Dr Sunil Mittal, Senior Psychiatrist and Chairperson at Cosmos Insititute of Mental Health Behavioural Sciences, offers a magisterial view of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of working professionals, children, and women.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the world unimaginably. Large economies have been shaken, livelihoods uprooted and what we considered ‘normal’ has been disrupted. There has been widespread fear surrounding our physical health. However, the pandemic has also taken a very heavy toll on our mental health. There have been a plethora of mental health issues witnessed since the onset of the crisis. Lockdown isolation, job losses, salary cuts, loss of loved ones, and anxiety over contracting the virus have contributed to pandemic fatigue and a surge in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
For those already tackling mental health issues, the pandemic has been a period of added trauma. Uncertainty is still prevalent throughout the world, and experts fear a silent mental health pandemic following the Covid-19 pandemic. Amidst Covid-19, mental health professionals have continued to help battle soaring mental health issues. Let us take a closer look at the effects of the global crisis on people’s mental health.
The Remote Working Dilemma:
The pandemic has given impetus to remote working, with some organisations even adopting it in varying degrees permanently. However, remote working comes with its fair share of problems. While it offers flexibility and saves time, overhead costs, and effort spent in commutes, it also impairs a healthy work-life balance.
In fact, ‘Work from Home’ has turned into ‘Live at Work’ for many as people are now constantly connected through technology. Recently, the CEO of a prominent tech company in a therapy session compared remote-working to handing over a remote-control to one’s day, alas, without any switch-off button! There is also the issue of a change in work culture, and digital interactions lacking the warmth of an office atmosphere. With lines between professional and personal life blurring, and a variety of social interactions reducing, more people are experiencing burnout, fatigue, anxiety and even addictions.
Covid-19 and Students: Learning during a Global Crisis
Students are facing high levels of stress as a result of home-schooling and online learning. A tremendous amount of learning in formative years occurs outside classrooms, which has been side-lined due to social distancing. Both school and college-going students have been impacted significantly with millions of youth being affected by an overnight shift in their way of life. Almost an entire academic year has been lost to shutdowns and adapting to remote learning. Inequality in access to technology has also hit hard; parents and students from lower-income families or in areas with poor networks have especially endured a very anxious time.
Students’ screen time has also skyrocketed. We frequently come across parents who report that their children spend nearly 80% of their waking time in front of a screen, while their physical activity has plummeted to less than 15% of what is considered healthy. This gives way to a host of problems such as lethargy, decreased performance, and change in the secretion of chemicals in the brain. Combined, these contribute to mental health issues and general irritability in adolescents. Adults must guide children and adolescents in regulating screen time, ensure a healthy and balanced diet, encourage physical activity, and set a good example themselves.
Women and the Pandemic: A Surge in Mental Health Issues
Studies suggest that women are up to three times more prone to combating some mental health issues compared to men. Women carry the pressure of playing multiple roles when it comes to balancing professional as well as personal lives. While there have been work-related challenges during this period for everyone, many women have reported a disproportionate increase in their responsibilities at home as well. Pregnant women have also been adversely impacted by the pandemic. Some studies found that over one-third of pregnant women surveyed during Covid-19 suffered from severe anxiety or significant depression due to fear, uncertainties and restrictions. This may particularly pose difficulty for women handling their first pregnancy.
Senior citizens: The Most Vulnerable
Our health requirements evolve with age; this is true for physical as well as mental health. Senior citizens were categorized as ‘High Risk’ since a disproportionate impact of Covid-19 has been witnessed on them. Due to this, many have faced heightened health anxiety. In fact, many senior citizen patients report having neglected or delayed attending to other health issues due to extreme fear of Covid-19.
For those residing alone, lockdowns were particularly harsh as even stepping outside to purchase essential items such as medicines and groceries became a hassle. Isolation, distressful news of Covid-19 cases amongst acquaintances, and increased dependence on others further took a toll on their mental health with feelings of loneliness, helplessness and anxiety.
Mental health issues in India, even today, are generally misunderstood or simply ignored. Apart from causing suffering, they are also potential triggers for other physical and mental health issues. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call. While on one hand, it has left many in turmoil, on the other it has provided a unique opportunity where larger conversations about mental health have become possible. In the face of adversity, messages on social media and slogans reminding each other that social distancing was not emotional distancing have also become common.
For those who have been able to create healthy support networks and seek help where needed, it has even been a time for coping, learning and personal growth. At the same time, according to a WHO survey, 93% of countries witnessed disruption in critical mental health services. Even in India, availability and access to mental health services are unequal and it is estimated that over 90% of those in need of help do not receive it. The healthcare system is over-burdened and seeking help can seem complicated. Mental health professionals are estimated to have a high burnout rate, and India only has a small number of them. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a test of collective and decisive action; hopefully, it has sufficiently prepared us to take timely action and translate conversations around mental health into constructive action.