Mental health in a time of national turmoil: Amid CAA protests, building resilience is key to healing from trauma

  • With the civil agitations and state crackdowns stretching over weeks now, could India be facing a possible mental health epidemic?

  • Public mental health has been a serious concern amid worldwide political unrest, including in countries like China and Chile as reported recently.

  • India, with its ongoing agitation against the state’s perceived cultural, social and political persecution, is not immune to a mental health crisis.

Among the many tweets for and against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens that have flooded social media timelines in India since mid-December, a recent post that stood out. Titled “Resilience in the time of Resistance” it announced a support circle at a safe location in Mumbai, which would “aid discussion across boundaries, (about) secondary trauma, triggers, self-care…in this political climate”, and was organised by a trauma therapist and a psychologist.

The calls for looking after one’s mental health through such posts and events are timely and important. Public mental health has been a serious concern amid worldwide political unrest, including in countries like China and Chile as reported recently. India, with its ongoing agitation against the state’s perceived cultural, social and political persecution, is not immune to a mental health crisis.

Witnessing the passage of legislations construed as dehumanising, witnessing or experiencing the violence against minority communities, students and other protesters who are opposing such legislation could trigger acute psychological turmoil in individuals, which could devolve into a persistent state (as has been observed in other countries). This is in line with the already doubled numbers of people diagnosed with mental illness in India.

“Trauma can have a serious effect on the primary survivor. A person who has undergone oppression directly, or has witnessed firsthand violence, mostly carry memories and flashbacks of it. These intrusive symptoms can affect their overall social perception, mood, personality, and interpersonal relations,” says Swati Bhagchandani, a clinical psychologist. “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most evident conditions, which may have a long-term impact. The secondary effect is found in people who see their friends and acquaintances suffer.”

 Mental health in a time of national turmoil: Amid CAA protests, building resilience is key to healing from trauma

With the civil agitations and state crackdowns stretching over weeks now, could India be facing a possible mental health epidemic? File photo. For representation only.

Besides the unimaginable plight of those who are directly (and more severely) affected by such adverse conditions, those involved in a collective retaliation against it are also eventually exposed to a grim timeline of events. “Such exposure is more likely to induce anxiety as at times, people may feel helpless and out-of-control about certain situations. Panic attacks are also probable in those already having anxiety issues,” Bhagchandani adds.

A Delhi-based student who has been participating in the ongoing protests, Mounica says she freezes up, feeling numb and uncertain anytime she sees a policeman, or someone wielding a lathi, or when street lights go off. Over the past few weeks, Mounica has seen friends and fellow students experiencing panic and trauma; this in turn makes Mounica feel helpless. “I see people break down in gatherings, I’ve seen friends getting full-blown panic attacks. It is difficult to look after ourselves amidst all this,” she says.

Systemic violence and discrimination — perpetrated verbally, physically or economically — has both direct and passive effects on the human psyche, as previous research has established. Also alarming is the extent to which hate-based violence generates traumatic reactions in people. With the civil agitations and state crackdowns stretching over weeks now, could we be facing a possible mental health epidemic?

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that people’s mental health is significantly impacted because of the draconian ways of the state. Their mental health would be challenged if they are having to consistently resist,” says psychologist Himani K, who has been an active part of the anti-CAA protests while also professionally helping individuals affected by the political upheaval.
Himani points out that in addition to the threat to life, “all oppression aims to limit a person's capacity to help and think for themselves, hence forcing people to decide against their best interests”. The threat to life that Himani refers to is not just physical, but also existential. We are always striving to make meaning of our lives, but when this tendency is snatched away from us, we are bound to experience ‘ontological insecurity’ — a deep-seated angst that repeatedly tells us that we no longer belong or relate.

There is a considerable body of research explaining why trauma equally affects those who witness traumatic events (as those who experience it), especially those with whom they relate on a humanitarian level through bonds of blood, land or ethnicity. Constant exposure to violence via the news can also have a debilitating effect on mental health. “The emotional content of trauma is transferable due to the mechanism of empathy,” Swati Bhagchandani notes. “People registering their protest online also endure bullying and harassment. One may get caught up in dealing with personal attacks, sometimes even from close ones.” Bhagchandani has had individuals reach out to her for help after their friendships were impacted due to differing viewpoints on the current political situation.

Expressing dissent on the streets takes audacity and solidarity — but it can also simultaneously produce emotional exhaustion. “Citizens of all age groups and genders are putting their lives on hold to stand up for themselves and it could lead to burnout, anxiety and loss of hope,” Himani K says. “I have observed young people already talking about feeling numb, losing parts of traumatic memories, feeling lonely and detached.” And, as Himani remarks, the stress of civil strife is in addition to stressors from their personal lives for these individuals.

Longitudinal studies in different parts of the world have established the long-term psychological effects of civil unrest. In South America, the indigenous population facing recurrent bouts of political violence in the urban regions of Peru were found to have significantly higher risks of developing issues such as PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders. In African regions, ex-post-facto case studies assessed the subjective experience of Somali citizens following the civil war and noted a high incidence of repressed memories of conflicts that had later resulted in trauma and mood-related symptoms within civilians. At the same time, recent psychosocial research has also shown the positive effects of collective resistance. In a survey-based study, black communities who continue to strive for power and control in the face of continuous racism and violence tend to exhibit a decline in symptoms of mental illness.

The acclaimed psychoanalyst and Marxist philosopher Frantz Fanon believed that some mental health problems were socially and politically generated but psychotherapy had little to no effect against this kind of distress. Based on his work with people coming from colonised populations, he advocated for collective healing which must take place in an environment of togetherness. Himani recently held a free support group in Delhi for people experiencing sociopolitical distress and shared insights on what seems to be helping: “Solidarity is key. People leaning on each other, helping with everyday errands, providing emotional support…these have been the greatest protective factors. The sense of belonging in the community in different forms is what has been helpful to deal with the pain and distress.”

Mounica’s experience echoes this. “The solidarities we've built are our only homes. We share our distress and don’t have to explain our positions. We check up on each other and do whatever we can,” she says.

Indeed, interpersonal relations built on grounds of solidarity towards a humanitarian cause yields resilience. Catharsis too may be achieved in different ways. Himani enumerates: “Disengaging from social media or other activities from time-to-time helps. One can also shift to things that they regularly engage in for leisure or as their passion, be it art or humour. Another positive course of action would be to help others cope and listening to their problems as an act of altruism.”

Swati Bhagchandani recommends keeping in regular touch with those around whom we feel safe and secure, alongside basic relaxation techniques that are helpful in calming oneself. “It’s also essential that we keep counting upon our existing support system, stay in contact with friends and family. Talking about these incidents and thoughts with someone who is experienced, or a mentor, also helps. Another way to practise catharsis is to write down a narrative of thoughts and emotions related to everyday experiences,” she says.

Bhagchandani  cautions against “falling into the vacuum of  ‘missing out’ on things pertaining to what is happening around you” and encourages individuals to seek healthier engagements via activities and discussions than allowing oneself to ruminate over negativity.

Crucially, be comfortable with the nature of participation you wish to offer. “It’s okay to choose what part you can play rather than forcing yourself to do it all. Know that the person who chants at the frontline, and the person who claps at the back of the crowd in a protest are both important,” says Himani. “Believe in the collective power of people, strengthen your ideology, and deal with naysayers in small doses.”

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 12:52:29 IST