It’s been 550 days since India was locked down for the first time. Mental illnesses have used this period to creep out of prisons, war-hit areas, dungeons of the internet to enter our homes. This time, they’ve evolved into shapes and forms that are catching even doctors off guard.
In India, the pandemic has killed more than 4 lakh people so far. The crores who’ve been cooped up inside houses, dodging death, are fighting a daily battle against mental illnesses. The documented volume of which has been the highest the country has ever witnessed.
Since March 25, 2020, on average, 24*7 helpline volunteers at India’s biggest mental health institutions have been fielding close to 900 calls every day. Mostly from those with no history of mental illness.
News18 spoke to several therapists and psychologists across the country to narrow down on five case studies that reveal why there is an impending mental health crisis like never before. This piece is the first of a four-part series — pandemic fallout.
Dreams like never before
In the past year, 11-year-old Ashish* has had a recurring dream of his grandfather meeting with an accident and dying. The first few times he saw this dream, he woke up feeling confused and afraid. But now he knows better.
Whenever he finds himself in this particular dream, he tells his grandfather not to cross the street, thereby preventing his accident. Instead, he dreams that he and his Dadu (grandfather) are at a boi mela (book fair) browsing through books, chatting with one another.
In reality, his Dadu passed away several months ago due to COVID.
In the past one-and-a-half years, our dreams have taken bizarre shapes, waking sleeping monsters and memories from the basement of our subconscious, which experts are only beginning to study and understand.
Mumbai-based psychologist Priyanka Varma said, “People who have lost loved ones have not had closure. There have been cases in which the deceased had gone from the hospital to the burial grounds, without families getting a scope to say goodbye.”
“Therefore, individuals dealing with the loss of loved ones bring them to life in their dreams. Dreams are the only place they can finish conversations they want to have with people they lost. It’s the only place to say their unsaid goodbyes,” explained Varma.
More and more people have also been complaining of nightmares projected by elevated anxiety levels.
Natasha Mehta, a senior psychologist, explained that during this time, people are seeing more metaphorical dreams like being chased by snakes or bitten by insects or being locked up in confined spaces, or losing loved ones or meeting death.
She also spoke about the unusually high number of dreams experienced by many. “Because people are anxious, they are seeing too many REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle dreams,” said Mehta. REM cycle is the sleep cycle during which we see dreams, and our brains are very active.
“Due to the bombardment of dreams, some people are having difficulty sleeping. This phenomenon is more pronounced in children who generally sleep deeply but have experienced sleep issues during the pandemic,” added Mehta.
Mehta also pointed out that since we did not make many new memories during the pandemic, several old (and inconsequential) memories have resurfaced in our dreams.
“Our minds are reaching out to the suppressed memories, and they are resurfacing in our dreams. So, playmates who were long forgotten, places we have not been to since childhood, have reappeared in our dreams. These are not normally tappable memories, but we aren’t living in normal times either,” added Mehta.
Right out of vintage prison
After two hundred years and a socially confining lockdown, the world is experiencing what 19th-century London and 20th-century US prisoners named stir-crazy.
Jonathon Green, the world’s leading lexicographer of slang, defines it as a person who displays psychological disturbances due to being confined in prison. Experts now have a more contemporary name for it — cabin fever.
Rithika Alladi, a consultant clinical psychologist from Hyderabad, told News18, “Cabin fever is not a diagnosable psychological disorder. It is a term that we use to explain the psychological effects on a person if she is kept in isolation for a long time. This term came up during the times when people had to stay for long periods at home due to the winter season or some ongoing crisis.”
Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s famous theory of man being a social animal and living through mutual dependence had probably never been felt so profoundly in this century. Now with offices on laptops, friends on video calls, groceries at the doorstep and everything else locked down, the social animal has been caged.
Rita Roy, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist said, “With the pandemic, I have seen an increase in the number of people who presented these symptoms. For some, cabin fever might show up as general irritability, boredom, loneliness, anxiety and even paranoia.”
“The sudden cessation of physical interactions is resulting in quick burnout of employees and in some others, it shows up as the habit of procrastination. Certain addictions could develop like drinking alcohol, taking psychotropic drugs, binge-watching movies or eating too much junk food,” she added.
Sticking to a daily routine, not allowing office work to take over the entire day, making time for hobbies are some of the ways, she says, may be employed to cope with the situation. “Playing board games with family, exercising will go a long way in ensuring good mental health,” she said.
No more balanced diet
A few months back, a “frail” 16-year-old boy with his mother pulled up at a psychologist’s in Kolkata. “The bags under his eyes told a thousand stories.” However, neither of them knew that his difficulty had been bursting the medical infrastructure of first-world nations at their seams.
Come anxious times and the first disruption to make it to the table is eating disorder (ED). In February this year, Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, England, predicted that there will be a “tsunami” of ED patients.
ED triggers a person to binge eat or cut down on their diet completely to a point of starvation.
To understand why she may have been correct, sample this: According to data collected through global surveys, the National ED Association’s public platforms and several media reports, there has been a four-fold year-on-year spike in the number of patients seeking treatment for ED across the world.
Back home, psychologists have noted 14-24 years of age as the most affected demography.
“A few months back a 16-year-old boy visited my chambers accompanying his mother. He looked frail and skittish. The bags under his eyes told a thousand stories. Upon enquiring, his mother showed me the picture of the boy from 4 months back. I was astounded. He had drastically lost weight in the last few months and refused to eat even his favorite food,” said Kolkata-based psychologist Goutam Chatterjee.
“The boy remained quiet for the first few sessions and refused to speak. The shame associated with the disease stopped him from talking,” he added.
Clinical psychologist Charlotte D’Costa of the National Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Kolkata, said binge eating has been another form of ED resulting from social media ads on weight loss. This has caused several relapses among those who had recovered, triggering latent emotions of supposedly not being good enough.
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