In December 2019, a virion, inert outside the human body, a million times smaller than a particle of dust, jumped host possibly from bats to humans in Wuhan, China. It started a worldwide pandemic that brought human lives and economies to a grinding halt.
This virus, the COVID-19 virus or coronavirus, started controlling our lives in India from the third week of March 2020. What started as a three-week ‘lockdown’ starting from March 24, 2020 will be recorded in world history as a turning point event that changed our lives forever and brought about a ‘new social order’.
The lockdown, as the most potent preventive measure against the pandemic, has created a new reality for all of us, an altered reality. It has created a new vocabulary of ‘social distancing’, quite a heavy term which bears an even heavier connotation. With social distancing emerging as the new reality, going online, communicating over phone and connecting virtually has taken hold, even more so than before.
Just as the fourth phase of the lockdown began, South Bengal was wrecked by the cyclone Amphan which affected millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Thousands were left without a roof above their head. Vast areas were inundated and were without food, drinking water, electricity and communication for days.
As notions of social distancing and lockdown dissolve in the aftermath of Amphan, we face the alarming prospect of a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak in West Bengal. As thousands of migrant workers return home in the state, chances of a second wave become even stronger. We are faced with a dilemma staring at a rising curve of coronavirus infections, crumbling healthcare infrastructure and the lives of millions of people for whom the lockdown means hunger and starvation. Today all of us feel anxiety and helplessness staring towards an uncertain future. This situation has to be recognized as an unprecedented mental health challenge.
Appreciating mental health in the current context
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Mental health needs to be taken care of just as physical health. Mental health and mental ill health fall in a continuum occupying two poles with varying degrees of well-being and ill-being in between. These aren’t absolute concepts and in our lives we continuously traverse from one end of the spectrum to the other.
If a person is mentally unwell, there must be some symptoms, be they physical (bodily), psychological, behavioural and / or cognitive. Mental ill health is a broad term that encompasses our worries, anxieties, sorrows and negative thoughts, and can reach extremes like depression, suicidal ideation and a complete disconnect from ‘reality’. Sometimes these feelings can tip over a threshold making us dysfunctional and that’s when we seek help. According to the WHO, today one out of every four people experience mental health problems.
Staying free from mental illness isn’t enough for one to enjoy good mental health. To enhance and sustain one’s state of well-being, self-care measures need to be undertaken. If one notices that one or more components of mental health (as defined by the WHO) are absent from our lives over a prolonged period, then one has to consider consulting a mental health professional for help in improving one’s quality of life.
In our ‘normal’ day-to-day living we might follow the WHO definition as a yardstick in order to maintain our mental well-being. But in a situation like the current one, where we find ourselves in a constant state of flux between fear, anger and helplessness, retaining mental well-being by following certain benchmarks is not a viable option.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, in a war-like situation the one and only aim is to maintain ‘equilibrium’. The present scenario worldwide is nothing less than war-like; we’re quarantined, anxious and stifled by numerous do’s and don’ts based on the norms of social distancing and the need for precautions. Hence maintaining equilibrium amid a number of stressors has become the most important task at hand.
What are the stressors we’re dealing with?
The home where we’re ‘locked in’ can be a source of stress and isn’t necessarily a safe space for all. Think from the point of view of the woman who’s forced to stay with her abuser 24×7 under the same roof; or a queer person who’s struggling to establish their choice and preference. The biological family can be a source of persecution and violence for these individuals. Escaping such a situation and taking solace in a chosen family has become all the more difficult because of the lockdown.
Simple pleasurable acts of adorning oneself or dressing in one’s favourite clothes have become difficult. Social acts of meeting and hugging friends have become near impossible. Relationships, including marital ones, are being lived out virtually, with even break-ups happening online. This altered reality also means that we’re constantly anxious about our well-being and that of our near and dear ones. Quarantine rules (in health facilities or at home) and the constant fear of infection have put us on the edge.
The world of work doesn’t offer a distraction either. Work from home and webinars have become the norm for many in the workforce. But not everyone is able to adjust to this new way of functioning or pick up the skills required for online work. Some people miss the very act of commuting to work because it also means getting away from a stressful home environment. For many others, the more fundamental tension is about job losses, job scarcities and financial difficulties.
In the sphere of education, educational institutions are trying to implement new ways of reaching out to students by introducing online classes. Virtual spaces that were earlier used mainly for gaming, chatting and making friends, have now become a means for learning. But the fun of learning together, discussing, debating and delivering in a vibrant class room has become a distanced exercise and post-Amphan subject to the mercy of link failure. There are other students for whom the stress is not being able to afford the technology for online classes, and this in turn is alienating them.
All these stressors put together are a lot to cope with. But first and foremost it’s important to recognize our feelings of anxiety, anger, fear, irritation, helplessness, sorrow, uncertainty, loneliness, fear of loss and death anxiety. At times these feelings can become so overwhelming that we might lose functionality. All of this is to be expected and it’s crucial not to deny what we’re feeling. This awareness and acceptance is the first step in the right direction towards taking care of our mental health. The next step will be to do something to help ourselves or opt for professional counselling and psychotherapy.
Here’s a list of potential mental health care activities:
Eating right, sleeping tight: Though this is a time when you’re likely to have fewer food options, having your meals at the right time can help a lot to deal with stress. So will drinking plenty of fluids to keep your body hydrated at all times. Top this up with enough sleep to keep yourself fresh and going.
Skip TV news: Avoid news bingeing on TV channels, especially news that spreads negativity. However, you should gain correct information from reliable sources such as the WHO website, and reliable and responsible media. Moreover, try to replace watching TV with as much reading as possible, or even listening to the radio and audio stories for both information and entertainment.
Going online for more than work and games: Going virtual can have its downsides, but it’s now quite unavoidable. So why limit yourself to just webinars and games? You can get in touch with close ones through social media; reconnect with friends and relatives staying in faraway places or with whom you haven’t spoken in a long time. If video conference apps seem too much, a simple phone call will do just as well.
For students, online studying apps are growing in popularity. These could actually be more fun than the game apps!
Strategies for dealing with domestic violence: If home isn’t a safe space for you, try to make your own safe corner where you can spend most of your time. Try not to get into a conflict or argument with problematic family members, and if you do get into one, the idea is to deal with the situation assertively. Remember that being assertive is the key, not passive or aggressive. Hold on to your wisdom and patience. If you can’t keep your calm and end up responding aggressively, don’t get upset. Gather yourself, tell yourself “It’s okay”, and try to make it better the next time.
At the same time, take care of your safety and security – make a safety plan and keep important phone numbers in speed dial mode (including helpline numbers). Scream and raise an alarm if you perceive a threat and attract people’s attention so that the threat or violence can be stopped. Under no circumstance should you absorb abuse. Seek help.
Being yourself: If you’re unable to wear your preferred dress and ‘be you’, go through your photographs to revisit the times when you felt good about yourself. Bide your time – you’ll get back your independence and start living your preferred life again!
Similarly, if you’re not able to express your gender identity by adorning yourself, explore other ways of expression, like adorning yourself at a discreet hour in the night, recording and playing favourite songs, helping in household chores, or helping others in need.
Keep something with you that gives you comfort: Like a memento, toy, letter, photograph or anything that is significant and valuable to you. You can keep something which you believe in. Or you can think of someone whom you believe in.
Breathing tips: Whenever you feel anxious, try to calm yourself by working on your breathing. Learning to breathe properly can do wonders to relieve stress and rejuvenate you. Take a deep breath inhaling for three seconds, hold your breath for one second, and then exhale for three seconds. Gradually increase the time of exhalation, according to your comfort level.
Creative distractions: Use your creativity and make something. Build, brew, fix – take ideas from YouTube if necessary. Cooking, painting, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, recording songs, making videos (including Tik Tok ones), writing poetry or fiction . . . the list is endless. And if you’re not into being creative, enjoy someone else’s creation – an engrossing film or book, or even listening to soulful music.
Ventilate your feelings by writing them down: This may work for some people. Pen your thoughts, emotions and feelings. Keep the writing with you and destroy it later – if you want to – once you’ve been able to ventilate.
Mental walk: Take a walk using your mind to meander through your favorite places, with your favorite person(s) or alone. You could use music or sound to aid your imagination.
Pets as companions: If you have pets, spend time with them. If you have wanted one, this is the time to adopt one. You won’t be disappointed! Nurturing plants can be an equally calming activity.
Concentrate and do some methodical work: Like arranging an almirah or book shelf, cutting vegetables, cleaning the room – these activities don’t demand too much analysis, but help us to concentrate and divert our mind from the coronavirus cacophony.
Get physical: Through yoga or other indoor exercises, or a brisk walk close to your house or in the neighbourhood (with a mask on). Playing indoor games can be a good substitute once in a while. But if you prefer stillness, try meditation or simply sit still and do nothing. Just draw in a deep breath and enjoy being still, not doing or thinking anything – enjoy being yourself and being alive!
Seek professional help: There are helpline numbers and professional counsellors rendering expert help. You just need to identify the need and ask for help. Help is at hand (including services like Varta Trust’s online locator for queer friendly health care providers and lawyers).
Helping others: If possible, help someone else in need. Helping others makes us strong!
To conclude I’d like to narrate an incident during the Amphan cyclone. There’s a coconut tree just outside my window – a constant companion since the last 18 years. The evening of the cyclone was scary – the tree swayed in frenzy. I could almost touch its sprawling leaves and feel the wind and rain lashing against it. I stayed huddled in my room, the electricity gone, and all I could hear was the howling wind. I thought I’d never see my friend again.
The next morning as the first daylight crept into my room, I shakily opened the window. To my amazement I saw my friend still standing tall. As I explored the neighbourhood, all I could see around me was a city that seemed like a graveyard of trees. Even huge banyan trees lay uprooted, but my coconut tree stood firm. That’s when I realized that to survive one needs to be flexible. Flexibility isn’t the same as yielding – flexibility is withstanding, accommodating, adapting and rising against the tide.
My experience in exploring options during online counselling sessions has taught me a parallel lesson. If you can connect with people, care for them and create joint solutions, you can best cope with the challenge at hand.
About the main photo: The coconut tree outside the author’s window. All photo credits: Nilanjan Majumdar