Evolution in the Mental Health Trends: Pre and Post COVID-19
Updated: Aug 5
Mental health makes up an integral part of our lives including our emotional well-being. It, therefore, has become a major concern for the world since the past decade, and India and the global community are equally sharing the burden of the mental health crisis. The development of mental health knowledge was moving ahead at a slow pace but with the onset of the pandemic, the changes brought in the mental landscape were quite unprecedented. Although the discussions were always present in society on mental health, the pandemic brought it to the forefront where the two established stakeholders of society- the government and the public ensured that mental health will come under a regular health concern, which was not visible earlier on such a large scale. The pandemic has provided corresponding focus to different sectors of society in mental health and has emphasized that “Mental health is a serious concern, and should not be considered extracurricular.” Therefore, it is not inappropriate to state that the year 2020 is a turning point for mental health studies because the pandemic conferred appropriate recognition to MENTAL HEALTH. It presented a stark difference between the pre-COVID times and the post-COVID.
Mental health issues have always been there, but they are increasingly recognized as the pandemic unfolds. People were not susceptible to acknowledging that there were going through some mental health issues, but now it is more acceptable in society, more so with the younger generation and working populations. India has also witnessed the same scenario where COVID-19 exacerbated the mental health crisis, although the challenges of mental illnesses have been always present in Indian society. According to one estimate of the WHO, India has one of the largest populations affected by mental illnesses. Between 1990 and 2017, one in seven people from India has suffered from mental illnesses. And, it is quite unfortunate that only 10-12% of them seek aid for their mental health concerns. (The burden of mental disorders across the states of India: the global burden of disease study 1990-2017, 2020). This was one reason behind the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind’s statement that “India is facing a possible mental health pandemic” in 2017. (Correspondent, 2017). Although the reports continue to suggest the plight of India, it is the culture relating stigma to each western theory that has prevented people from accessing mental health services. Even Subhra Sarkar, a scholar in psychiatric nursing, in her article, “COVID-19 has exacerbated relation of mental illnesses to lunacy in India. In her words, “Mental health issues have long been equated with psychotic disorders with symptoms like disruptive behavior, hallucinations, etc. Only recently have increased awareness of mental health issues shifted the focus to common but less obvious mental health symptoms. A conversation about other mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, attention deficit, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities, has finally been stirred.” (Sarkar, 2021)
India’s hidden mental health pandemic has talked about the relation of mental illnesses to lunacy in India. In her words, “Mental health issues have long been equated with psychotic disorders with symptoms like disruptive behavior, hallucinations etc. Only recently have increased awareness of mental health issues shifted the focus to common but less obvious mental health symptoms. A conversation about other mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities, has finally been stirred.” (Sarkar, 2021)
The rise in conversations about mental health is an important development in the pandemic when some big names like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka opened up about their mental illnesses, and it inspired the public to get more comfortable with their mental health concerns. Although different celebrities did talk about mental health preceding the pandemic, the media gave it more coverage this time and the news about the Olympic players prioritizing their mental health was telecast for more than a week.
The increase in distress calls over these two years highlights the growing public concern for mental health. According to a study by Snehi, “Calls for help from those with suicidal tendencies have risen to 7% of the total, from a norm of 1%.” (Tiwari, 2021)In the USA, “a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered at more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same last year.” Online Therapy company Talk space reported a 65% jump in clients since the mid-Feb of 2020. (Wan, 2020) Apart from this, there is a significant rise in the mental health campaigns since 2020 because mental health has impacted everyone without any discrimination and bias. The prominent ones are- JanSport, an American backpack label that launched the Lighten the Load Campaign. It is on a mission: to connect people with “real tools” to “unpack” the mental health crisis; TBWA- Sound the Excuse Campaign, TBWA\London partnered with the award-winning men’s media platform, The Book of Man, to help us with one thing: baling on video calls; See Me, Scotland’s national program to end the stigma associated with mental health and discrimination faced by people who are affected by mental illnesses; HereForYou Campaign, to encourage the existing community of people on Instagram to support one another and find the right help (Keane, 2020). They designed the campaigns to spark conversations on mental health in society. In India also, different initiatives supported the fight against the taboos associated with mental health like the podcast, “The stories from the Pandemic”, by the NGO, Sangath which provided a safe platform for people for an open conversation about the sufferings and fears caused by the intimidating situation of the pandemic.(Mascarenhas, 2021)
The government of India also made efforts on their part to continue work towards strengthening mental health services in India which supplemented the existing policies like the National Mental Health program of 1982 and the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, to make mental health a general health concern like any other physical illnesses. This time, it has focused more on addressing the structural issues underlying the low acceptance of mental illnesses as normal and important in society.
The new efforts include- a national helpline to provide support for mental health concerns arising out of COVID-19. It was initiated under the mandate of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Govt of India by the three central mental health institutions, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Regional Institute of Mental Health (LGBRIMH), and Central Institute of Psychiatry (CIP); and, this year, on World Mental Health Day, under the guidance of the Union Health Minister, the Mental Health Awareness Week was being observed to encourage people participation to destigmatize mental health in India, (pib.gov.in, 2021) which is required because no matter how much effort is being put to allow people to speak about their mental health, there remains a segment of the population who is still struggling to express their concerns freely like the transgender community, the prisoner and the uneducated section of society. Therefore, it will be right to state that the government is moving in the right direction to bring mental health concerns under a general health concern but needs to engage more with the other important stakeholder i.e., the public to raise awareness levels of society so that the neglected sections can also be acknowledged and they can also benefit from the policies on mental health.
The pandemic taught the importance of mental health because it brought new challenges that tested the population not only physically but also mentally and made everyone realize the need to seek a doctor's help when needed. According to the psychiatrist, Dr Shrikant Nibhorke, Immediate Past Secretary of Vidarbha Psychiatric Association, “During the pandemic, people have realized that learning to cope with stressful situations in a mentally healthily way can make them and those around them more resilient. They also realized how family bonding and support gives a feeling of psychological well-being. It was more of a psychological burden for people than physical health.’ (Deshpande, 2021)The unprecedented push towards mental health will always be one of the defining factors of the pandemic. It's interesting to note that despite countless stigmas attached to mental health, people have normalized prioritizing mental health. It shows the strong willpower to move against the forces of society to promote mental well-being, which was not observed before the Covid-19 pandemic. And, so, we are moving in the right direction because despite having different challenges like unaffordable mental health services and judgmental interpretations of mental health; the pandemic has created a safe ecosystem to discuss the mental health concerns
The pandemic may have affected the populations on so many fronts but it has also taught the importance of mental well being and has interestingly shown the equal treatment of populations with mental illnesses because it affected everyone irrespective of their distinct identities.
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