COVID-19 lockdown: Why India must brace for a mental health crisis

The government’s failure to take a compassionate view of lockdown rules will compound the economic and mental health crisis

By Jemima Rohekar
Published: Monday 22 June 2020

When Maharashtra started shutting down a few days before the countrywide lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, my film freelancer friends took the last flight / train / bus out of Mumbai.

But I decided to stay put in my matchbox flat on Yari Road in Mumbai’s Versova, hoping that the lockdown would curtail the spread of the virus, and that I would be able to go home without the fear of infecting my senior citizen parents.

But little did I know that this would turn out to be one of the most frustrating, albeit significant, experiences of my life.

I did many things to keep myself occupied: I tried new recipes, finished a meditation course, did household chores, listened to music, watched a film a day, attended webinars, chatted with family and friends, pitched new writing projects and mentored a group of film students online.

Even as I watched people from my housing society flout lockdown rules, I made it a point to step outside only to buy essentials. The only people I interacted with for more than five minutes were my two friends.

The alone time was a crash course in self-awareness. For 18 months since I first started taking therapy for anxiety and depression, I have struggled to absorb the insights my therapist offered me. I resisted observations about myself — which were later proven true — and resented myself for not catching up soon enough.

The isolation, though, pushed me into the bright as well dark parts of my mind. Since there was nowhere to go and no one to meet to distract myself (even binge-watching series proved ineffective after a point), I had no option but to accept them all equally.

But anyone who has dealt with a mental health disorder would know that not every day is the same. And worrying about the future is anxiety’s favourite trigger.

The first thing that went out of the proverbial window was all semblance of a routine. Days and weeks melted into one another. I would realise what time of day it was only when I had to step out before 5 pm to shop for supplies. Sleep quit my company quite resolutely in May.

Despite all my efforts to lure her back by meditating and listening to calming music, I failed to fall asleep until 8 am the next morning on most days. I stopped feeling hungry, and often had the first meal of the day after 4 pm. It would be my only meal of the day for a few days because I felt too full or simply disinterested.

It was as if my body was functioning independently of my stubbornly calm mind and trying to tell me that something was wrong.

Then there was the excruciating wait for a payment for a completed project, a fast dipping bank balance because of exorbitant rent and dimming hope of finding the next gig as a freelancer in the film industry. I realised that I needed to get home as soon as possible if I were to avoid my mental health from deteriorating further. And then began my frustrating tryst with Maharashtra’s e-pass system.

Several efforts to get a pass for inter-district travel proved futile. When I applied for a pass citing my declining mental health as a medical emergency, the system rejected my application because my reason was “not appropriate”. I was advised by friends to find an “influential contact” who could extend their influence to get me out of the city. I would cringe every time I had to call someone asking if they knew anyone who was generous enough to help me.

As guilty as I felt for my middle-class privilege, I finally exercised my network of relatives and contacts as a former journalist to arrange the required documents to leave Mumbai. I returned to my parents’ home in Pune and immediately put myself under home quarantine. I felt safe and reassured.

But I wasn’t satisfied. Through conversations with friends and posts on social media groups, I realised many people like me were suffering from mild, moderate or serious effects of stress and anxiety. Their lives had come to a grinding halt. Jobs were lost, promotions cancelled and salaries cut. Businesses had closed and debts were piling.

Surgeries have been pushed forward. So have exams and admissions. The safety of everyone who is vulnerable — senior citizens, pregnant women, children under 10 and people with co-morbidities — was a cause for worry. People are isolated, scared and in immediate need of the support of family and friends.

News reports are now pointing towards an alarming spike in cases of suicide. It is clear that the lockdown has impacted people’s mental health.

When the lockdown was imposed, migrants and daily wage labourers were the first to be affected — they will also be the worst affected. As the months pass, the economic uncertainty and its impact on mental health will climb its way up the class ladder, bringing the lower-middle and middle-class people into its fold.

A couple of days before another strict lockdown came into effect in Chennai and three other districts in Tamil Nadu on June 19, there were long queues of vehicles at tolls with people waiting to get out of the city. Many of them didn’t even have the requisite pass to travel out of the city, but were desperate to take the chance of getting caught.

It is, hence, my appeal to all state governments to take a compassionate view of applications made by people wanting to return to their families and native places. If you cannot support people financially and emotionally to “stay where they are”, as lockdown rules stipulate, then allow people to go wherever they feel they can ride this rough wave out.

Returning to live with your family saves costs. Except in cases where families are the source of abuse and mental trauma, daily contact with family members helps relieve stress and anxiety.

Do not disregard applications that cite declining mental health as a medical emergency. For people with serious mental disorders, it is as grave an emergency as any other.

I acknowledge that curtailing the spread of the pandemic is a herculean task for a country of India’s size, population and limited infrastructure. But we must learn to live with the pandemic over the course of the next one year at least and trust people to make the best decisions for themselves.

The state governments should provide institutional or community-led quarantine facilities to those who cannot quarantine themselves at home safely.

If travel restrictions are relaxed, it is possible that many applications for travel with fake emergencies will also slip through the system. But in a country like ours, influence and money have already made grand weddings and parties possible despite the pandemic. Plug these gaps in the system. Don’t let genuine applications fall prey to governmental highhandedness.

The writer is a screenwriter and journalist

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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