Increasing mental stress and psychological distress of the modern age, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, is a sign of an impending mental health crisis
The world is fighting hard to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. India is struggling not only to recover from economic devastation caused by the pandemic but also to limit the spread and damage being caused by Covid-19. The death toll is rising steadily. However, what’s not visible from us is the undercurrent wave of mental health problems. Though the latest figures of suicide rate due to the impact of the pandemic in India but media reports indicate a sudden increase in suicides across the country. It’s a matter of great concern for all. Nearly 800,000 people die by suicide worldwide every year during the pre-pandemic period, of these 135,000 (17%) cases belong to India. Actual people who attempt to commit suicide are nearly 10 times higher. Rest 90% survive, as per the study.
All over the world including in India, the incidents of mental illnesses are rising sharply and almost taking the shape of a ‘global epidemic’. Among the most common health disorders are depression and anxiety. A report by the WHO revealed that 7.5% of the Indian population suffers from some form of mental disorder. The Lancet, a well-regarded medical Journal published from the UK, published a report titled “The burden of mental disorders across the states in India: “The Global Burden of Disease Study 1990- 2017” released in February 2020. The study claims that nearly 197 million Indians were suffering from mental disorders, including 45·7 million reported to have depressive disorders, and 44·9 million were suffering from anxiety disorders. It’s believed that today nearly 264 million of the world population suffer from depression. At its most severe, depression can lead to suicide.
The primary reason behind such a sharp rise in mental disorders and illnesses is the lifestyle we have adopted in the modern age. The way we live, think, and work badly affects our physical and mental wellbeing. Far too many of us are preoccupied with the material world, striving to possess more and more material goods, eager for evermore comforts in life. The measure of one’s success is not happiness but wealth, status, and power one acquire. Many cases attach greater value to those attainments than on their intrinsic spiritual nature.
Though most people will say that their first priority in life is to be happy and enjoy life, their real motives may focus on possessing material things. Ironically, chasing material success in pursuit of greater happiness may bring more discontentment and unhappiness in life. That’s why celebrities, public figures, rich and famous are equally prone to mental health problems. As a result, a large section of society becomes vulnerable to psychological stress, emotional distress, addictive behavior, the feeling of loneliness, attention deficit due to high distraction (owing to social media and glamour).
Mental health problems generally start with excessive mental stress due to particular situations (like the death of a close one, detection of serious disease like cancer, etc) or series of events. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalance (secretion of serotonin in the brain), or their combination. Under those circumstances, people unable to think, feel or act in ways they want to.
To manage thoughts under those distressing moments is not an easy way. More we try to suppress our negative or troubling thoughts, more forcefully they resurface.
Even if we divert our attention to entirely different things, we are not able to focus on the present. This condition leads to ‘overthinking’. The same set of disturbing thoughts come in the mind despite our best efforts.
Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or attention deficit disorder invariably start with our inability to manage toxic and distressing thoughts. Then a time may come when those thoughts become uncontrollable.
The way the mental health conditions are increasing, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that these problems will be the main cause of disability in the world in 2030. Now people, already suffering from mental health conditions are further being affected adversely by the emotional responses elicited by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is resulting in further deterioration of their existing mental health condition due to chronic stress, caused by economic and psychological turmoil.
Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people are deeply impacted by way of loss of jobs and livelihood, deep uncertainty (as to how long the pandemic will last), fear of infection, dying, and losing their family members. Losing a job is one of life’s most stressful events. A huge workforce has already lost their livelihoods due to a complete or partial shutdown of economic and commercial activities. We can well imagine the severity of the suffering and emotional distress of their families on the loss of regular income. Due to the economic turmoil that the country is undergoing, people are increasingly showing signs of increased psychological distress and suffering. The COVID-18 pandemic is therefore posing a tremendous challenge to people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health can be strengthened by any strenuous physical exercise such as sports, aerobics, dance, and following one’s passion. For mental exercises, the most important intervention is meditation preferably along with yoga and pranayama/breathing exercise. Through this exercise, we can manage our thoughts especially during challenging moments of life. In the recent past, thousands of research papers have confirmed the transformational changes that come with meditation. Even aging can be slowed to a great extent by the stress-reducing practice of meditation. People become happier and more peaceful when they meditate.
This is the right time that the Central Government should come out with national framework/policy guidelines for mentally and psychologically vulnerable people for ensuring adequate safeguards against social isolation, loneliness, and mental illnesses as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. Social care and psychological support including counseling and therapy through government institutions and NGOs should be extended through the right mix of technological intervention and personal contact. Efforts must be made through social media to talk and discuss mental issues like depression and suicidal thoughts.
We must collectively redress the problem of the social taboo against mental health problems. Telemedicine, teletherapy, and counseling through digital platforms should be promoted extensively for this category of mentally vulnerable and lonely people. The government and the institutions responsible for the mental well-being of people must take widespread suicides as a wake-up call for the impending mental health crisis in India.
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