It’s been 550 days since India was locked down for the first time. Mental illnesses have used this period to creep out of prisons, war-hit areas, dungeons of the internet to enter our homes. This time, they’ve evolved into shapes and forms that are catching even doctors off guard.
In India, the pandemic has killed more than 4 lakh people so far. The crores who’ve been cooped up inside houses, dodging death, are fighting a daily battle against mental illnesses. The documented volume of which has been the highest the country has ever witnessed.
Since March 25, 2020, on average, 24*7 helpline volunteers at India’s biggest mental health institutions have been fielding close to 900 calls every day. Mostly from those with no history of mental illness.
News18 spoke to several therapists and psychologists across the country to narrow down on five case studies that reveal why there is an impending mental health crisis like never before. This piece is the first of a four-part series — pandemic fallout.
Dreams like never before
In the past year, 11-year-old Ashish* has had a recurring dream of his grandfather meeting with an accident and dying. The first few times he saw this dream, he woke up feeling confused and afraid. But now he knows better.
Whenever he finds himself in this particular dream, he tells his grandfather not to cross the street, thereby preventing his accident. Instead, he dreams that he and his Dadu (grandfather) are at a boi mela (book fair) browsing through books, chatting with one another.
In reality, his Dadu passed away several months ago due to COVID.
In the past one-and-a-half years, our dreams have taken bizarre shapes, waking sleeping monsters and memories from the basement of our subconscious, which experts are only beginning to study and understand.
Mumbai-based psychologist Priyanka Varma said, “People who have lost loved ones have not had closure. There have been cases in which the deceased had gone from the hospital to the burial grounds, without families getting a scope to say goodbye.”
“Therefore, individuals dealing with the loss of loved ones bring them to life in their dreams. Dreams are the only place they can finish conversations they want to have with people they lost. It’s the only place to say their unsaid goodbyes,” explained Varma.
More and more people have also been complaining of nightmares projected by elevated anxiety levels.
Natasha Mehta, a senior psychologist, explained that during this time, people are seeing more metaphorical dreams like being chased by snakes or bitten by insects or being locked up in confined spaces, or losing loved ones or meeting death.
She also spoke about the unusually high number of dreams experienced by many. “Because people are anxious, they are seeing too many REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle dreams,” said Mehta. REM cycle is the sleep cycle during which we see dreams, and our brains are very active.
“Due to the bombardment of dreams, some people are having difficulty sleeping. This phenomenon is more pronounced in children who generally sleep deeply but have experienced sleep issues during the pandemic,” added Mehta.
Mehta also pointed out that since we did not make many new memories during the pandemic, several old (and inconsequential) memories have resurfaced in our dreams.
“Our minds are reaching out to the suppressed memories, and they are resurfacing in our dreams. So, playmates who were long forgotten, places we have not been to since childhood, have reappeared in our dreams. These are not normally tappable memories, but we aren’t living in normal times either,” added Mehta.
Right out of vintage prison
After two hundred years and a socially confining lockdown, the world is experiencing what 19th-century London and 20th-century US prisoners named stir-crazy.
Jonathon Green, the world’s leading lexicographer of slang, defines it as a person who displays psychological disturbances due to being confined in prison. Experts now have a more contemporary name for it — cabin fever.
Rithika Alladi, a consultant clinical psychologist from Hyderabad, told News18, “Cabin fever is not a diagnosable psychological disorder. It is a term that we use to explain the psychological effects on a person if she is kept in isolation for a long time. This term came up during the times when people had to stay for long periods at home due to the winter season or some ongoing crisis.”
Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s famous theory of man being a social animal and living through mutual dependence had probably never been felt so profoundly in this century. Now with offices on laptops, friends on video calls, groceries at the doorstep and everything else locked down, the social animal has been caged.
Rita Roy, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist said, “With the pandemic, I have seen an increase in the number of people who presented these symptoms. For some, cabin fever might show up as general irritability, boredom, loneliness, anxiety and even paranoia.”
“The sudden cessation of physical interactions is resulting in quick burnout of employees and in some others, it shows up as the habit of procrastination. Certain addictions could develop like drinking alcohol, taking psychotropic drugs, binge-watching movies or eating too much junk food,” she added.
Sticking to a daily routine, not allowing office work to take over the entire day, making time for hobbies are some of the ways, she says, may be employed to cope with the situation. “Playing board games with family, exercising will go a long way in ensuring good mental health,” she said.
No more balanced diet
A few months back, a “frail” 16-year-old boy with his mother pulled up at a psychologist’s in Kolkata. “The bags under his eyes told a thousand stories.” However, neither of them knew that his difficulty had been bursting the medical infrastructure of first-world nations at their seams.
Come anxious times and the first disruption to make it to the table is eating disorder (ED). In February this year, Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, England, predicted that there will be a “tsunami” of ED patients.
ED triggers a person to binge eat or cut down on their diet completely to a point of starvation.
To understand why she may have been correct, sample this: According to data collected through global surveys, the National ED Association’s public platforms and several media reports, there has been a four-fold year-on-year spike in the number of patients seeking treatment for ED across the world.
Back home, psychologists have noted 14-24 years of age as the most affected demography.
“A few months back a 16-year-old boy visited my chambers accompanying his mother. He looked frail and skittish. The bags under his eyes told a thousand stories. Upon enquiring, his mother showed me the picture of the boy from 4 months back. I was astounded. He had drastically lost weight in the last few months and refused to eat even his favorite food,” said Kolkata-based psychologist Goutam Chatterjee.
“The boy remained quiet for the first few sessions and refused to speak. The shame associated with the disease stopped him from talking,” he added.
Clinical psychologist Charlotte D’Costa of the National Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Kolkata, said binge eating has been another form of ED resulting from social media ads on weight loss. This has caused several relapses among those who had recovered, triggering latent emotions of supposedly not being good enough.
Logging into XXX
If people are finding it difficult to eat, sleep and meet, what are they up to?
Desperate times call for desperate distractions. For instance, during 1929 and 1939, as America went through the Great Depression, it simultaneously experienced an exponential boom in pornography consumption.
Ninety years later, little has changed. As the world entered another crisis, many surveys promptly reported a spike in pornographic content consumption and India ranked no. 1.
“As the education shifted online during the lockdown, parents ensured that children had internet access 24*7 so that their studies were not disrupted. While it did help them to continue their education, long hours of unsupervised internet use made them browse for the content that is forbidden to them,” Saransh Jain, a Lucknow-based sexologist, told News18.com.
“For many youngsters, porn addiction began as a curiosity and has now turned so chronic that they are having difficulty focusing. It also doesn’t help that even now, their social interaction and mobility are restricted as the isolation they are in is a trigger for their addiction,” he added.
Apart from youngsters, those working in high-pressure jobs in the IT sector have also been hit by porn addiction.
“The insecurity of the social situation coupled with the fear of losing their jobs have made many individuals who work in this sector very high strung. As a consequence, they have turned to porn for relaxation more frequently and have now become addicted,” said Jain.
A new group that began watching more porn during this phase is Indian women. Isolation, loneliness, lack of a partner to have sex with, or familial issues or dissatisfaction with a partner has made them turn to pornography in this period, pointed out the doctor.
Teen porn addicts often have a skewed idea of how physical intimacy should be among two people. Since porn nowadays is violent and often rough, they assume that to be the reality. Among couples, porn develops unrealistic expectations of physical appearance and performance.
Alexis was walking David down the aisle. The Jazzagals were singing. Moira was dressed as the Pope and all of Schitt’s creek was laughing, jiving inside the same hall. And Rohit slammed his laptop close. He had been uncomfortable for some time but could not watch the show any further.
“None of them were wearing masks. They were so close to each other. There was no screening, no sanitizers”, Rohit told News18.
But weren’t they acting normal? Perhaps the old edition of it.
After being quarantined for so long, movies and shows that have people touching their faces, gathering in crowds, surrounding themselves with others who may be sick or infected with the flu or cold have started churning feelings of worry, anxiety and panic. There is a strong sense of dissociation with movies for portraying a world that is not ours anymore.
Kiran Saluja, a psychotherapist in New Delhi said, “The numbers are few as of now but I’ve had cases where people find it difficult to watch movies. Be it newspapers, radio, television and even caller tunes, we’ve been fed again and again about covid-responsible behaviour. So much so that it has now become a part of our muscle memory. We read the new set of interpretations of reality into everything we see.”
Much like Rohit, there is a separate group that is finding it difficult to watch movies but for a different reason. “Many are feeling a sense of loss and missing out after watching movies. Scenes of swimming pools, gatherings, weddings, a free life outside are making them sad, yearning for the past and not being able to be there,” said Saluja.
There is a third group. Psychologists, according to a report by The Guardian, have found evidence that fans of apocalyptic movies may be more resilient and better prepared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic than the rest of us.
Meanwhile, Covid or otherwise, David did get married. Similarly, News18 hopes we soon return to the world that we crave.
*The minor’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
This news piece may be triggering. If you or someone you know needs help, call any of these helplines: Aasra (Mumbai) 022-27546669, Sneha (Chennai) 044-24640050, Sumaitri (Delhi) 011-23389090, Cooj (Goa) 0832- 2252525, Jeevan (Jamshedpur) 065-76453841, Pratheeksha (Kochi) 048-42448830, Maithri (Kochi) 0484-2540530, Roshni (Hyderabad) 040-66202000, Lifeline 033-64643267 (Kolkata)