COVID-19 fallout: Mental health risks posed by hysteria and lockdown  

Mental health risks are for all people who live in the towns, cities and countries that are placed under full-scale lockdowns, and the mass hysteria created over Coronavirus fears is fully responsible

Photo Courtesy: Chandni Gulati 
Photo Courtesy: Chandni Gulati

V Venkateswara Rao

Coronavirus is posing both physical health risks as well as mental health risks for mankind. Physical health risks are for those who come in contact with the positively tested people. Mental health risks are for all the people who live in the towns, cities and countries that are placed under full-scale lockdowns, and the mass hysteria created over Coronavirus fears is fully responsible.

A tiny virus has passed on vast powers to the rulers across the globe. As the pandemic spreads to almost all the countries and anxious citizens demand action, leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with least resistance from the opposition parties, democratic institutions or people.

India, China, France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, UK and USA have implemented the world’s largest and most restrictive mass quarantines and lockdowns. Some 3 billion people, more than a third of global population, have been put under lockdown world-over.

“Infected persons or suspects think quarantine facility is a jail. This is impacting their mental health. There is also a fear of social stigma,” said Dr Rajiv Mehta, Vice-Chairperson, Institute of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. “Too much outburst of information about COVID-19 is creating widespread panic. Everything being fed is negative that is further increasing anxiety. Even if a person sneezes or coughs, he thinks that he has Coronavirus symptoms and he is going to die. Mass hysteria is creating panic,” he said.

“Not just people with pre-existing mental health issues, even general public is gripped by the fear of stigma that comes with Coronavirus. At this juncture, it is important to seek help,” said Dr Deepak Raheja, a Delhibased mental health professional.

The following two case studies, reported in the Indian media, underline mental health issues.

1. In South Delhi’s Sukhdev Vihar, a 30-yearold man has started showing worrying behavioural changes after his brother was found to be a Coronavirus suspect. He remained inside his room for two days and then suddenly exited from the family WhatsApp groups.

2. In Noida, a 60-year-old man has started showing similar traits after he came to know two weeks ago that his grandson is stuck in one of the virus-affected countries in Europe. He wakes up in the middle of the night and screams out his grandson’s name. The doctor has suggested he should be kept away from the news.

As hundreds of millions of Europeans languish in lockdown, people are finding increasingly inventive ways to keep themselves entertained - and to counter what the continent’s psychologists warning are the very real mental health risks of confinement.

In Italy, they are singing and sharing recipes. In France, humour is saving the day. In Spain, community staircases have become the new running tracks, and in Germany, ordinarily disorderly hackers are busy coding Corona-busting apps.

From live music performances on Facebook and Instagram to online antakshari on Twitter, to hashtag challenges on TikTok are egging users to suggest ways to beat the lockdown blues. However, Spanish clinical psychologist Albert Soler warned against the dangers of trying to stay falsely upbeat. “When things are bad, being pressured to be positive can be positively harmful,” he said. “The positivism of Instagram is dangerous at the best of times – but now it’s even worse.”

In India, WhatsApp groups are playing a major role in diluting the boredom for the upper and middle-class people. Information on the good movies to be watched on Netflix and Amazon Prime Videos, sundry details about a family or two quarantined in their apartment blocks, jokes (our maid servant rang up and told us that she will work from home) and shedding a few crocodile tears for the hard-hit poor are some of the favourite topics.

Italians are entitled to a free online consultation from the health ministry, which has warned of a “psychological emergency”. Some 9,000 psychologists are involved in the #psicologionline scheme, offering phone or video consultations aimed also at countering the “heartbreaking effects of the daily death toll, warlike scenes, and easy risk of infection if we don’t stay home”.

The Government of India has launched a toll-free helpline number – 08046110007 – for people who may face any mental health issues due to the ongoing countrywide lockdown to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. “National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) has also launched a toll free number 08046110007. I request everyone to fight unitedly against this disease. If we see any mental health issues, then all the institutes are equipped to provide you with necessary support,” Joint Secretary, the Ministry of Health, Lav Agarwal said at a press briefing on March 29.

In terms of practical advice, Europe’s psychologists mainly stress on the importance of staying in touch and keeping busy. Rosella De Leonibus, a psychologist in Perugia, said that keeping active was vitally important. What counted, she said, was “everything that’s an action – with a result. Passive is no use; passivity makes you feel anxious and increases anxiety.”

(V Venkateswara Rao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer)

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