Mental health & Covid-19

Published April 20, 2020

HOWEVER high the numbers of coronavirus patients, the pandemic is exacting a mental toll on far more people, and its effects will linger for much longer. Most individuals, to some extent or the other, thrive on social interaction; enforced seclusion is not conducive to emotional health. Compounding the feelings of loneliness is the anxiety over lost livelihoods and the prospect of financial ruin, the fear of infection (asymptomatic spreaders causing the most panic) and of losing loved ones, and, above all, the bleak open-endedness of it. Judging by the figures, Covid-19 has not even come close to peaking in Pakistan. For all the back and forth in official quarters about relaxing the lockdowns or tightening them further, none can predict when this state of siege will be over. There is the pandemic in the present, and ahead of us, a void.

It is a situation that would test the strongest among us, let alone those more vulnerable to depression, paranoia and suicidal tendencies. Indeed, the very real psychological fallout of the pandemic has been recognised, in a manner of speaking, by the Ministry of Human Rights. On Friday, it issued guidelines for people to care for the mental health of others in this historic time. Some of these suggestions include avoiding the association of any race, ethnicity or religion with the virus, not spreading misinformation or stigmatising those who contract Covid-19, and refraining from creating panic. The guidelines include a helpline number that can be called by anyone that suspects someone they know is suffering from any form of abuse or mental illness. These guidelines may be well-intentioned, premised as they are on the understanding that everyone has a right to mental health. However, there should also be an official communiqué, preferably in the form of awareness-raising campaigns about how individuals themselves can nurture their mental health in this stressful period. How do they prevent themselves and their families from sinking into a pit of despair, where they cannot see light at the end of the tunnel?

One of the coping strategies often put forth is avoiding excessive exposure to news of the pandemic — the objective is to be informed, not relentlessly track the spread of the contagion. Moreover, it is advisable to access limited, trusted sources of information. Maintaining social networks through technological tools is critical to sustain the sense of being connected, or ‘in it together’. The government must also underscore its commitment to protecting women and children in violent households, who are all the more at risk when confined with their abusers in a situation replete with multiple triggers. Several people have stepped forward with free counselling, workshops, etc for those finding it difficult to navigate the psychological challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Putting one’s skills to the benefit of others is possibly the best self-therapy for mental health.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2020

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