A silent pandemic of anxiety and mental ailments is here. Government and society must mount a response

The Sars-Cov-2’s damage to mental health, and not just the body alone, has been described as a creeping, shadow pandemic. But in the middle of a devastating second surge, this crisis is no longer in the shadows. It is making itself visible. As the curve of coronavirus infections spikes in city after city, leading to disease, death and desperate quests for medical care, so does the curve of anguish. In a human tragedy of this scale, that has spared neither the rich nor the privileged, that has orphaned children and claimed the old, the loss is not only personal, but is drawing larger circles of grief and devastation. While a vaccination drive on mission mode can bend the pandemic’s curve, the spike in depression and despair is likely to have a long tail — a recent Lancet study estimates that one in three COVID-19 survivors suffers from a neurological or psychiatric ailment within six months of being infected — if the scale of the mental health problem is not acknowledged and addressed.

The challenge was there, even before the pandemic. According to the National Mental Health Survey 2015-16, close to 150 million Indians were in need of mental healthcare support. Not only does India lack in resources (one psychiatrist for 1 lakh patients) and budgetary allocations, society has not yet developed a vocabulary that allows an articulation of this distress. The hierarchy within the family, and hyper-competition outside it demand conformity from individuals — and repression of anger and suffering. In this second surge, this has sometimes led to a misguided demand for “positivity”. A similar denial has made policymakers ignore the crisis that the pandemic poses to India’s children. For over a year now, the closure of schools has deprived children of friendship, mid-day meals and the care of teachers, not to mention the physical release of playgrounds and sport — all essential to their well-being.

The state must prepare for a mental health crisis, especially by putting the needs of the vulnerable at the centre of its response. It must start with the recognition that everyone is vulnerable. Society as a whole must clear a space for a conversation about the toll of work, burnout, exhaustion and grief on the people who have kept its economy and institutions running, to reach out to those who need help. The coronavirus might have forced isolation, but solidarity, as is evident in the many ordinary people organising COVID assistance for others, is part of the human immune system.

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