When trauma triggers anxiety

Therapeutic process Singer Vedanth Bharathwaj reached out to Chennai flood victims at Saidapet Relief Camp

Therapeutic process Singer Vedanth Bharathwaj reached out to Chennai flood victims at Saidapet Relief Camp  

After the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008, the city’s residents felt vulnerable for years after the incident. And, in the wake of the December 2015 floods in Chennai, several people reported that they had trouble sleeping, plagued by nightmares of being trapped in a rapidly-flooding house.

With increasing instances of disasters, both natural and man-made, the way it affects the psyche of the general public is not largely considered. To bring the focus on this immediate requirement, WHO has chosen the theme of “psychological first aid” for this year’s World Mental Health Day (October 10).

Dr. Sujata Satapathy of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), explains in her 2012 paper ‘Mental Health Impacts of Disasters in India’: “Trauma after any disaster and the psychological reactions to it vary from individual to individual and from disaster to disaster… a significant proportion of people may not be able to cope effectively with the situation, thus requiring appropriate and adequate psychosocial support and mental health services.”

In a country where mental health is blithely ignored and those who seek help keep it under wraps for fear of derision and ridicule (if not to their face, certainly behind their backs).

Disturbing statistics show that at least five per cent of the population — that’s over 50 million people — live with a mental illness. By some estimates, about one in five need either psychological or psychiatric counselling. When they experience sudden trauma, these issues are amplified.

Magdalene Jeyarathnam, founder-director of East West Center for Counselling and Training, calls these ‘triggers’. “In the current scenario that we live in, everyone leads anxious lives. There are various levels of anxiety for various reasons, and that is reflected in the way we react to situations,” she says.

To handle this, one needs to have people they can talk to. “Of course, no one is capable of sharing exactly what they feel; consciously or unconsciously, they withhold certain aspects of their emotions. But it is necessary to talk to people they trust,” she adds.

When it comes to psychological first aid, Magdalene says that first, training should be given. “Not just to counsellors and psychologists. People in the community should be equipped to help each other in times of crisis. In rural areas, volunteers are trained for such emergencies. We don’t have that yet in the urban areas.” In the face of personal trauma, for example, when a rape survivor is going through the process of reporting the crime — police, medical examination, etc. — it would help to have a trained person to talk them through each step, and provide emotional and mental support with their presence.”

When it comes to children, adults seem to underestimate how much impact some events can have on them. Counselling psychologist Nikita Vyas, who works with school students, says, “Kids are exposed to a lot of violent incidents that take place around the world via TV and Internet. Sometimes, when a parent or even a grandparent passes away, it is common to say or think that children are resilient and will bounce back or that they don’t understand what’s happening. This is far from the truth. Their emotions will always manifest in some way. So it is important to pay attention to their behaviour or what they say, if anything is out of the ordinary or differs from their usual pattern.”

While schools compulsorily have counsellors, they are not utilised, thanks to the stigma that still persists. Nikita recalls an incident where a child was exhibiting classic attention-seeking symptoms. “When the parents were informed that their child might need help, they insisted that taking her on a temple tour would solve the problem. We couldn’t do anything beyond that.”

Mental resilience seems to be at an all-time low, and the millennial generation seems to be heading the pack. Sahana S., a counselling psychologist, says that this has a lot to do with parenting styles that have changed over the years.

“They go above and beyond to give their children everything they ask for. By the time the kids grow up and face the real world, they haven’t faced rejection of any sort. They are dependent on their parents for making any decision. This is unhealthy. Parents should start being open with their children, from what they can afford to how to deal with tough situations. That’s when they can become mentally strong adults, equipped to deal with what life throws at them.”

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