, now about five to 10 years there has been change witnessed. Now people are ready to come forward for treatment.”

However, in Goa he says, it is the people who have had a lot of metro experience, those who have migrated to Goa and parents who are well-travelled, that seek assistance.

Further, Dhume says, there is a segment of the elite society which stays away from consulting a psychiatrist in the state, and travel outside. “So you see…there is still a stigma associated with it and this stigma comes from fear. There is a lot of mystification and difficulty in understanding the root cause of it,” he explains.

All private hospitals in Goa on their panel of doctors have a psychiatrist listed there. Psychiatric services are available in government hospitals too. Open dialogues, programmes, accessible care and intervention is what we should seek without having to worry about what the other person might think, and then overcoming tough times is possible.