Stress and anxiety rise amid coronavirus pandemic

Now is the time to put suicide prevention strategies in place for the vulnerable, say psychiatrists

April 22, 2020 10:31 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 06:36 am IST - NEW DELHI

Listening ear: Empathy is the key ingredient when helping those suffering from mental health issues.

Listening ear: Empathy is the key ingredient when helping those suffering from mental health issues.

“Every morning I wake up with a panic attack. I sweat profusely even when my air conditioner is on full blast because I am worried how my day at work will be. While there have been no job cuts in my office, the environment has suddenly become very hostile. It is as if the organisation is forcing us to resign,” says a communication professional in her thirties.

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With her old parents dependent on her, Rithika can’t afford to lose her job especially after a medical emergency wiped out all her savings.

Psychiatrists say there is a universal presence of anxiety due to coronavirus ( COVID-19 ), but certain categories of people are highly vulnerable. The first category involves those dealing with poverty and unemployment and the second category include those with psycho-social issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc. There is also a small minority of people who have COVID-19 infection, or have a family member who has tested positive, who have reported heightened anxiety. Many frontline workers, such as ASHA workers, are also extremely susceptible to stress.


Tipping point

“If any of these sets of people had a prior illness, then their condition is likely to worsen because of stress, or due to medicines and psychiatrists being unavailable,” cautions Dr. Achal Bhagat, Senior Consultant Psyciatrist and Psychotherapist. He says quite often care-givers of those with mental illnesses also burn out as they try to cope with multiple responsibilities such as working from home, managing domestic chores, the threat of a job loss, etc.

He advises those with symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, detachment, hopelessness and sleeplessness to consult a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

The senior doctor recommends policy makers to ensure relief work is delivered with empathy. “Whoever is providing help to people must ensure that people’s dignity is not challenged. If they get humiliated through this process of seeking help, this will have a long term impact. There are fissures in our society on religious lines as well as caste and gender, and if these widen there will be a long-term impact on us as a community.”

Multi-pronged approach

Mental health issues will not be solved merely by counselling, but through a multi-dimensional approach which includes financial support. This will help solve the real problems facing the people today, the doctor says. Such interventions must be made urgently — “the when and how are equally important”.

The real problems are hunger, shelter and clothing, explains Dr. Soumitra Pathare, Consultant Psychiatrist and Director of Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy at ILS Law College in Pune. He also emphasises on devising a policy without any delay, including to prevent suicides.

“We don’t know whether pandemics increase suicides, but for the economic crisis that will follow you get increase in suicide rates. That is something we are going to see definitely. Now is the time to put suicide prevention strategies in place.”

A study conducted by Oxford University Assistant Professor Aaron Reeves, and published in The Lancet in 2012, estimated that the U.S. had suffered 4,750 “excess suicide deaths” after the recession hit in 2008. Similar studies have found that suicides four times higher among men as they feel greater pressure and shame due to financial problems. But the majority of suicides were found to be among those who already suffered from depression.

Experts warn that the relationship between the COVID-19 and mental health problems are “bi-directional”, i.e. such illnesses are not merely consequences of the pandemic but an inability to deal with them can lead to the spread of COVID-19 infection.

(Suicide prevention helpline: Sanjivini, Society for Mental Health, Telephone: 011-40769002 , Monday-Saturday, 10am-7.30pm.)

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