I speak from a space of supreme privilege when I say this: this lockdown has been the happiest thing that has happened to me in years. Insensitive? Very. But if you are gramming your post-workout glows, aglio-olio recipes, and jabbering gibberish, every day – it’s just pot calling kettle black now.
Until two months ago, I would be dragging myself out of bed to catch a flight or get to work, even on the worst days of my period cramps, my questionable (non-existent) sleep schedules and my absolute ineptitude to process my own emotions and stay in bed. Because despite the ‘you are not your productivity’ vibe around me, I am guiltily a part of this hustle culture that validates my existence. (I blame my mum really, but hell you can’t be female and respected here if you don’t follow some unhealthy systems can you?)
So obviously, for all the times I dealt with my anxiety attacks at office washrooms, this two month long stay-at-home, have-minimal-human-contact,work-in-your-undies-after-ugly-crying, worked! And guess what, my body is so happy that for the first time in a decade, my PCOS allowed by uterus to do its job two months in a row – on time! But as I say this, my friends are either speaking to therapists or avoiding any kind of news to not get triggered into a rabbit hole of panic. And middle class house-wives across the country are questioning every single life-decision they had ever made since saying yes to getting married, because all the men and children in their lives are now at home – all the time – demanding for food, attention and TV, in their two bed-room household (not) meant for 8 adults.
Where am I getting at with this? That despite living during the worst times in our lives, mental health is still being approached with this silly backhandedness that makes dealing with a pandemic doubly hard. Each one of us reading this right now, has escaped death (2million cases across the world, with over 1,70,000 dead is no small number). And yet discussion around this is tread with near-comic caution. Within the first 100 hours of the lockdown, 7 cases of suicide were reported from Kerala alone (Livemint, March 2020), with many more still being reported across the country. Domestic abuse cases doubled in the first two weeks across India (Outlook, April 2020). Families with diffabled children are some of the worst affected, and the Human Rights Watch (April 2020) is already speaking of the debilitating effects this is having on children with them coming face-to-face with economic crisis, deaths and lack of access to education or internet (which more than half of the world, including Kashmir, don’t have).
And yet, while attending a call with shall-not-be-named international organisation in March, soon after the lockdown was announced here, questions around mental health were diplomatically told off as ‘good questions’, that need us to be ‘beautiful neighbours and support systems’ to help the situation – and that we can ‘refer their website’ for resources.
Okay, miss. But who reads these resources? Chances are that even you and I haven’t. Because we still speak of trauma from every day struggles like we would bleep sex on TV. A global pandemic which is believed to leave us with the vibrations of our claps (pots, pans, and bhajanams included), is not going to see this change very much. And if you and I haven’t read it, I highly doubt the man who sold his phone to buy ration for his family for `2,500 before committing suicide, did. And if nearly half of the world doesn’t have internet, who is reading these resources on their website? The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also put out some material online, but how many of us knew that’s where we had to go?
We didn’t. And if we didn’t, it means that we expect poverty only pleads guilty to hungry stomachs, not to broken minds. Unfortunately, as much as we can blame the governments on not doing their job right (which we should), I think it’s safe to say that it’s 2020 and perfectly well-educated individuals like us have ensured that the mental health journey remains a lonely one. We have assumed that these remain either matters of crisis or pity – not outcomes of necessity in the times we inhabit. India has, on an average, 0.75% access to psychiatrists, per a population of 1,00,000 (Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2019). Let that sink in. Now, sit down and think of the array of people who are never going to, or be able to reach out to this already tiny percentage – especially now.
But, there is much we can do as ‘beautiful neighbours’ who can support the whacky idea that each one of us, despite our status of hunger, deserve an emotional hand-holding. I spoke with Jolly Johnson, founder of Helping Hands Organisation which works with children with autism at the grassroots in Trivandrum, to ask her how we could help families and children with intellectual diffabilities during this lockdown, and post it. “There is definitely going to be a new normal, even after the lockdown ends, and I don’t particularly think we are close to being ready for it – not even for working class families, let alone those underprivileged,” she says. Routines for disabled children have definitely been disrupted and re-learning will be the challenge, she believes. But Jolly says that each one of us, at least after the lockdown ends, can take our own efforts to reach out, with all safety and health precautions considered. If you have or know a child with an intellectual diffability, do try and:
– Engage with them, so familial burdens can be shared and collective family mental health is addressed.
– Understand that their triggers and patterns would be key in understanding their moods and behaviours. Multiple resources are available online, that can help us normalise this conversation and provide access to information to many families across the spectrum.
– Encourage families to communicate with their child so they have some, even if simplistic, understanding on why their idea of normal is changing.
“At the grassroots, I think it is important that we ensure ration supply is addressed, so the livelihood stress isn’t there, making the environment automatically better for the child. Additionally, you can also encourage families from the grassroots to ensure that therapy and intervention for their child is not discontinued, and work with your local NGOs and volunteers to raise awareness around this,” she advices.
I also spoke to Anupama Nayak, a counselling psychologist based out of Bangalore, on what this pandemic means for a society living in disparity. “I believe there is this conscious sense of community now on ‘being in this together’ which is definitely positive. But once you are a part of this movement, it is also important that you analyse where you place yourself and how this change is affecting you,” Anupama says. “What are your privileges and difficulties, will also give a sense of how you can help not just yourself, but how others around you would like to be helped as well.” Anupama advices that we:
– Not jump to conclusions. Anxiety escalates in isolation and/or distress, so it’s important that we build our boundaries, take support, and build a community around us that can help us and our loved ones.
– Re-evaluate what gives us our sense of self-worth and what defines ‘productivity.’ These lines have now blurred, and a lot of this ‘new normal’ is going to revolve around acknowledging how the personal and the professional consciously overlap.
– Help the underprivileged voice their experience. Give them the space and time to communicate their frustrations, and help them organize better by making them aware of their rights, responsibilities, while also encouraging them to follow directives in staying safe.
Both Jolly and Anupama also encourage the idea of Sharing and Supporting with the burden, whether it’s with your friends, families, or the world outside in despair far worse than our own.
Look, clearly this pandemic has the ability to fuel divisiveness, turmoil, as well as take lives without even touching them. And while it’s all well and good that we mildly regard this, it’s so much more important that we do something about it and be the ‘beautiful neighbours and support system’ that we should be, according to the powers that are.
We have been given the opportunity to dissent a norm that has oppressed our will to be in touch with our emotions, and those of others. If we don’t do much now, nature will hatch its own conspiracy to get things straight – but I am afraid that would be a pandemic far worse.
As for the one we are struggling with now – we are, despite our isolated selves, all in this together. We’ll be okay.
“Eat (chocolate), you’ll feel better.”