The coronavirus crisis is continuing to get worse with cases sky-rocketing and its ramifications on people’s mental health are getting serious. In the initial stages of the pandemic, many psychologists had warned us about the wave of mental health issues that may hit us due to uncertainty and social isolation. As creatures that thrive on social interactions, it is hard to deal with the loneliness of staying at home. According to a paper by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, prolonged loneliness, something that many are suffering from during the pandemic, can trigger the development of suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
A study called ‘Covid-19 Blues’ by the Suicide Prevention India Foundation (SPIF) interviewed 159 mental health professionals to understand trends in the help-seeking behaviour of clients. It found that there has been an increase in self-harm and suicidal tendencies among people during the pandemic.
Therapists also reported that relapse rates of recovered mental health patients have dramatically risen and due to the rise in need for their services, they are experiencing Caregiver Fatigue. Just like our healthcare system was over-burdened by Covid-19, it seems that even mental health professionals are not able to handle the towering cases.
Self-harm and suicidal tendencies rising due to frustration during the pandemic
All the wide-eyed young graduates looking forward to starting their careers were in for a rude shock when the pandemic disrupted their plans; this has adversely impacted their mental health. Many young Indians are silently suffering from suicidal thoughts and urges to self-harm according to mental health experts. In Assam, associate professor of clinical psychology at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, Dr Mythili Hazarika tells the Times of India (TOI) how fears and uncertainty about the future can breed frustration and this, he says, is a trigger for self-harm, “Frustration often causes aggression due to which one may tend to hit/harm oneself aggressively.”
With unemployment rising, more people are mentally affected by job losses, or anxious about being laid off and financial security has also become a great concern, hence creating an environment of constant stress. In the study, Covid-19 Blues, 30% of the interviewed therapists said they had observed a rise in self-harm among their clients and noticed many patients expressing the desire to end their lives post the outbreak. Furthermore, the bleak circumstances have led to relapses, 60% of therapists surveyed said that clients that were recovering or had recovered were now falling into relapses.
The good news, however, is that more people are seeking professional help. The founder of SPIF, Nelson Vinod Moses, said, “55% of therapists said the number of first-time therapy seekers has risen since the outbreak of Covid-19.” This means that all the awareness-generating conversations on mental health did help, more people are overcoming the stigma to seek therapy and with online therapy, the practice has turned more convenient.
Therapists say more adolescents are talking about suicidal tendencies during the pandemic
A Guwahati-based child and family counsellor Bornali Borah said that he has been receiving more calls from clients mentioning growing suicidal tendencies now, compared to before the pandemic. She tells the Times of India that adolescents and older age groups have different motivations to attempt suicide. “Youths choose suicide suddenly or abruptly due to disappointment over something or shame,” said Borah, based on her experience with counselling adolescents.
She added that the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput has left most people shook, especially the impressionable adolescents. “Almost everyone mentioned the death of Sushant during counselling. With youngsters identifying themselves with someone like Sushant, it’s become a matter of concern,” she warns.
Dr Hazarika speaks about how celebrity deaths can lead to copycat suicides by people that obsessively idolise the celebrity.
Three days after Sushant Singh’s death, the Times of India reported that there was a spate of seven suicides in Kolkata, which psychiatrists partially attributed to the late actor’s demise. Psychiatrist J Ram tells the Times of India his thoughts on the same, “Rajput’s success was inspirational since he came from a humble background and made it big. Someone like him taking this extreme step was bound to be disheartening to the mentally vulnerable.”
Additionally, since social media has been incessantly talking about Sushant’s death, it can act as a trigger for adolescents with suicidal tendencies. However, Dr Ram says suicide isn’t motivated by a single cause so we can’t attribute Rajput’s death as the sole cause of consequent suicides that happen.
While the survey showed an increase in the number of people seeking help, which is great but our mental health professionals may not be ready for the surge.
Therapists are suffering from Caregiver Fatigue
Nobody is immune to the isolation and feelings of stress in these seemingly apocalyptic times, not even our mighty therapists. According to the study, 62.3% of them are feeling burnt-out and stressed due to the outbreak, lockdown and fatigue from doing mostly online sessions. What’s concerning is that their stress levels may affect the quality of their work. 75.8% of therapists reported that this impacted their ability to provide 100% at work.
But it’s not the pandemic that broke the system as the system was already flawed and severely underfunded. According to the National Health Profile, 2019, India’s expenditure on public healthcare was only 1.28% of the GDP, which is one of the lowest globally.
Nelson Moses, the founder of SPIF, talks about the consequences of underfunding and lack of attention towards public health - “India had been facing a shortage of mental health professionals since before the pandemic.” According to a National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) study, 2016, there is a big disparity in reach of mental health services with 150 million Indians in need of therapy but only 30 million receiving any help.
Therapists could benefit from some counselling themselves
The anxiety is affecting their work and many of them could benefit from some counselling themselves. Saras Bhaskar, a Chennai-based counselling psychologist said that therapists should look out for signs that signal something wrong with their own mental health such as snapping at clients or not grasping a client’s problem. “We ask them to step back, seek help and replenish their own resilience before getting back to work,” he advises.
The Covid-19 Blues study brings some hard-hitting facts to the table and also interestingly provides insight from the ‘caregivers’ or therapists that are mistaken to be invincible. It brings up difficult questions about therapists’ mental health and most importantly, how we can provide support to adolescents enduring mental illnesses.