Mental health issues and suicide rates have seen a notable increase in India since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Indian Psychiatry Society (IPS) said a recent study showed a twenty percent rise in mental health disorder cases, affecting at least one in five Indians. “The lockdown has had a massive impact on the lifestyle of people,” says Manu Tiwari, a mental health and behavioural sciences expert. “They are staying indoors with limited resources. They are now suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.”
Individuals affected by mental health issues suffer in silence too often. Even under normal circumstances, these individuals would be unlikely to avail treatment. Mental healthcare accounts for just 0.16 percent of the government budget for health. In addition, there is an acute shortage of psychiatric professionals in the country. Data indicates that there are 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 psychologists and 0.07 social workers for every 100,000 Indians. This is despite the substantial number of Indians affected.
High-profile suicide cases have been reported amidst the pandemic. One individual took their own life after erroneously believing himself to be infected. Another case involved a 26-year-old student who committed suicide as she was unable to return home to her family. Such instances have underlined the crisis in India.
The isolation engendered by physical distancing and lockdown measures is bringing about worsening mental health situations. For many, this will go all but entirely unnoticed as the quarantine has significantly reduced any form of social contact. Many of India’s students — a group already noted as having comparatively higher rates of mental health and suicide — now find themselves isolated from their families, often hundreds of miles away and confined to claustrophobic dormitory rooms.
This situation of isolation rings true for many other sections of India’s population. The elderly — yet another demographic at heightened risk of poor mental health — may now find themselves all but cut off from their families. Some may even struggle to cope with their own basic needs. The homeless form yet another at-risk population, one which has expanded considerably during the quarantine as many have lost jobs and homes. Many have already succumbed to starvation, while others flock to homeless shelters to receive food, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder in queues numbering in the hundreds. This is a state of affairs likely to spread the coronavirus further.
On May 20th, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged governments, civil society and health authorities to urgently address mental health concerns arising from the coronavirus pandemic. “After decades of neglect and under-investment in mental health services, the COVID-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress,” he said.
Some experts have suggested a post-coronavirus world may become a breeding ground for mental health conditions. A number of factors could contribute to make this prediction a reality. For many, this will be apparent as they grieve for lost loved ones, often unable to attend funeral services or visit them in hospital before their deaths.
Others will have suffered considerably through the isolation of the quarantine, with alcohol and substance abuse a last resort for many to deal with the issue. For some who recover from the virus, studies have suggested permanent lung damage leading to reductions in quality of life could contribute to further mental health struggles.
As of yet, there are no signs of the pandemic subsiding. According to data from the Union Health Ministry, May 25th saw India report 6,977 new coronavirus cases in just 24 hours, taking the tally of infections at the time to 138,845. The increase of nearly 7,000 cases was among the highest yet recorded in India, topping a consistently increasing record that has been surpassed almost consistently day-by-day since the beginning of May — at which point the number of cases began to increase ever more rapidly.
Numbers have continued to increase rapidly since, with the current number of cases reaching 151,876 at the time of writing. With no plateau in sight, India could well see a sustained viral caseload for the foreseeable future, potentially necessitating quarantine measures for a prolonged period to avoid the risk of a considerable number of deaths should the virus spread unchallenged.
The country must do more to acknowledge that while the coronavirus is primarily a risk to physical health, the virus, and indeed the circumstances surrounding it have had a profound effect on the mental health of the nation.
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.