At Aasra, a Navi Mumbai-based NGO that operates a 24-hour helpline to cater to suicidal and emotionally distressed individuals, multiple phone lines have been ringing continuously for over a week now. Majority of the callers are labourers, mostly migrants, old people living alone and CXOs fearing company closures. Youngsters from as far as the North East and Kashmir are calling too, facing the challenges of discrimination and existential crisis.
Economic slowdown along with the lockdown to battle coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which began with China’s Wuhan province in December 2019 and has spread globally to 194 countries, is taking a toll on the emotional health of millions of Indians. Yesterday, Thomas Schaefer, the finance minister of Germany's Hesse state, committed suicide after becoming "deeply worried" about coping up with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. And India's suicide statistics aren't very encouraging too.
“This increase in distress is not only due to loneliness resulting from the lockdown and the need for social distancing. This is a compounded problem. We are getting a lot of calls from migrant labourers, who are unable to go back home. They don’t have food and provisions as they are daily wage earners whose employers are closed for work,” says Johnson Thomas, director at Aasra, the most used suicide helpline in India.
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Labourers calling suicide helplines frantically should, however, be no surprise. Daily wage earners form the majority of suicide cases, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). A total of 1,34,516 suicides were reported during 2018, of which 22.4 percent were daily wage earners followed by house wives at 17.1 percent.
Helplines as lifelines
“There are a lot of volunteers giving out helpline numbers to people stuck in various parts of the country due to the lockdown. We help by talking them out, referring them to organisations providing food and provisions and directing them to their state representatives in the city,” Thomas adds.
The current journey of migrant labourers to their homes, mostly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, is being termed as possibly the biggest human migration on foot after India’s partition in 1947. The country is under a total lockdown till April 14 to contain the spread of contagious COVID-19. All organisations, barring those offering essential services, have been closed.
People, especially those staying alone or fearing job loss, are also facing anxiety. “I don’t know what to do throughout the day. My company is closed and so are all my clients. There is only uncertainty about the future,” says 42-year-old Shubhra Gupta, business head for a Bengaluru-based IT services provider.
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Gupta is single and reached out for help following high levels of paranoia. “After three days of being at home, I was distraught. When I called up friends, most of them were overworked without domestic help and had no time to talk. And here I was - single, no work and nobody to talk to. That’s when I called a helpline,” she says.
The Hyderabad-based helpline not only talked her out, but also asked Gupta to help in setting up an online crowd-funding platform for the needy.
Dr Akhilesh Jain, head of department of psychiatry at the ESI Hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan says he has been getting calls, including from his own staff. “They all have been asking what will happen, how long this lockdown will last. This uncertainty is leading to panic and people are tending to hoard as they are unsure about the future,” he says. To overcome this situation, he advocates strengthening family ties and keeping engaged.
Dr RK Solanki, head of department of Psychiatry at the SMS Medical College, is also getting calls, especially from old patients. To beat stress, he says people should have proper time-management, do yoga, connect with others, and rest well.
He suggests that if news about coronavirus is disturbing then people should not watch too much and seek out only authentic information.
Social media in the times of Corona
Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder of Mindtemple, a mental wellness clinic in Mumbai, says the general anxiety has increased because people are glued to social media, their lifestyle has changed, and many of those who were not spending time with each other are locked in the house together.
Over and above the general feeling of helplessness, Chhabria says, that social media is also playing a big role - both positive and negative. “There is a bombardment of news on deaths, globally, and it is making people uncomfortable. A lot of unverified news also floats around,” she adds.
On the positive side, however, social media is bringing people together by mobilising funds for needy, reaching out to authorities and sharing experiences. Both Thomas and Chhabria also offer online counseling now as they are not able to step out due to the lockdown.
Thomas is also doing webinars with company managers, advising them on how to deal with anxiety of workers and employees in the organisation.
Curious case of Kashmir
The aspect of staying connected through social media is what is helping people currently, and this is precisely what people in Kashmir are missing. The abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 and subsequent lockdown led to a ban on internet, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Even though the internet ban was lifted on March 5 this year, the speed is very slow.
“We are getting a lot of calls from Kashmir about COVID-19. Currently, the abrogation of Article 370 is not on the minds of the people. It is now an existential crisis. Will they be alive? They don’t have access to information on coronavirus,” he says.
Coronairus is also causing unusual racial problems here. Because it originated in China, there is an unfounded hatred against anyone with Tibeto-Burman facial features. A woman from Manipur was spat paan on in Delhi some days ago by a scooter-rider, who called her ‘Corona’. “These youngsters feel cut off from the world,” he says.
Chhabria, however, cautions that this need for emotional support could just be the beginning of a long-term necessity. “Because of economic issues, there could be a rise in anxiety and depression as we move ahead. But instead of feeling frustrated, this is the time to engage in your hobbies for which you never had the time. Get creative, be structured. It’s time we changed our worldview,” she adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting; Mona Singh is a Rajasthan-based freelance writer and wanderer)
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