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Mental health conditions on the rise

An elderly Indian man at the retirement home. Illustration of mental health conditions among senior citizens.
The COVID-19 outbreak has led to an increase in mental health conditions being reported, with concern for vulnerable populations such as senior citizens. Image credit: rawpixel / 123rf

A spike in reports of Indians being affected by mental health conditions has been reported amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society. 

In the week since a 21-day lockdown was declared by the Union Government, the number of people reporting mental health issues has increased by fifteen to twenty percent. Mental health conditions are now believed to be affecting around one in five Indians. 

Dr Manu Tiwari, who heads the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at the Noida-based Fortis Hospital, told India Today that “the lockdown has had a massive impact on the lifestyle of people. They are staying indoors with limited resources. They are now suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, and even alcohol withdrawal syndrome.” 

Similarly, Mumbai-based consulting psychologist Dr Sonali Gupta informed News18 that her “clients in therapy have reported experiencing panic attacks, exhaustion, anxiety-induced headaches, difficulty in sleeping and overall a heightened sense of anxiety in the light of COVID-19.” 

The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting effects are thought to be exacerbating issues for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. “Mild and managed symptoms are transitioning to moderate and severe,” observed trauma therapist Ruchita Chandrashekar, also quoted in the News18 report. The pandemic is also thought to be triggering anxiety and depression due to concerns of loss of livelihood and earnings; worrying information about the pandemic; and the potentially isolating effects of the Government’s social distancing rules – most notably the lockdown. 

Some reports have questioned how the lockdown will affect those belonging to society’s already vulnerable and marginalised groups. IndiaSpend, for example, recently published a report about the plight of senior citizens in Delhi’s nursing homes and the effects of social distancing and isolation on residents’ psychosocial wellbeing. 

India’s senior citizens are a group already vulnerable to conditions such as depression. As previously reported by Health Issues India, 21.9 percent of India’s elderly experience depression and almost half report feeling lonely. The isolation and distancing prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak is liable to exacerbate these feelings. 

The Government has taken cognisance of mental health conditions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru has launched a toll-free helpline for those experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic. Joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Lav Agarwal said “we are under a lockdown and behavioural issues are very important under such situations…I request everyone to fight unitedly against this disease so if we see any mental health issues then all the institutes are equipped to provide you with necessary support.”

Ensuring that such support reaches all who need it – especially in the most vulnerable demographics – is imperative and must form a part of the Government’s response to COVID-19. Mental health conditions ought to be afforded parity of esteem with physical health issues. India has a mixed track record on effectively dealing with mental health issues, with a sizeable treatment gap and dearth of specialists in fields such as psychiatry to help those affected cope. In the era of COVID-19, without effective interventions, the gap is poised to widen. 

Contact details for mental health support in India can be accessed here. 

If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit your nearest hospital or contact AASRA on 91-22-27546669 or Sneha India on 91 44 24640050 helpline. A list of other suicide helplines can be accessed here.

The Government’s toll free-number for mental health support is 08046110007.

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