It is often said that time heals all wounds, but that may not be entirely true. Especially in the case of mental health, intervention is important. In fact, according to experts leading our latest Practo Connect webinar – meant exclusively for doctors and healthcare professionals – even if mental health is everyone’s responsibility, mental illness is largely the responsibility of psychiatrists.
“Locked minds are like time bombs. Defuse it early, lest it explodes inside you,” says Dr Harish Shetty, Consultant Psychiatrist at Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital in Mumbai. Adds Dr Anurag Varma, Consultant Psychiatrist at MLN Medical College in Prayagraj, “Many COVID-19 patients are known to experience some kind of neurological or psychiatric health issues within six months of infection. But irrespective of whether or not one has had COVID, it is important to communicate how one is feeling to help others understand them better.”
In India, crores of people have been infected with the Coronavirus, with a sizable number facing mental health-related issues. And this is not an anomaly. In the UK, the incidence of clinical depression more than doubled since pre-COVID times. In the US too, those reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression jumped from 11% of the population before the pandemic to almost four times that number over the last 18+ months.
How COVID-19 is impacting mental health
“If the past is anything to go by, each pandemic was a threat to mankind, creating panic due to the absence of vaccines at the time of the outbreak, and COVID-19 has been no exception,” says Dr Varma, adding, “Bereavement, social isolation, and fear triggered mental health conditions among people. Additionally, people’s socio economic status and profession also impacted how they process the pandemic, with those on the frontline and economically unstable reportedly being more distressed than those who don’t have to worry about the daily needs of their families.”
According to him, irrespective of exposure to the virus, many feel anxious about contracting the illness and even dying from it, leading to feelings of helplessness and even mental breakdown in some cases. Add to this, uncertainties around COVID-19, failure of the healthcare system to handle the crisis effectively, and negative media reports exacerbated existing conditions for many.
Doctors, also, have not been immune to this.
“As they tend to one patient after another in a packed ward, most doctors reportedly don’t have the time to feel,” says Dr Shetty, adding, “in fact, many don’t think it’s important to feel, and they may be partially correct because they have to function. During a health crisis, they cannot afford to be carried away by emotions. Even if this is an important aspect of the work of a doctor, it is critical that they talk about what they are experiencing to people they believe can understand what they are going through.”
Burnout among COVID-19 warriors
When the first cases of COVID-19 began trickling in from China, doctors around the world became bystanders to horrific videos of early deaths from Coronavirus. According to Dr Shetty, these incidents triggered panic attacks in the doctor community, leading to fear, insomnia, psychosis, and even suicidal thoughts in some cases.
“They are human beings first, and then doctors,” begins Dr Shetty, adding, “People respond differently to situations, but the common response among all should be to first be aware of what they are experiencing, and then talk to someone about it. Running a slow motion analysis of past events usually enables one to audit events in a more realistic manner. Being part of mindful gatherings as a community with shared experiences is also a good start. And if required, certain symptoms should be treated by psychiatrists early on.”
Adds Dr Varma, “Over time, we have seen a pattern of the illness among affected patients too. First, they are fearful of the stimuli, which leads to rapid heart rate, breathing difficulties, sleep disturbances, catastrophic thinking, amplified by behavioural problems like avoiding public gatherings or even leaving the house.”
Building and improving communication channels
The communication landscape, to a large extent, decides who will be more and less affected. In any situation, one should be equipped to identify, acknowledge, accept and experience any emotion they may be experiencing, and talk about it.
“Lot of negativity around a person can cause apathy as well, but it is important to prevent psychiatric morbidity,” says Dr Shetty, adding, “Being angry is a normal emotion, but being aware of it and paying attention to it is important. Otherwise, resentment and hostility will build up inside a person, leading to hate and rage.”
According to him, getting enough rest, exercise and nutrition helps manage one’s emotions better. Writing is also a great way to articulate what one may be feeling – it helps compartmentalize and organize thoughts, helping in overall stress management.
“Anxiety disorders are common among people today, and this has been amplified by the pandemic,” says Dr Varma, adding, “The general approach should be to remain compassionate towards affected people, with efforts focused on instilling a sense of hope and resilience, and more importantly, showing a road towards the future. This approach also leads to a good response of the patient to treatment.”
Join us every month as we partner with leading industry and doctor associations for our educational webinar series, Practo Connect. Watch this, as well as previous webinars, here.