After contracting COVID-19 in November last year, Anupriya Satish (25) spent her days and nights battling breathlessness and panic attacks, barely able to get two hours of sleep every day for several months.
While her symptoms like fever and body ache subsided in under two weeks, challenges like dry cough persisted, with her anxiety being the worst hit. “Once I recovered, I was getting panic attacks in between conversations,” the Mumbai-based illustrator says, adding that she would have to take a break in between talking for it to return to normal.
Satish is not alone. Several studies from across the world have captured how being infected with the virus and living in a pandemic has taken a severe toll on people’s mental health. Anxiety, depression, aggravation of existing conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder are only some of the ways in which people’s mental health has been impacted.
A nightmare on repeat
In India, which is battling a catastrophic second wave, the shortage of life-saving resources like medicines, beds, and oxygen has only worsened the mental health crisis. Satish admits that although there was a fear of having her or her family members being hospitalised — who have now recovered — she still has a looming fear of being reinfected with the virus again as many have in the brutal new wave despite having recovered earlier.
“There has been a huge change, I’ve never seen so many clients with the same issues,” says Rohini Rajeev, a Benguluru-based psychotherapist.
“People are coming face-to-face with their mortality and that of their loved ones,” says Rajeev, noting that anxiety levels have shot up as a result of the pandemic. People’s will to live has also taken a hit. “They ask me ‘why should I want to solve this problem, I’ll just get COVID-19 and die anyway,” she says. The stress of living through continual waves of the virus has also put pressure on marriages and Rajeev shared that she has seen an influx of people experiencing marital issues as well.
For many, the pandemic has also meant being stranded in abusive households, further adding to the mental distress while being infected. Swarnim (23) shared that since her entire family was sick, they had to move in with their extended family. “Being in one room with my father the entire day and being around my mother's primary abusers was triggering,” the Patna-based IT professional says. She tested positive in mid-April and has since recovered, but shared that she experienced an increased level of anxiety and hopelessness.
“My mom's oxygen level had dropped alarmingly at one point so after that we were all continuously anxious about her health and worried for her life,” says Swarnim. She added that she was overwhelmed because she knew that even if they did find a hospital bed, they won't be able to afford it due to the high rates.
“There is a sense of impending doom and despair,” says Rajeev about the ongoing wave of the virus where people are exposed to a constant cycle of news about COVID-related deaths. “There's a lot of tiredness, negativity,” she says, emphasising that a lot of people are also now feeling survivor’s guilt after seeing their family members either test positive or pass away due to the infection.
Could PTSD be the prevailing condition for a post-COVID India?
Another emerging consequence of the pandemic has been the growing rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rajeev says that generally, people who work in the armed forces, trauma care, and social work dealing with issues like child abuse usually are more predisposed to showing symptoms of PTSD.
However, some who have undergone a severely traumatic incident like an accident or the loss of a dear one can also later develop the condition. Because of the uncertain nature of the pandemic, it has become difficult to predict exactly how someone would react to going through the infection or seeing a loved one pass away because of it. But, Rajeev observes that in many cases, PTSD manifests as “being petrified of having a similar experience.”
Research has also shown that some patients who were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 experience social isolation, physical discomfort, and fear for survival which increase the risk of developing PTSD. Someone who develops the condition may show exaggerated brain activity associated with processing threat-detection as well as negative emotional responses. Mental distress and issues with everyday functioning could also occur as a result.
People who have been infected could have thoughts like “I can’t go out right now,” or “What if this happens to me again?” Rajeev pointed out. If someone has undergone a traumatic experience like having had to gasp for air while they were infected with the virus, the next time they get a cold or cough, they may feel like they are unable to breathe, she says.
In this way, PTSD is associated with extrapolating and catastrophising situations and someone who has the condition may have to fight their irrational fears and intrusive thoughts that may seem rational to them.
Where do we go from here?
It can be immensely difficult to focus on the good when the country is falling apart outside. But it’s critical to focus on what’s working, says Rajeev.
For those who are seeing the fallout on their mental health, she recommends researching and joining support groups. Several groups on social media now act as a support system for people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 or have lost their loved ones and some simply serve as a place to rant and be heard.
While it can be easy to fall into a cycle of being glued to your screen watching the tragedy unfold, taking time out for yourself is key.
If you notice a serious disruption in your mental well-being, consulting a mental health professional would be ideal. Several practitioners are also offering sessions for free or sliding scale rates for those who need it.
Take a break from social media regularly, Rajeev recommends.
She also suggests journaling as a way to put your problems and thoughts into words so that you can start thinking about how to deal with them instead of going into a spiral.