As the vaccine outreach slowly brings more people to clinics, seeking some sort of protection against Covid-19, we must look back on a year that has been unprecedented in most of our lives and assess how it may have impacted our mental health.
For one, psychiatric studies have found that people who combat stress and anxiety disorders have been hit even worse by the pandemic and the fears of contracting the illness. For another, even those who perceived themselves as being in good mental health have been affected by these fears and general paranoia about germs (which is not a bad thing) and conspiracy (which is usually disastrous, given that this is keeping many eligible recipients from taking the vaccine).
For another, beyond the loneliness of working from home for long hours without the benefit of light moments with colleagues and general repartee, the confusion of the office and home spaces has caused the much-touted “work-life balance” to take a beating. Companies have tended to use the pandemic as an excuse to place employees on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, weekends included. The impossibility of going on vacation throughout the previous summer has also reinforced the trend of being reachable at any point, and chances are that this will continue even after office spaces open up.
People have had to take pay cuts from business enterprises that say they are coping with losses. In the meanwhile, the cost of living has shot up, thanks to manufacturers of hygiene products capitalising on demand and those of other essentials following suit. Add to this the logistics of managing one’s work life and one’s children’s school lives on a home internet connection.
Couples and families have been closeted together for longer than ever before, and this has caused personality clashes. For those fortunate enough to have rooms and houses of their own, there is more time than ever to contemplate—and being alone in one’s head for too long can have wide-ranging consequences. Doors that were firmly shut open at the slightest triggers.
All this while, we have only been speaking of people who have not themselves been directly affected by the pandemic. While some have got away with mild illness, there are others whose lungs may be permanently damaged, whose sense of smell has not yet returned, and who are suffering from memory loss, short- or long-term—all considered effects of Covid-19.
And then there are those who have lost family and loved ones to the illness. A year seems a very short time, when it is the time gap between the discovery of a virus and the availability of the vaccine. People continue to die across the world every day, even two months into the commencement of vaccine administration. The “if-only” notion can be haunting for those left behind.
Then, of course, there is the question of returning to the “new normal”, a challenge for adults who have got unused to commuting as well as for children who have got unused to accommodating their peers and teachers in a space away from home. The tension of exams, and the arguably more prevalent and less discussed tension of bullying, will return in schools and colleges.
The challenges of returning to office are nearly as fraught, partially because there is no teacher to order that everyone wear masks. I have noticed that people in departmental stores and other public places, including hospitals and dental clinics, take offence to being asked to wear masks by the staff or others. It is almost as if they were accused of being unclean—or ill. The response, “I don’t have any symptoms” has become standard, and not taking them at their word implies that on top of being ill or unclean, they are also dishonest.
But what might be most inimical to us is the stigma against treatment for mental health. It was after a good deal of hesitation that I decided to visit a therapist—mainly because it would be an acknowledgement that I was not in top form in terms of mental health, but also because it seemed an “overreaction”. I wasn’t affected by the pandemic any more than the next person. There had been no personal crisis. Why was I visiting a therapist rather than getting on the phone with a friend?
I was to discover that the insights a professional has and the manner in which an experienced therapist speaks can never be matched by those of a close friend. And we rarely think of the effect a long discussion of upsetting memories or current problems can have on the person at the other end of the phone line. Over the last few months, I have been able to get rid of several habits that qualify as mild mental illness, such as OCD and hoarding. And yet, when I speak about sessions with my therapist, several of my acquaintances seem to imagine me lying gloomily on a couch and staring at the ceiling as I talk about my childhood—or perhaps strapped to a machine with electrodes placed around my head.
Even before I myself took the plunge, I have been an advocate of consulting mental health professionals for things we don’t like to think of as “mental illness”—depression, for instance. But it would take a mind that is immune to its surroundings to be entirely unaffected by the last year, and the only way we can evade a global mental health crisis may be to seek professional help.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com