Coronavirus: A pandemic of anxiety and depression
These are tough times we live in, where something as simple as a sneeze or a cough elicits fear like nothing ever has before, where venturing out to do grocery shopping feels like stepping into a battlefield, surrounded by a deadly, invisible enemy, and where healthcare workers are chastised for doing their jobs.
Over-exaggerated parallels have been drawn over the last two months between being imprisoned, and being forced to stay home due to movement curfews, but they are not without merits.
According to the Indian Psychiatry Society, the number of mental health cases – including anxiety and depression – has risen 20 percent since the lockdown was first announced, mostly attributable to the decline in social activity and restricted movement.
While the virtual world is helping people stay in touch with their friends, families, and colleagues, most people have reported that they miss the physicality of meeting another human being, or being in the same space as them.
For others, the fear of losing their job, being laid off, or not being able to find work is their biggest source of anxiety.
Even the ones who have been lucky to keep their jobs are finding themselves in a situation where they have to clock in many more hours of work than they used to.
All this is adding to the pandemonium the virus has already created, and the big question now is what will get to people first – the pandemic, or the fear instilled by it?
Dr Mohan Isaac, a renowned Indian psychiatrist, currently practicing in Australia, shares his opinion on how COVID-19 is impacting people, mentally:
“There are two main problems right now that trigger anxiety in people – loneliness and the fear of death,” Dr Mohan explains.
“We are now faced with a one of a kind disease that even researchers and medical practitioners have not figured out yet. We do don’t know of the exact properties of the virus – what its exact symptoms are or whether it is capable of genetic mutation.”
Dr Mohan has been practicing for more than 40 years in the field of psychiatry. He worked as a professor of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, for about 27 years, and currently teaches at The University of Western Australia.
The fact that the coronavirus exhibits symptoms very similar to that of the common flu is a big anxiety trigger, since those symptoms could imply contraction of the more fatal disease.
“The virus thus creates a pandemic of anxiety and depression. The losses incurred in small-businesses, restaurants along with the layoffs all as a result of the lockdown imposed by the governments has led to many cases of anxiety, depression and in extreme cases, suicide.”
Online classes for students
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but when work and play inhabit the same structure, what does that do to a child?
With schools being shut down completely, and the absence of physical activities, sports and games that involve a lot of running and some fresh air, children might find it hard to take meaningful breaks, especially as online classrooms invade their homes.
Jennifer Mary Johnson, a psychology teacher at Mallya Aditi International School and a practicing psychologist, emphasises how the overall development on children will be impacted:
“Schools focus on the overall development of the children, including a life outside academics through various co-curricular activities,” says Jennifer. “That however, is very obviously restricted.”
According to an online study by CRY, the lockdown has impacted children’s physical and psycho-social well-being. Further, being forced to attend online classes directly exposes them to cyber security threats.
Another issue educators have been grappling with is whether online methods cater to all sections of society.
“Although online teaching is not very new and students are adapting to it, it is the students with learning disabilities – such as autism (special needs) – who are finding it difficult to cope with these changes,” adds Jennifer.
“It is also difficult to meet the needs of different kinds of students.”
The work-from-home culture
With most employees working from home now, their work-life balance seems to have gone for a toss. The time taken to commute to work and back has decreased, but so has social interaction and team camaraderie.
Due to a lack of informal interactions with colleagues and bosses outside of work, employees have been getting stressed about what is expected of them, and are thereby clocking in longer hours to overcompensate. Communicating via WhatsApp and emails have also made it harder for people to perceive the tone and sentiment behind messages, making it harder to connect with team members.
Sharon George, Manager - Health, Safety and Well-being, at Australia New-Zealand Banking Group, Bangalore service centre told Social Story how the department places importance on mental wellbeing:
“The lockdown with long periods of isolation, uncertainty and anxiety could affect our body and mind to a great extent. During this time, we support our staff through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), to cope with the change, help them recognise and address the emotions elicited in response to the changes and coach them with strategies to manage them creatively, through our COVID-19 management webinar series, and one-to-one online wellness counselling,” says Sharon.
Impact on the elderly
Senior citizens are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and mortality rates for that age group is significantly higher than for others.
Governments have enforced strict movement restrictions for them to keep them protected, and so, for those living alone, that poses a serious dilemma.
Despite efforts by NGOs and individuals to help senior citizens get access to essentials, for a group that does not adopt technology readily, and finds pleasure in evening strolls through a park, the lockdown has taken a toll on their mental health too. Isolation and loneliness are also issues they have been facing.
The simple solutions
In an article by leading psychiatrist, Robert T. London, he outlines a method that people can use to relax, using only a comfortable chair and a soft, visual focus. (Read about it here.)
“There is a malignant uncertainty about the nature of the virus and people are becoming anxious, but they are finding their own ways to cope with this kind of anxiety. For example, in the UK, the number of people going to religious institutions has increased, signifying a method of coping with the panic” says Dr Mohan.
Several organisations have also been offering help in times of distress: Connect in Crisis, for example, is UK's first online support networking site that brings individuals experiencing similar mental health issues, together. In Australia, an independent non-profit organisation, Beyond Blue is working to address issues associated with depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental disorders.
In India, there are many organisations working towards the betterment of mental health, especially in these difficult times. The Live, Love, Laugh Foundation (TLLLF) is one such entity.
The foundation aims to change the way one looks at mental health, and give hope to those experiencing stress, anxiety and depression (SAD).
Minds Foundation, Manas Foundation, The Banyan, and Aasra, among many others, are also trying to help people cope with the pandemic.
If you are feeling stressed or depressed, there are a number of helplines that you can reach out to for help - you can find them here.