Mental health has become topical in the last nearly two years of the pandemic. From fear and anxiety of the unknown, to the fear of the known and finally anxiety about what the future holds.
Along with fear and anxiety, the pandemic also left the world even more unequal. Social, economic, gender based inequalities widened – leading to increase in domestic and gender-based violence, lack of schooling, unequal access to schooling, lack of economic opportunities, loss of jobs and mental trauma.
How did these inequalities impact our understanding of mental health? And how do we address them? what are the lessons learned from our experiences? And finally, how do we learn to live with COVID-19.
We spoke with an esteemed panel of experts including Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, a psychiatrist and founder of Sneha, Prof Vikram Patel from Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health and Tasneem Raja, mental health lead at Tata Trusts, to decipher all of this and more.
Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar is a psychiatrist and founder of a civil society organization called Sneha, that runs a suicide prevention helpline.
She sums up the entire demographic shift in terms of distress calls they received during the course of the pandemic.
"Initially we got a lot of calls from the elderly who were alone, isolated, anxious since nearly all of them had diabetes, hypertension or one of other comorbidity. The media hype and the reporting from Italy was concerning. Shortly after the calls shifted to women, trapped at home, facing intimate partner violence and shut out of regular places they could escape to. The demographic shift happened a few months later when many people working from home were calling about stress and having to deal with a new reality. Here also women were more disadvantaged."
"Then we got calls from many stressed students, and their parents worried about internet addiction. Lately we are getting calls from people grieving their loved ones, those facing anxiety of what next and living with long COVID."
Prof Vikram Patel, Professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard TH Chan school of Public Health, and founder of India-based mental health non-profit Sangath spoke about inequalities and how the pandemic widened the gap.
"Simply acknowledging that the poor have mental health is important because at the moment our society is predicated on the fact that only the wealthy can experience poor mental health," said Prof Patel.
He spoke about the experimental schemes like unconditional direct cash transfers to economically weaker sections of the society that was carried out in Brazil how it improved mental health outcomes among the marginalised.
He pointed out to the need for universal income and universal medical coverage as essential for better mental health outcomes in a society.
Tasneem Raja, Mental Health lead at Tata Trusts agreed that the need was to fix what was broken even before the pandemic, specially when it comes to mental health facilities and mental health services.
She also spoke about simply acknowledging that mental health problems exist among the poor and among women is a step forward.
Both Dr Vijaykumar and Prof Patel insisted that schools must reopen.
"We as a society have failed out children by putting them last"
All three panelists spoke about how schools are centers not just for education, but also nutrition and other schemes available to children at that one safe space. Denying them schooling is going to lead to poorer mental health outcomes among these children.
Addressing the young people who have a sense of despair, the panelists spoke about the need for safer spaces for them to talk in, for policies that show signs and willingness to change.