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'Deaths, Fear of Covid-19 Creating Anxiety, but There is Social Support': NIMHANS Director

By: Bharvi Dasson


Last Updated: April 30, 2020, 15:00 IST

Representative image.

Representative image.

Perpetual fear is a common emotion among many of the 2.6 billion people who are under some kind of lockdown across the globe due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Perpetual fear is a common emotion among many of the 2.6 billion people who are under some kind of lockdown across the globe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the viral outbreak in India, front-line warriors have been working day and night to control the situation while people are maintaining social distancing by staying at home. The unprecedented public health crisis has triggered severe anxieties, stress-related issues, trauma and a worse situation for people already suffering with chronic mental health disorders.

In a conversation with News18, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) Professor BN Gangadhar underscored how the Covid-19 lockdown is a boon and the efforts made by the governments to contain the infection.

As we know, lockdown is an extensive measure to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you think it will result in a secondary epidemic of burnouts and other stress-related problems?

We do not have ample data and scientific facts yet to support this argument, but we noticed there is stress and fear as the number of Covid-19 cases is rising. However, that doesn’t mean it will further qualify as burnouts. While a majority of people have adapted to the situation, some are dealing with acute stress and anxiety issues in this situation which can be dealt with the active participation of mental health workers.

With season change, manic episodes often are on peak amid bipolar disorder patients and the lockdown seems to have worsened the situation. What protective measures would you suggest for the patients and their family members during this period?

Global researches are being carried on bipolar disorder (BD) patients and there is limited scientific data on prevalence of seasonal patterns in them. So we cannot say that every BD patient has manic or depressive episodes during a season change. Although, in several cases patients may have a seasonal pattern. The protective measures for the patient remain the same, with or without Covid-19, that is taking prescribed medicines regularly, along with psychotherapies and critical care. Family members always play a critical role, their support and affection often acts as a catalyst in the patient’s recovery process.

One thing the family members can take care of during the lockdown is to avoid sending panicky messages to a BD patient. This will help in not causing unnecessary stress and anxiety, which might otherwise lead to severe consequences.

Around 2.6 billion across the globe are in some kind of lockdown. Do you think, in a way, the authorities are conducting one of the largest psychological experiments ever?

It’s preposterous to say that the lockdown is a large psychological experiment; it was a responsible decision by the central government announced at the right juncture. We have to understand one thing that any environmental change is a strain of stress-related problems. In the Covid-19 situation, deaths and fear of catching the disease are creating further anxiety amid residents, but there is social support for it.

We have government-run mental health and anxiety-related helplines for people in distress. Volunteers are helping in migrants’ camps set up across various cities. Meanwhile, on an individual level, state governments too are geared up for such issues. And to further strengthen the overall structure, we also have community mental health workers supporting us.

Several cases of domestic violence have been recorded across the globe recently, which can eventually lead to PTSD amid women. What should be the government’s role in combating these cases, keeping in mind the ongoing crisis?

I do not have statistics from police and other institutes if domestic violence cases have increased during this lockdown, so I would not like to comment on it. But, with or without the pandemic, domestic violence is unacceptable and if anyone male/female is being subjected to any form of violence at home they are free to reach out to the nearest police station.

Along with it, there are several helplines catering to the needs of domestic violence victims, both private and government run, which are actively helping the victims in rehabilitation, treatments and psychotherapies. We still have to know whether the numbers increased or decreased during lockdown, but domestic violence needs to be addressed at every level of administration.

People are afraid to catch Covid-19 and fake news has further deteriorated the situation. This has resulted in anxiety, depression, stress, anger and irritability across all age groups. What can the media and the immediate family members do in such a situation?

The menace of fake news is a rapidly growing issue; along with it, how a news piece is delivered in the time of pandemic needs to be addressed. For example, I read a news piece with a headline that said, '45% people who were tested positive were asymptomatic'. We know this news piece is to make the general public aware. But during the time when slight movement can cause stress, news organisations hold a responsibility to not create panic amid the general public.

Rather than concentrating on the negative aspects, we should have a news flow of how the recovery rate is getting better in India. Focusing on the fact that even if a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, there are high chances that you will recover from it. The gross average of India’s survival rate is 97 per cent, which means 1 in 30 patients die whereas 29 survive. We have to shift our focus on following social distancing, not panicking and following guidelines issued by the health ministry. These habits contribute to a healthy lifestyle during a pandemic.

What is your view: should the government have implemented state-wise plans to cope with the upcoming threat of degraded mental health of Indians which is adding a burden to the already strained healthcare system?

Both the central and the state governments are actively contributing to citizens’ mental health during the lockdown. There are several central government-run helplines functioning to cater to the needs of mental health. So far, I can talk about the efforts made by the Karnataka government along with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike civic body. As the government has made localised clinics in districts, patients of NIMHANS are able to collect their medicines from these clinics and they consult the doctors without visiting the hospital.

Meanwhile, NIMHANS has launched digital awareness programmes to cope with growing stress and anxiety; people have even volunteered to be house counsellors in severe cases. There have also been attempts made at various migrant camps, where psychologists are counselling the workers who are away from their families. We have also arranged yoga sessions at these camps, to cope with stress-related issues.

Parents of young children are worried; how should kids invest their time since they are not allowed to play or meet with their friends and how can families engage with them?

This is the time for working and non-working parents to engage with their children. There is absolutely no game which cannot be enjoyed at home. I would recommend to parents that increasing their screen time is not a solution; rather kids should be involved in household chores, cooking, watching movies, meditation and exercising.

In all these years we have engaged in outdoor activities and chose entertainment sources like shopping malls, restaurants, theatres, but lockdown is a time where we have to entertain ourselves at home. We should consider this as an opportunity and spend as much time as we can as a family.

Mental Health Helplines Functioning During Lockdown

1800-102-4040, 1800120820050, 08046110007

Helplines for Domestic Violence

Central Social Welfare Board -Police Helpline- 1091/ 1291, (011) 23317004

Shakti Shalini - 10920

Shakti Shalini - women's shelter - (011) 24373736/ 24373737

JAGORI - (011) 2669270

first published:April 30, 2020, 12:58 IST
last updated:April 30, 2020, 15:00 IST