How extended lockdown, social distance are affecting mental health

Just reading about COVID-19 causes some people to fret over getting infected

social distancing circles arvind jain A volunteer drawing circles for social distancing before distributing food in Delhi | Arvind Jain

The extended lockdown and social distancing have had a devastating effect on the mental health of Indians. ‘’It’s like being in prison. Maybe worse than that for those who are quarantined with people they can’t get along with,’’ says Priyamvada, a 32-year-old who lives in a small dingy studio apartment in Mumbai.

The lockdown has had a huge impact on family dynamics. Those who are in control of things feel all the more powerful during the lockdown, knowing that the less powerful have nowhere to go.

Shreya Mohit from Pune says she hasn’t felt more alone in her life. She inaugurated her new ice cream store just last month and then had to shut shop because of the lockdown. ‘’Sitting at home helplessly when I needed to pay a rent of over a lakh a month made me break down,” says the 34-year-old, adding that not being able to meet her friends adds to her stress.

Just reading about coronavirus causes some people to fret over whether they will get infected. There has been an increase in the number of patients seeking help for anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

In a recent study from Wuhan, it was found that 54 per cent of people had significant stress and about 17 per cent of people had symptoms of clinical depression. “The coronavirus pandemic is causing widespread anxiety and stress. Such events have been known to precipitate clinical depression and anxiety in those who are vulnerable,” said Dr Shyam Bhat, psychiatrist and physician based in Bengaluru. “Pre-existing mental health issues can be exacerbated by such events and so they [people] need to take extra care and follow up with their doctor,” he adds.

Loneliness is the worst enemy of people with pre-existing mental health problems. Those with anxiety disorders have been hit hard by the lockdown. “People diagnosed with anxiety disorders generally show excessive worrying, restlessness, apprehension, panic and unwanted and intrusive thoughts, along with physical symptoms such as palpitations, nausea and insomnia, among other things. Their symptoms are heightened due to the uncertainty and anticipation of future catastrophes,’’ explains Dr Rekjha Ahuja, assistant professor and head, department of psychology at St Joseph’s Evening College, Bengaluru.

The COVID-19 situation can trigger or worsen symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD can make people go overboard with cleaning: They keep washing their hands, sanitising door handles and cleaning milk packets and vegetables. “Individuals with obsessive-compulsive tendencies can become hyper-vigilant. In an attempt to control the outcome, they may become extremely watchful and guarded of their surroundings,” says Ahuja.

People with OCD may even get their irrational beliefs reinforced during a pandemic.

Dr Sagar Mundada, a consultant psychiatrist at Healthspring, Mumbai, feels it is important to teach these patients coping strategies in the long term and give medicines in the acute phase. One of his patients, who was previously well maintained on medicine, came with symptoms that he was using up two sanitiser bottles per day and just couldn’t stop.. Some have panic attacks, causing them to assume the worst even if they have come in touch with anyone wearing a mask.

Mental health practitioners are looking at mitigating the mental health toll of this pandemic, especially depression and drug abuse, by being “available to talk”, says Radhika Bapat, a clinical psychologist based in Pune. Bapat offers a menu of options to stay connected within the confines of our homes that includes taking virtual tours around museums and national parks and taking online courses on Coursera. Guided workshops for exercise, mindfulness and spirituality are also a great way to keep yourself busy and fill your mind with happy and positive thoughts.

One thing is for sure. COVID-19 will change our lives forever. The lockdown and isolation could be a prelude to what the future holds. It is time we learned to adapt to a new world where social distancing and digital learning are becoming the new normal.