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Free of Covid, but images of hospitals and survivor’s guilt haunt many

The emotional loneliness of the coronavirus ward, full with images of people on ventilators dying on adjoining beds and doctors clad in PPEs trying their best to resuscitate those slipping into unconsciousness, have added to the post-hospitalisation trauma for the septuagenarian.

She might have recovered from Covid-19. But the emotional loneliness of the coronavirus ward, full with images of people on ventilators dying on adjoining beds and doctors clad in PPEs trying their best to resuscitate those slipping into unconsciousness, have added to the post-hospitalisation trauma for the septuagenarian. She is now a different person… rigid, non-cooperative, and at times violent. Back at home, she is now on psychiatric treatment as horrific hallucinations continue to haunt her.

Elsewhere, a middle-aged man is suffering from extreme anxiety after a neighbour contracted the coronavirus. Having internalised the symptoms, shortness of breath, resulting from extreme anxiety, has for him become an underlying Covid symptom. Not very far away, another man in his forties is feeling anxious. The reason for his feeling helpless is the loss of a family member to the pandemic. The well-educated man is unable to forgive himself for not doing enough to save his family member. A feeling of despair and self-blame has engulfed the family.

Losing her husband to COVID, on the other hand, became liberating for an elderly woman, such that she felt something was not normal. He had been battling mental illness for decades. The sudden void created after his passing away, after years of attending to him all alone, made the 70-year-old feel guilty for not grieving like others.

In contrast, another woman in the same age group, whose husband succumbed to the virus, is unable to cope with the void. She is anxious and unable to sleep or interact with anyone due to the uncertainty of the future.

If the feeling of anxiety from apprehension was a major cause of concern during the first wave of Covid-19 last year, now it is the reality of the pandemic that is causing the suffering in the minds of people, said Prof Meena Hariharan of the Centre for Health Psychology at the University of Hyderabad. “A lot of people are feeling what is called survivor guilt, a feeling of not having done enough, while several others are unable to come out of trauma caused by hospitalisation. There is no single solution for all as each individual is unique. The problem may be the same, the intensity of disturbance varies from person to person,” she added.

Amidst an intense second wave of Covid-19, Dr Hariharan, along with several like-minded experts on mental health issues as well as senior medical professionals have come together to revive Social and Emotional Rehabilitation of Virus Victims & Medical Services (SERV-Me). Organisations such as the Association of Health Psychologists, UNICEF, Action Aid, Dr.Reddy’s Foundation-School Improvement Programme, AP-TS Social Service Forum, Action Aid Association India, and Asha Hospitals have come together for the cause. On May 19, they relaunched a free tele-helpline for people in need of psychosocial support and telemedical services.

Between 9 am and 9 pm, psycho-social counseling is available on 040-48214775 and tele-medical consultation is available on 040-48213272.

Over the last couple of weeks, the team of 25 psychologists and six medical doctors have attended to over 2,000 calls. A lot of people feel relieved after they vent themselves out but that is not the end. “In today’s times, we are at a disadvantage of not having the person in front of us. To study non-verbal communication, we need to pay a lot of attention to the voice we hear and assess the intensity, feeling, and seriousness of the problem,” explained Prof Hariharan. While some are given tips to manage their time and routine, others require another session after four days. “The idea is to help them help themselves. They need to manage their feelings. A lot of free time is usually causing them anxiety and triggering imagination,” she added.

In a lot of instances, the cause of anxiety and agony is also the need for proper guidance in the homecare management of a Covid patient. Having understood this, the SERV-Me team of medical doctors guides families on how to manage the patients, what medicines to be given, the diet to be given, alarm signals that require oxygen, or hospitalisation in case of severe distress. They also provide information on the availability of oxygen/hospital beds/ambulances etc based on information that is verified and updated twice on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Manimala Rao, a senior critical care expert, said a lot of people who are moderate patients or recovering are now worried about black fungus. “They are worried and want to take drugs as quickly as possible. They are worried they will go to lack of oxygen. This anxiety will cause further inflammation and that will worsen the condition and result in hospitalisation,” said Dr. Rao.

According to her, the patients now know what they need to do but sometimes end up doing a little in excess, which is where doctors like her intervene with some guidance. “It is still a new disease. We tell them how to improve their immunity and manage their diet. Sometimes, even weeks after recovering from COVID one is unable to smell. So we suggest something called smell training,” she said.

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