Depression: The silent epidemic no one is talking about

The coronavirus pandemic may have accentuated the mental health problems unprecedentedly as millions have become jobless or are facing huge business losses across the globe, reports Pari Saikia

The cases of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are spiking amid the Covid-19 pandemic, according to various studies and statements from top doctors around the world. The mental health problems are growing among the youth, however, the Coronavirus pandemic may have accentuated the situation unprecedentedly.

The Covid-19 pandemic that has been raging across the globe since the start of 2020 has made millions jobless and shut down businesses worth billions of dollars. A report released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) said that about 21 million salaried employees lost their jobs during April-August 2020. The data released by the government this month showed India’s GDP growth contracting by a staggering 24% in the first quarter of 2020. These enormous figures indicate how the country is suffering economically in the current times.

The loss of income and employment have been just one aspect of the consequences of a pandemic which has literally shut down the world since it first appeared out of China. The virus has been forcing billions of people confined to their homes with little hope for social interaction, raising the domestic violence cases significantly. The overburdened healthcare system meant that the people needing medical attention were left to fend for themselves while all the resources were allocated to dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. With no scope left for holidaying or leisurely get-togethers, the youth are more stressed than ever and with time, the problems are only piling up.

While the world focuses on the health-related challenges of the Covid-19 and the resulting deaths, there is least focus on the psychological ramifications of the emerging situation. The shutting down of schools and universities have restricted the youth inside the four walls of their homes, with stringent norms of social distancing, complicating their psychological balance. The spectre of uncertainty raised by this pandemic has been the biggest nightmare. The uncertainty of whether life will ever be normal again, of the students who wonder whether they will join their schools and colleges again, and of professionals who wonder whether their hard work and dedication is any good now as the businesses have turned upside down.

It’s being argued without doubt that Covid-19 is in many ways responsible for increasing mental-health disorders and their accompanying evils, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, even wife beating and child abuse. The reports from the West are equally worrying, with the US and Brazil hit with worst numbers, where depression has become its own epidemic. The national rate of anxiety in the US has reportedly tripled in the mid-2020 compared to the same period in last year, increasing from 8.1 per cent to 25.5 per cent. The cases of depression in the country quadrupled from 6.5 per cent to 24.3 per cent in the same period. Countries like Britain, France and Italy registered similar trends among its youth. In fact, according to official sources, the cases of depression in Britain doubled during the Coronavirus period among the adults.

Expert speak

According to Amal Baishya, a psychiatrist from Assam, the hospitals have seen a significant increase of new cases related to anxiety, depression, mixed anxiety depression, OCD and similar illnesses. But, he says there is a decreasing trend of OPD visits by the patients like addiction related problems, psychosis, etc., probably due to the overall fear of infection with Covid-19.

“I think the most important life stress in this pandemic and lockdown is the loss of income. Other causes of stress are the results of relationship problems, conflicts, lack of recreation and play activities for children and adolescents, etc. I think children and adolescents are the most vulnerable age-group for Covid-19 pandemic. They’re not psychologically mature enough to handle these types of changes,” he adds.

Many hospitals have reported a humongous 70 per cent rise in the depression and obsessive compulsive disorder patients since the pandemic hit the nation. Many said the patients were worried what might happen to them if hit by the virus, which triggered the trauma. The number of suicides, even among the medical staff, have significantly increased in the recent period.

Amal says that the most prominent reasons cited by the people included joblessness, loss of businesses, no work, isolation due to family members getting infected, boredom due to lack of recreation, prolonged contact and conflicts with family members, lack of contact with friends and loved ones, constant fear of getting infection and subsequent quarantine/ isolation, etc. He said that the affected persons in stressful situations could end up with prolonged depression, conflicts and violence, self-harming behaviour, etc.

“Solving the immediate problem related to lockdown is the best strategy to deal with them, which is not possible now. According to severity of symptoms, medication or psychotherapy or combination of these two types of treatment are needed to treat these cases. Overall stress management strategies are also very helpful,” Amal says.

So, what is your advice for the people facing this situation? Amal says, “Accept the situation, focus on what you can do rather than what you cannot. There are a lot of positive things happening due to pandemic and lockdown, like you getting to spend time with your family members and engaging in your hobbies. Remember that there are restrictions in going out, but there is no lockdown in contacting friends and family over the phone or using any digital platform. There is no lockdown in pursuing your hobbies like drawing, painting, writing, playing permissible games, etc. The key is in ensuring that people enjoy all of these. It’s also important to restore your regular routine which tends to distort due to constant boredom. Also, engaging in physical activities and exercises also helps. besides, having a balanced diet daily with proper sleep.”

Who is at risk?

In the present circumstances, the people who are more likely to pick up infections, or the ones for whom accessing treatment can be difficult, people with preexisting conditions or the ones who can’t afford regular treatment or therapies while in quarantine are most likely to be affected by this silent epidemic. The people living in depression in this period may find it hard to access their medications, be unusually fearful of Covid-19 or its effect on their loved ones, be very anxious of their finances, feeling uncertain and experiencing a heightened sense of helplessness.

Nearly all experts agree on the necessary steps to be taken if you are afflicted with such an issue during the pandemic, which among other things include following a normal daily routine, limiting time spent on social media, engaging in physical activity, eating healthy, sleeping enough, avoiding alcohol and drugs and maintaining social relationships. These steps ensure the best possible defence against depression or any mental health disease, and have always been helpful to a number of patients.

Depression is undoubtedly a serious mental condition, but it is treatable. Both medication and psychotherapy are important in the treatment of depression, and when both combined produced the best possible result.

Another challenge during the pandemic has been the surge in the cases of suicides among the youth, and the state seems ill-equipped or concerned about this emergency. The cases of suicides and self-harm have doubled, and in some cases, tripled, across many states in the country and urgent attention is required.

The lockdown has not only worsened the situation of those who were already on the recovery path, but triggered severe mental disorders among people with no such history in the past. The authorities as well as the people need to take this silent epidemic very seriously before it’s too late.