On March 19, 2020, soon after being admitted to Safdurjung Hospital in Delhi, a man suspected of having COVID-19 jumped off the seventh floor and took his own life. Across the ocean, in Germany, Hesse state’s finance minister Thomas Schaefer committed suicide, reportedly due to the Coronavirus pandemic and its far-reaching economic implications. Further down south, in India, a farmer hailing from a village in Karnataka committed suicide, fearing getting infected by Coronavirus, while another one from a different village, buried live chickens in an open pit as prices amid the pandemic kept slacking.
While the immediate health scare of the virus is writ large, it is the more insidious impact of the scare around it that needs our immediate attention. Constant updates on staggering death tolls and new cases, unverified Whatsapp forwards and the general eeriness around the global lockdown that this novel virus has heralded with it, are all spuriously contributing to toiling pressure on our mental health. To a point, where one is bound to say, “If Coronavirus doesn’t kill us, the scare around it will.”
The first predicament comes in the form of social distancing itself, which strips us of our daily routines, social circles and life, as it were. But consider this: De Profundis, which is a famous love letter by Oscar Wilde, was one he wrote in prison. This isn’t the only book someone wrote in jail. There’s also House of The Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the world-famous Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and closer home, The Essential Gandhi, a compilation of ditties Bapu wrote in jail.
The point we’re trying to make is, at this hour, home quarantining might feel like house arrest. Add to that the frenzy of health concerns, the unavailability of basic home and kitchen essentials to survive the lockdown imposed by the Indian government, the unfathomable uncertainty around job security and pay-cuts, alongside a tumbling economy, and work-from-home sending our routines for a toss. All this, plus the natural exigencies of a global pandemic and a nation-wide lockdown add up to become the perfect formula for anxiety.
So much so, that the Maharashtra Government - which has been among the worst-hit among Indian states - and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation have taken a step further and tied up with mental healthcare outfit, Mpower to collaboratively launch a toll-free helpline number, in light of the bare-knuckle threat this crisis posits to our mental health.
But consultant psychiatrist Dr Nahid Dave who is practising at Thought Matters, Insight Clinic, Vashi and Dadar in Mumbai, says that panic goes around in vicious cycles and can affect your mental health irreversibly. Dr Dave and other experts share insights to help you stay positive through what is an undoubtedly trying time.
Change the mindset
Dave – who specialises in treating adolescents and young adults using Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – says that the key to deterring the overwhelming impact of Coronavirus and procure stress relief lies in changing the narrative. “Initially when the conversation around COVID-19 began, most people were either panicking or writing it off as media hype, whereas the reality is somewhere in between. So, the first step is to accept that this is our reality.”
According to her, the two primary factors that make the Coronavirus pandemic such a threat to our mental health, include the uncertainty around its cure and how long it’s going to last, and that it plays on our carnal fear of death. The second fear is heightened further by the rising number of death tolls and cases.
“This is a disease that cuts across age, religion and race, making us all vulnerable. Added to that is this period of lockdown, or social distancing, which is leading to more stress. But if you change your perspective, in the sense that, if you took an off from work for 21 days and stayed at home, you would make the most of it, right? Right now, because the lockdown has been imposed on us, most of us are looking at it as a punishment and entertaining frustrating thoughts. Rather, look at it as 21 days of ‘me time,” Dave suggests.
This is a narrative that has already gained gumption among netizens, with musicians doing FB live shows, chefs giving online tutorials, teaching their followers how to whip up simple dishes using easily available ingredients, fitness coaches sharing exercise routines online via apps, such as Zoom to help netizens stay fit at home, and memes being circulated to remind us that it takes “Only 21 days to make or break a habit.”
Age no bar
While fitness and cooking tutorials are perhaps more helpful for young millennials, Gen-Z and even a crop of tech-savvy baby boomers, our parents, octogenarians, septuagenarians and kids are still ambling their way around the digital world.
“Irrespective of age, all of us have hobbies and things that we wish to do when we have more free time at hand. Begin by making a list of it all. It could be cleaning your closet, screening paperwork, making food, painting or needlework, like crocheting,” Dr Suchandra Brahma prescribes for those who cannot make use of the offerings available on the world wide web.
Dr Brahma is a veteran psychiatrist and the founder of A VIEW, an organisation in West Bengal that works with mentally ill women from underprivileged backgrounds by providing them with treatment and rehabilitating them in an unlocked setting. For middle-aged individuals, she adds, “If you’re staying with your family, dealing with self-isolation during the coronavirus crisis is a little easier because you have a set routine that involves a bunch of chores, ranging from laundry to cleaning and cooking. In this case, divide the work among family members.”
For senior citizens, who are living alone, things could be more difficult. Dr Dave echoes this and suggests that this might be a good time for them to get savvy with the internet, rather than be limited to simple chores. “If you have grandparents, old-aged parents or septuagenarians, pick up the phone and help them get acquainted with the net. They could use it to video call family members or reconnect with old friends,” she shares. This is valuable advice because familiarity with digital platforms will enable them to purchase essentials and household utilities through apps, such as Big Basket and Grofers, or order food through OTT apps, without putting themselves at physical risk.
Dave also prescribes social work for senior citizens. “This is a good time for those in the age bracket of 50 to 70 to take up social work. There are so many daily-wage workers around us that have families to feed. All the facilities, like groceries and essential delivery, are available, but they don’t have the wherewithal to avail of it. One does not need to physically step out to do this. You can get in touch with NGOs, service providers and other social groups and find out how you can contribute.”
As for kids, Brahma prescribes involving them in engaging activities, as the lockdown is bound to take a toll on their mental health, too, with schools being shut and playtime being banned. “Watch educational videos or films with them, involve them in household chores and dedicate a few hours every day to play board games or other recreational activities.”
But Dave cautions, “In India, there is a massive problem of over-parenting. Under normal circumstances, parents go out to work and kids get their own time. But the period of home quarantine is different. So, I would urge parents to choose their battles and realise that this is a tough time for their kids. Try to not instruct them too much, and that includes forcing them to spend time with you.”
For young adults in the age group of 18 to mid-30s, both Dr Brahma and Dave propose picking up a new habit, learning a language, reading books and indulging in some much-needed TLC—including health, skincare, fitness rituals and figuring out a work-life balance.
A healthy mind dwells in a healthy body
Elaborating on this notion, Khushbu Thadani, a nutritionist, life coach and the founder of a wellness consulting business called K Weigh, says, “Right now, we are living in times where there is a lot out of our control with several imposed regulations and no cure to tackle COVID-19, but how we’re taking care of our bodies and fueling ourselves is totally in our control. It is important to use this time during self-isolation and home quarantine to make the right choices and shift our focus to what we can control. The number one thing you can do right now, for your loved ones and your country is to take care of yourself.”
Thadani suggests 7 tips to take care of your mental health:
- Take care of yourself by eating healthy and in a manner that increases your immunity, because that minimises the risk of you becoming a carrier.
- Eat fruits and veggies because they boost immunity and provide essential vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants. Variety is not important. It’s okay if you cannot find an avocado at the moment. Opt for easily available items like brinjal, okra, carrots, bananas, broccoli and spinach. Or, eat basic meals like dal-chawal that are holistic and nutrient-rich with carbs, fibre and protein, but practice portion control.
- Journaling – maintain a book where you can jot down things that you are grateful for as that will help you divert your attention from the problems to other positives.
- Practice breathing exercises or meditation every day to stay calm and not feel restless.
- Exercise – and this need not be a high-intensity workout, but simple stretches or yoga in your living room. This will help shift mental energies like anxiety and panic to your physical body.
- Cut down on your consumption of fear-inducing media. For example, if an account on Instagram is causing you stress, simply unfollow and explore other accounts that have more positive content. Also, don’t read the news first thing in the morning, replace it with making breakfast or working out.
- Reach out to friends and family. Social distancing is not the same as disconnecting emotionally. Set a time every day for video calling or chatting with friends or family.
You can call on BMC and Mpower's toll-free HealthLine on 1800-120-820050