The COVID-19 pandemic has been stretching on for more than a year now, and the subsequent changes we have had to undergo due to it has drastically altered life as we knew it. All of us have had unique experiences with the pandemic, and almost everyone has had to come to terms with extreme distress and grief during this time.
Nearly every household is now in possession of items like oximeters and thermometers, and we keep a check on physical health regularly, be it checking body temperature or blood oxygen levels at regular intervals, taking immunity boosters, and exercising. However, as has always been the norm, in our extremely focused approach towards physical health, we might have ended up ignoring the other aspect crucial for well-being: mental health.
We do not respond well to prolonged exposure to stress. A pattern known as the General Adaptation Syndrome describes the process of change our bodies undergo in the presence of a stressor. The first phase is the alarm stage, which kicks in when we first encounter a stressful situation. The fight-or-flight response gets activated, which basically means that our body is on high alert. A higher body temperature, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, all so that we can deal with the threat efficiently. However, if the stressor persists, the resistance stage kicks in. The body tries to sustain these elevated vitals, but it can’t maintain it for long, and eventually the resources get depleted. Finally, exhaustion kicks in, and the body’s functions start breaking down leading to deteriorating health, lowered immunity, etc.
For the last 15 months, most of us have been constantly dealing with major and minor stressors, and are into or very near the exhaustion stage. This is even worse for people with pre-existing vulnerabilities such as lack of socio-economic privileges or neurodivergence. Research has indicated an increase in general stress, anxiety, and depression levels across most professions and genders. Unsurprisingly, healthcare professionals have shown the highest increase in anxiety levels following the pandemic, along with students and corporate employees.
Other psychological disturbances like insomnia, mood fluctuations, eating problems, and irritability have also increased as a consequence of the pandemic and associated stress and/or grief. People may experience burnout, i.e. a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress which occurs when one feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Another frequent phenomenon being reported by people at this time is the feeling of languishing. Languishing s defined as the condition of absence of mental health, characterized by ennui (dissatisfaction due to lack of occupation; boredom), apathy, listlessness, and anhedonia (loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities). Due to the constant attention being demanded by our physical health, our mental well-being is taking a huge hit. The constant downpour of bad news doesn’t help either.
So, what can we do?
The increasingly bleak condition of mental health prevalent these days isn’t the result of just the pandemic, but years and years of it not getting the attention it deserved. Mental health has been historically stigmatised and labelled as a “weakness”, which detracts from the scale of the problem and prevents people from receiving the help they need. For a problem so pervasive in nature, there is no immediate solution. There needs to be a reform at all levels if we are to battle this hidden pandemic that has no vaccines.
Systemic- It is no secret that on a national, or even global level, mental health isn’t given the importance it deserves. Health insurances rarely include mental health or therapy costs, and only a meagre percentage of the health budget is allocated to it, if at all. India has only 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, as oppose to the desirable number, 3 or above. Additionally, there is no appeal board for malpractices, which results in hundreds of unqualified people claiming to be mental health guides over the internet, and even charging people to “help” them. If the mental health of our country is to be improved, this callous attitude towards he sector needs to be done away with.
Societal- Even amongst the people who are privileged enough to have access to mental health care facilities, there might be many that can’t avail them due to societal factors. Not just in the neighborhood gossip, people with mental health problems or those seeing a therapist or counsellor are deemed as weak or unfit and have lowered job prospects. Despite of years and years of specialised training they receive, therapists and counsellors are still seen as just “people who listen to your problems”, which discourages people from reaching out. It also hurts the mental health professionals’ careers which is why there aren’t many people who choose to pursue it.
Interpersonal- Talking to a friend or relative can never replace the role of a professional if someone really needs it. However, in times of such great stress, having a supportive and caring person can help alleviate some of the stress. Being mindful and conscious about our words is a good idea when so many people we talk to might be hurting on the inside. Not disregarding anyone’s feelings or emotions and being a non-judgmental listener alone can work wonders.
Intrapersonal- Systemic and societal reforms take time to come around. While it is not ideal to try and substitute a mental health professional yourself, there are certain minute, stop-gap steps that can be taken to make day-to-day functioning easier. Limiting exposure to negative news and avoiding doom scrolling on the internet can help prevent some of the sense of foreboding. Introspection and conscious processing of feelings and emotions is also essential to well-being, though it is easier said than done. Meditation and physical workouts also help regulate mood. Finally, at a time when “influencers” over the internet keep urging you to “just stay positive”, it is imperative that we give our grief the time it needs to let us heal. That being said, taking out a small part of the day to just smile at yourself never hurt anyone!
By Shravani Agrawal