Endless SOS cries on Twitter pleading for oxygen, essential medicines and hospital beds are deafening.
These aren’t calls just from terrified people but from the hospitals as well, because they are frequently running out of oxygen supply while hundreds of their patients are on oxygen support. People are gasping for breath, waiting in the bleak hope of getting a bed and oxygen in overflowing hospitals.
We are at a staggering 21.8 million cases by 8th May 2021. Nearly 250,000 deaths. Unfortunately, that is just the reported data. It is apparent and claimed by many data scientists and journalists that the actual numbers are far greater. Eight to ten times. Even higher than that in some states.
The queue of people drenched in sweat, enduring the sweltering heat in front of one of the few oxygen refill stations is miles long and probably a Covid hotspot.
And then, there is another kind of never-seen-before queue. Bodies are waiting in endless rows in crematoriums for their turn. Pyres are burning incessantly, so much so that the chimneys are melting and falling down.
Because they are burning 24 by 7.
Much like the collective mental health of this country.
I am helplessly witnessing this tragedy sitting in the capital city, New Delhi. I often wrote about how nature therapies helped with my anxiety concerns. The gravity of this pandemic seems to be higher pulling everyone into a dark space. I spoke to a few frontline workers to understand the on-ground situation and mental health impacts.
WHERE WE STAND
In this developing nation, mental health awareness is limited and the government allocates barely 5% of the total healthcare budget, out of which a large portion remains underutilized. It is not considered an issue worth spending money on for counsellor’s sessions or medical intervention and is often ridiculed with stereotypes or superstitions.
According to the WHO, there are 0.3 psychiatrists and 0.07 psychologists per 100,000 people in India. The desirable number is above 3.
With this pandemic, the mental health crisis has just deepened this abyss.
Death, anxiety, fear, panic, survivors’ guilt, future uncertainty, job loss, financial instability, depression, lockdown’s loneliness and more is debilitating people. Everyone seems to be on an edge, tumbling from one nervous breakdown to another.
Almost everyone has lost someone they knew. On-ground volunteers, frontline workers and healthcare professionals are trying to hold the fort. They, and the people who were already suffering mental health issues before this pandemic, are the most vulnerable ones and one can only imagine their suffering.
“It’s so bad it’s like a war. We are just crawling through it like zombies. I had a public breakdown recently.”, Midhat Kidwai, a frontline volunteer tells me.
“Maybe we are just a voice to tell those lonely people dying helplessly that they are not abandoned in their last moments of struggle. Most are beyond help. Just a day before, I had to tell my friend how to prepare his father’s body for last rites because he was clueless”, he chokes up.
Midhat was one of the few who responded to my cry for help when Covid got hold of my whole family last month, and I hit the panic button one night because my father was having trouble breathing. All my nightmares spun around me while I dialled all the emergency numbers possible, to no avail. Thankfully, his condition improved over a few days after seeking advice from doctors on call. After ten days of fever, chest congestion, fatigue and an alert watch on oxygen levels, he is Covid negative and is gradually recovering to full health.
I, on the other hand, still wake up with a jolt at night, feeling as if my family is calling me for help even though they have recovered. The doorbell or a phone’s ring gives me a panic attack of a few seconds. I hear mourning voices. When my mother asks for the reason for my tired eyes, I say it must be the weather.
The pandemic weather.
And I am not the only one on the edge. People are. Doctors are. Innocent kids are.
Nimisha Shukla, a counselling psychologist in Delhi, tells me about a kid who recently lost both parents to Covid. “He felt abandoned, isolated himself from his other relatives and refused to speak to anyone. Such events can be very traumatic for children and have a long-term effect on their mental health.”
With adults, anxiety-related stress has increased post Covid. “I often hear people mentioning, I am losing hope for my life.” She urges people to reach out to counsellors if they do not feel well mentally. It certainly makes a difference.
Hesitations due to stigma and lack of affordability prevent that from happening. 1 in 7 Indians suffers from mental health issues. There aren’t enough professionals. There isn’t enough average income to support long-term therapies.
The horrors of this catastrophe are taking a significant toll on healthcare workers. Long hours of duty, witnessing many deaths, dealing with the aching agony all around, no training prepared the frontline workers for this humanitarian crisis.
Final year post-graduate students are being called for duty early to tackle the shortage of doctors. “I took my final exams in these conditions and two days after we finished, the examination hall was turned into a makeshift Covid ward.”, Indranil Sen from Goa Medical College shared.
Along with the physical implications, Doctors are seeing all stages of grief including rage after losing their loved ones. “We lost a patient to Covid, and a relative broke a ventilator in anger as well as abusing staff present in the ward.” This just dampens the spirit of the hardworking healthcare staff when they already are short on resources.
Sucheta Tiwari, a psychiatrist, and other group therapists, have started ‘Helping our Healers’ that provides free sessions and low-cost therapy for healthcare workers.
She adds, “The fallout from the current wave in India on mental health remains to be seen. I suspect it will show its ugly face when the crisis is over. We must learn to acknowledge emotional pain. Only then we will be able to seek support. In such a moment of crisis, it is a normal human response to be overwhelmed and stress. There is support available out there, you just need to reach out for a helping hand.”
We hope that sooner or later this too shall pass. But clearly, the after-effects are here to stay. Anxiety, depression and survivor’s guilt might make it feel like we are walking on a tightrope. The number of PTSD and other stress-induced conditions is already rising. This is an alarming situation and must be dealt with utmost care and concern. Unless mental health is considered an essential part of the recovery action plan in this pandemic, with a public-private-social partnership, it will have grave reverberation that might stretch way into the future.
Corporates and private organizations, too, have to come together to tackle this. Even if you care only about the productivity of your employees, you have to invest in their mental health — therapies, insurance, counselling and perhaps training in empathy for leaders. Governments should come up with affordable mental healthcare policies along with understanding the socio-economic triggers and their solutions.
The stigma needs to be lifted. The financial setbacks need to be compensated. The preventive strategies have to be implemented. NGOs and community-led approaches to improve both access and care on offer are desperately needed to tackle the storm that is brewing.
The virus and system may have left us isolated but the outpouring of kindness from selfless people around us gives a glimmer of hope amid dark clouds.
May is mental health awareness month. Let’s increase awareness. Let’s raise voices that reach all the way to the policymakers. Let’s check up on each other and encourage people in need of help to go for professional help.
This month and every month.
All this while hoping the portal of this pandemic closes soon.