by Dr Aparna Joshi
“I haven’t been able to meet my wife and my baby since the lockdown. I am stuck, away from them and keep worrying about their safety. Being stuck indoors, while worrying about them, I am feeling a kind of a ‘mental congestion’”(35, Male)
I had to move back home due to lockdown, it is getting really challenging for me here. My father is abusive towards my mother and I feel helpless, this is even impacting my relationship with my boyfriend (28, F)
Narratives like these have been common at the iCALL helpline since March 2020 (when the lockdown due to the pandemic started), where counsellors offer psychosocial counselling services over technology-assisted mediums to clients across the country. The volume of clients reaching out has increased by 103 per cent compared to pre-COVID-19 data, indicating a high need to seek psychosocial services. The COVID-19 pandemic made its way to India in late January 2020. Since the launch of the helpline in March 2020, iCALL catered to 15,000+ clients through its telephone, email and chat-based services. The counsellors listened to narratives of distress actively in a safe and holding environment and worked with clients to develop internal resources and facilitate referrals that helped deal with their concerns.
The outbreak of the pandemic itself and the subsequent containment measures have taken a toll on the mental health of individuals. The psychosocial impact manifested through anxiety, bereavement, insomnia, loneliness, increased substance use (WHO, 2020) has had further adverse consequences on other life outcomes such as socio-economic status, quality of life and vulnerability to illnesses, etc.
On one hand, the pandemic acted as an equaliser affecting the general public across different strata of the society; but on the other, it also served to intensify the existing social rifts by adversely affecting those who belong to vulnerable and marginalised groups such as migrants, elderly, individuals with disabilities, women survivors of violence, people with mental illness, LGBTQ individuals etc. Studies have shown that during the lockdown, women, regardless of their employment status, bore the burden of domestic responsibilities more than men (Chauhan, 2020). It is also a fact that there has been an exponential increase in instances of domestic violence during this period. (Das et al., 2020).
Needless to say, the complex set of stressors experienced by individuals, particularly the elderly, women and children, in their personal, interpersonal, professional and communal lives and the resultant distress, requires an equally multi-faceted psychosocial response. At a macro level, this would involve preventive and interventive health measures, economic reforms, generation of livelihood options, steps to mitigate stigma, resumption of transportation and everyday life activities etc. But at a micro-level, individuals also need support and nurturance as they continue to battle with uncertainties, worries, conflicts, losses and isolation in their personal and interpersonal lives.
Responding to distress: Tips, resources and responsibilities
Remember: It is not `normal’ yet. As we continue to face indefinite time frames for normalcy to be restored, we must take steps towards self-care much like the steps we take to stop the spread of the virus. The first step in this direction is to slow down, be aware of our own emotions, and acknowledge the impact of this abnormal situation on our lives. Some responses may be healthy and some unhealthy. It is crucial to identify/acknowledge one’s unhealthy coping strategies such as excessive exposure to digital devices, use of substances. Therefore, some healthy ways to engage in self-care may include simple steps such as ensuring intake of healthy food, good sleep (7-8 hours), some form of physical exercise or movement, reading books, listening to music, ensuring one is able to consciously limit one’s time spent online and have a healthy online experience overall. In times of adversity practising gratitude, compassion and mindfulness-based exercises can go a long way in holding our own.
Resources: When dealing with uncertainty, focusing on what we can control and what is beyond our control helps. It is crucial to connect community members with relevant support and resources. Often connecting with a loved one, or even talking to a professional counsellor at a helpline like iCALL (phone: 9152987821/ email: [email protected]/ chat: nULTA app) can help in times of despair. As many people increasingly turn to social media, it is important for them to find similar support and information online as well. iCALL continues to work with experts and social media companies such as Facebook to develop resources that assist in managing emotional and social health. Some of these resources include Emotional Health, a centralised resource hub on Facebook, Chatbots, and well-being guides on Facebook, and Instagram.
Responsibilities: As we continue to adapt to a new definition of ‘normal’, let’s be attuned to the emotional needs of our own selves and others around us as it will go a long way in shaping the mental, social and physical well-being of our society.
Chauhan, P. Gendering COVID-19: Impact of the Pandemic on Women’s Burden of Unpaid Work in India. Gend. Issues (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-020-09269-w
Das M, Das A, Mandal A. Examining the impact of lockdown (due to COVID-19) on Domestic Violence (DV): An evidence from India. Asian J Psychiatr. 2020;54:102335. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102335
WHO (2020). COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries. Accessed online. https://www.who.int/news/item/05-10-2020-covid-19-disrupting-mental-health-services-in-most-countries-who-survey.
(The author is project director, iCALL; assistant professor, TISS; Tanuja Babre, Programme Coordinator & Sindhura Tammana, Research Associate, on behalf of iCALL Helpline, TISS.)