When the virus plays on the mind

| Updated on April 04, 2020

Mental well-being must get its due, as health workers and people fight Covid-19

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to the need to creatively tackle loneliness in times of social isolation, necessitated by efforts to fight the spread of Covid-19, is well-timed. It serves to draw public attention to the need to ensure the mental well-being of the country’s 1.3 billion people, engaged in a tireless battle against the virus. Several studies have proved the strong and deep bond between epidemics and the psychological problems they trigger in the people who deal with them. History is replete with examples. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron Tales — written in the context of the Black Death pandemic that hit Florence in 1348 — depicts the mental agonies people in Europe went through during the calamitous bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of the continent’s population. Boccaccio’s “prescription” to fight epidemics by telling stories was later called “narrative prophylaxis”, which means safeguarding yourself with stories, because mental health matters a lot in such trying times.

Today, Covid-19 has already triggered a mental health crisis across the globe, starting with China. A recent survey conducted by Peking University psychiatrist Guan Ruiyuan found that around a third of the medical workers who responded (those who worked with Covid-19) said they had experienced psychological issues. Another study, sponsored by US agency Center for Disease Control and Prevention, notes that during the 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks, psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder appeared in survivors and healthcare workers. Covid-19 can create rifts in families, employee and customer relations, business interactions and other social and personal exchanges. Whether it really claims huge numbers in India or not, it has managed to create a pall of anxiety and fear, with deeply destabilising effects. During the SARS outbreak, an online survey which looked into the mental well-being of 129 people under quarantine in Toronto, Canada, found more than 30 per cent of them exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The social, economic and governance cost of these disorders can be significant. Also at risk are those with chronic diseases and those who are ‘stuck’ in their home environments with partners and family members with whom they don’t share a healthy relationship. Psychologists say such stressed persons turn to social media to vent out their stress, often leaning towards highly polarising ideologies. The Centre and States must come to grips with the mental health impacts of pandemics such as Covid-19 and take coordinated efforts in association with professional psychologists and counsellors. That could light up many minds enveloped in darkness.

Published on April 03, 2020

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