Mental health has become a hot topic of discussion amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, even in India, where traditionally, mental health has been ignored or swept under the carpet.
However, there exists an obvious rift between people who are aware of it and those who are not.
Social scientists rushed to publish various research papers and studies about the possible impacts of lockdown and the effect of the spread of the infection on the mental health and well-being of individuals.
Media outlets also, largely, managed to give sufficient coverage to these topics, but the digital divide has limited the spread of this essential knowledge. So, has the message really reached all of us?
Isolation, Unemployment Have Caused Stress & Anxiety
India’s digital divide has been narrowing down over the years, and the percentage of people in the country who are using smart phones and televisions are on the rise. What I will now tell you might sound farcical, but it is the blunt truth.
A huge chunk of the ‘subscribers’ now remain unconnected to all media that shares knowledge. An Economic Times report dated 6 April 2020, reported that the lockdown had triggered a ‘35 percent slump in mobile recharge volumes’. Another LiveMint article suggests that TV viewership has cooled to 31 percent as on 30 April 2020 (although subscription could be only one of the several factors for the decrease in viewership). These figures would have obviously multiplied with the major extensions in lockdown periods executed.
The majority of the disconnected users belong to the lower strata of the society, though there is no figure to quantify this statement –– we know this through social observation.
As has been proven by several studies, isolation, loneliness, and loss of jobs have caused anxiety, stress and behavioural changes among individuals.
However, information about how to cope, and also comprehend these experiences, not to mention, means of therapy, have only reached privileged sections of society through digital media.
The economically weaker sections, constituting a major percentage of the Indian population, continue to remain in the dark.
- Amid COVID, isolation, loneliness, and loss of jobs have caused anxiety, stress and behavioural changes among individuals.
- The economically weaker sections, constituting a major percentage of the Indian population, continue to remain in the dark, with regard to mental health & interventions for the same.
- Hunger and poverty have both hit the country hard, with the disease raging on.
- Vernacular media has the biggest role to play in educating the masses about mental health issues.
How Has COVID Lockdown Affected The Mental Health Of The Disadvantaged?
The lockdown has had severe effects on the poor. The supply of government subsidised food rations has not only been inadequate, but has also not reached ‘uncovered’ people at all. The funds distributed by various states and the Centre have also been termed insufficient. The informal and unorganised labour accounts for more than 80 percent of employed people, according to the 2011 Census (a Srija & Shirke study, 2014). A large chunk of this workforce is unemployed today –– no monthly wages for the over two months and no guaranteed work opportunities in the near future.
Hunger and poverty have both hit the country hard, with the disease raging on.
The physical, social and economic health of individuals and families play a significant role in deciding their mental health. And today, we are looking at the ruinations left behind by the lockdown.
The effect was multiplied, with several migrant labourers stranded far away from their home states. Several NGOs and state governments have been ferrying labourers back home by train. With the states at the receiving end, recording a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, the enthusiasm to carry out transportation operations have been falling to near-zero levels.
We are thus looking at the migration of the poor back home by private vehicles, and by foot. Several such labourers have been stranded on the way, with no food or cash.
Behavioural Changes Amid A Pandemic
You ask, who suffers the most mentally? The people who suffer the most are those who have been ‘left behind’. That’s exactly what they think of themselves, as people who have been betrayed and left behind. All the red signs one would have heard of or read in articles on psychology and mental health, one sees these signs in them. Stressed about train cancellations, an anxiety-inducing wait –– to go back home, depression stemming from lack of contact with family members, and fear while setting out of home, amid a pandemic.
There’s uncertainty, there’s confusion. And there’s loneliness.
Officials have remained silent over rescheduled trains and cancelled ones, or have diverted attention. No concrete information has been given to affected individuals on these issues. Being kept in the dark can cause anxiety and panic, and can affect an individual’s mental health.
History has a lot to teach us about psychology. In the wake of disasters like this, there is a rise in crime rates (ranging from robbery to domestic violence to sexual assault) and substance abuse/intoxication. Some people are affected by diverse factors, some of which we have not been able to gauge yet. We are talking about phenomena that may have consequences in the long term. Often there are no obvious symptoms as seen in other medical conditions. Behavioural changes may be negligible or unnoticeable to the untrained eye.
We are yet to reach out to disadvantaged groups of society who have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic, with tools and information to handle a mental health crisis.
Communication Is Key
In the aftermath of the pandemic, we need to immediately cater to these individuals who desperately need mental health intervention and help, but are unable to recognise it or vocalise it.
Vernacular media has the biggest role to play here; the role of educating the masses. It’s important that the Governments focus on making the poorer sections of the society more self-reliant in terms of food and financial resources. Social security of various classes/groups must be ensured in the form of laws, and adequate health infrastructure must be set in place. Because for a lot of us, well-being – both physical and mental – often stems from these simple, basic needs.
And most importantly, our governments need to keep talking, addressing and communicating. After all, as Mother Teresa famously said:
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
(Sharal Deegoju is an undergrad student at VJTI, Mumbai. He loves and lives innovating and writing. He is currently volunteering at Let's Reach Out Kerala, a psycho-social support helpline for migrant workers. It is from these close quarters that he writes what he sees. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)