2020, a year in mental health: Grief, anxiety, doomscrolling — there's another pandemic alongside COVID-19

There is no blueprint of how to be in a pandemic and perhaps what we need is the permission to just survive it and cultivate a curiosity for what comes up inside us — as we make our way through the virus.

Sadaf Vidha December 30, 2020 12:12:11 IST
2020, a year in mental health: Grief, anxiety, doomscrolling — there's another pandemic alongside COVID-19

Illustration © Satwik Gade for Firstpost

Read more from our '2020, the year of...' series.

If you find yourself mentally stuck in March or April of this year, you are not alone. Research suggests that people are either experiencing time as going too fast or too slow during the lockdown, and often, the same person can feel both. The reason for this is that the usual anchors of pre-COVID life — the weekend, commute, birthdays, weddings etc — have either stopped, lost meaning or changed significantly. It is akin to driving on a road with absolutely no milestone markers. However, our changing sense of time is perhaps one of the less severe mental health effects of the lockdown.

Sources have reported an increase in depression and anxiety during the lockdown. However, with a lot of time spent indoors, the use of phones, especially of social media apps has increased so much that it earned a name for itself — “doomscrolling”. This refers to a tendency to surf social media apps or news websites or even dating apps, endlessly. There are detrimental psychological effects of this practice — from being overwhelmed by bad news and feeling hopeless, to comparing oneself to others and feeling like you are “wasting the lockdown” while others are making good use of it to learn art, coffee making, baking or even becoming social media influencers!

This urge to be productive may in fact be a distraction from the grief and vulnerability that have suddenly made themselves visible during the lockdown.

And indeed, we do have a lot to grieve this year — our sense of time, our sense of normalcy, our sense of safety/constancy about the future (especially with the scary news of the more viral COVID strain and vaccine side effects), and the effect on our relationships — with others as well as with ourselves.

Vaidehi Chilwarwar, a therapist and researcher studying for her PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, says, “Personally, my equation with food and nourishment changed during the lockdown. The notion of impermanence has hit me hard and hence I eat everything as if it's my last meal. On one side, I tend to enjoy and feel grateful for all the meals I have. However, it has resulted in night binges, over-eating sprees and choosing unhealthy (tasty/spicy) snacks over healthy meals. Maybe my brain is trying to create that same feeling of connection and comfort which it derived from people prior to the lockdown.”

Loneliness is perhaps one of the biggest risks we are facing during the lockdown. It exacerbates existing concerns and gives rise to new ones. As per one source, “In the context of the COVID-19 lockdown, depression, anxiety and possibly post-traumatic stress, all well-known risk factors for suicide, might have developed among the population with no prior mental health problems and worsened among individuals with psychiatric vulnerabilities”. Lockdown is perhaps the biggest psychological experiment the world entered, without consent, with the highest number of participants being Indians, according to this review.

Many romantic relationships have been strained with the long distances that no one signed up for, and have resulted in breakups, regardless of whether the partners lived together or apart. One source even looks at the increasing divorce rates during this time. Vaidehi says an individual who consults her for therapy found lockdown a particularly draining experience. “The blurring of professional and personal boundaries took a toll on their marital life which had begun in January 2020. Their time for exploring the world and their relationship was consumed by worry, panic and constant household and work demands. It brought a sour side to their perfectly healthy relationship. This person mentioned that despite having colouring books, musical instruments and Lego at home, they could not get into the 'chill' mode.”

Malvika Fernandes, a Mumbai-based therapist and a coordinator with Project Mumbai, shares, “My clients have faced a lot of relationship issues because of distance; they can’t meet, there’s the inability to have physical intimacy, and concerns of infidelity.”

However, in Indian homes and families, staying together can also give rise to another set of issues, because of “contagion stress”, which is primarily caused by not having enough space from each other. Malvika shares her own distress, saying, “I faced a lot of family challenges because house work had to be shared, each person’s stress and anxiety spilled to the others and no outside coping mechanisms were available. With regards to my clients, I observed a lot of challenges at home because of disputes, abuse, unfair and gendered work distribution. I also saw lots of challenges with respect to taking care of older folks at home, physical health and corona related anxiety.”

It is not surprising then, that alcohol and substance use as a way of coping saw a rise in the lockdown. In fact, even the way that crime happens has changed in the lockdown, with an increase in online fraud/harassment and domestic violence/assaults and decrease in thefts/assaults on the road. All changes are not so gloomy, however. For a lot of people, [being] indoors is reminiscent of vacations, and it has legitimately added to the sale of board games as people give in to the nostalgia.

Perhaps one of the most sobering, bittersweet effects of the lockdown, has been the space to look within. As Malvika puts it, “A lot of clients also realised that this time made them sit with their emotions and trauma, which was very difficult to come to terms with. In fact, around July, I felt like I myself had depressive symptoms and felt really guilty of my privileges.” One such effect of looking within, for example, is making people reconsider their career choices. Another positive effect was that India finally took its mental health situation seriously enough to have a nationwide helpline. However, looking inwards all on your own can be scary and therefore, requests to reach out to therapists have shot up in the lockdown, leading to therapist burnout.

In order to learn to live with the reality of the pandemic, we need to re-attune ourselves for the nature of life as it will be for the next one or two years, and this includes therapists — who need to weave in significant breaks into their schedules. If we are to go into 2021 doing better than we did in 2020, ironically, it starts with letting go of expectations. Because of their very nature, expectations are likely to come from our pre-COVID experiences and have played a big part in making us feel pressured. There is no blueprint of how to be in a pandemic and perhaps what we need is the permission to just survive it and cultivate a curiosity for what comes up inside us — as we make our way through the virus.

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