An 18-year-old boy walked into the clinic of clinical psychiatrist Dr Purnima Nagaraja this week. This engineering student in Hyderabad said he was tormented by the thought that he had not received his weekly pocket money of Rs 1,200 from his father.
"I cannot eat a snack or drink tea. I cannot borrow more as I am yet to clear off my previous debt at the college canteen. I feel guilty because even the canteen owner does not have money,'' he told Dr Nagaraja. He could pay at the clinic because it accepted old notes or a promissory note in cases where no money was at hand.
Attendance at most colleges in and around Hyderabad has fallen by about 50 percent because there is no change to pay public transport like a bus or autorickshaw. Driving your own vehicle also adds to cost as the petrol bunk will give you fuel only in big denominations, as there is no change. It may seem rather strange that in these times of cash crunch, people are actually reaching out to psychiatrists but this is seen as the first reaction to a stress caused by acute anxiety.
What can a shrink possibly offer as a solution? Experts say in most cases, people are only looking to have a person to listen to their financial woes and the sense of despair arising out of that.
"With the kind of rumours floating around on social media, people are feeling very anxious and in some cases, there are turning even paranoid,'' says Dr Nagaraja. "Like one, that says all lockers will now be opened in the presence of an Income Tax official. Or another that says, all phones are being tapped.''
Add to that the videos of people burning money circulating on WhatsApp; articles both praising and critiquing the decision to demonetise confuses and scares people all the more. Particularly because the management of the economy with its complicated jargon is not easy for everyone to understand.
In many cases, worried families are bringing their aggrieved members to psychiatrists for crisis intervention. A father whose daughter's wedding is fixed in November came to meet Dr C Venkata Suresh, a psychiatrist at Hyderabad's Yashoda Hospital, this week. He was undergoing acute stress due to his inability to access his own money kept in the bank. This was before the government relaxed the withdrawal limit to Rs 2.5 lakh for a wedding.
"I counselled him that he will get his money back, told him that this is for nation building. In this case, I had to give him a tranquiliser to calm his mind because he was very nervous,'' says Suresh. Another patient, who had applied for a US visa, got panic attacks because of the situation and was slipping into a depressed state of mind.
Psychiatrists say the feeling of happiness, contentment, and well-being is controlled by a chemical called serotonin. Its levels dip when the mind is under acute stress. They warn that a prolonged spell of disruption and worry could lead to impulse control disorder, which is an urge that could harm oneself or others.
Most of the other patients being referred are those who are used to handle a lot of cash daily and are feeling disoriented when the currency flow has almost dried up. These are mostly traders and shopkeepers who now keep asking "how long is this going to continue''
Experts say this is a new experience for mainland India as it is not used to an unstable economy or a situation in which rationing of some kind takes place. News is being consumed far more than usual for the latest updates. The government's decision to change the withdrawal limit thrice in the last ten days has led to doubts if it knows the roadmap well.
Psychiatrists believe that the present crisis has also led to a trust deficit, with everyone suspecting the other of stashing unaccounted cash. "Everyone sees each other as a crook, with suspicion,'' says Dr Nagaraja. "The fabric of trust is slowly broken, which is not good for society in the long run.''
Experts say it is important for this crisis to get over in a week or two. Already many are resorting to obsessive hoarding of Rs 100 notes, which is a disorder arising out of frustration. Tempers are running high and the Supreme Court has already cautioned the government that there could be riots on the streets if the currency is not provided in the banks soon.