The

Parallel Pandemic

The lockdown has taken its toll on our mental health. Ria Chheda seeks some answers.

When the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, our world shrank into a small screen. As the nationwide lockdown was announced to prevent the spread of the disease, it left everyone feeling confused and anxious. Our interactions, activities, learning, and work were not left untouched. Many people expected that they would be able to resume work, schools, offices within a few weeks. None of us could have imagined that the entire world would come to a standstill for a year and that around lakhs of people in India and millions of people around the world would die from complications of the disease.

Along with the physical toll it took on all of us, the disease triggered a ‘parallel pandemic’ with many people suffering from poor mental health, anxiety issues, social isolation, loss of jobs, difficulty in coping with online learning, paranoia and the effort to dodge the misinformation floating around. 

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A students space during an online class, Shot by Ria Chheda

The race to be productive with all the time we saved by staying at home left no space to stop and process the situation we found ourselves in. With colleges and workplaces shifting online, how have students coped with the changes?

Rujuta Joshi, 22, a postgraduate student in psychology shared how online exams were extremely stressful for her and her classmates. She said, “Our college was using this (web)site for the exams where once we have logged in, we could not switch between tabs and if there are any pop-ups on our laptop, the form would automatically close and submit the paper immediately. The report showed ‘submitted by malpractice’. It made me anxious and it was an added pressure on us with the already existing exam stress.”Ankita Drolia (22), a third year M.B.B.S student shared how it was really stressful for her and her classmates to cope with online college and online coaching as well. She said, “Medical, M.B.B.S or dental college, you cannot learn online. There needs to be that physical, one-on-one interaction with the faculty and with your peers. The online theory classes went really fast because the college had to finish the syllabus and it was not as if learnt much out of it.” 

Therapists and college counsellors agree that some of the common stressors for young people were anxiety, family issues, emotional stress and uncertainty about careers. Jasdeep Mago, neuropsychologist and counsellor based in Mumbai said, “A lot of the young adults are concerned about not knowing what the future is and about how their degrees or courses that have gone online are going to translate into a job. That’s one concern that has repeatedly come to us and lots of them are also having sleepless nights and a lot of anxiety because of that.” 

Technology made sure we could still connect with people but for some, it proved to be a challenge when everything moved online. Krishna Trivedi, 19, a second year B.A student said she was constantly worried about being called on in the online classes as she was not able to pay attention due to the distractions and stressors at home.

I had just stepped out of my comfort zone and socialized at college and started to volunteer for festivals but the pandemic has got me back to ground zero again. I can’t talk comfortably with friends over the phone and I am not fond of video calls, so that’s what my lockdown looked like; socially isolated with the added stressors.

Krishna Trivedi

 

Young adults particularly had a hard time during the pandemic. We missed out on the usual interactions that come with ‘adulting’ like stepping outdoors, hanging out with friends and facing the world on our own. Those who were studying were stripped of the campus experiences as well. Om Vaknalli, 22, a third year BS-MS dual degree student in the field of Earth and Environmental sciences said, “We missed out on a lot of college events as most of the sports activities were cancelled and some college festivals were shifted online but they were not the same and it cannot be a compensation for the actual experience.

 

With the colleges shifting online, the students missed out on practical learning, especially for courses that require practicals and lab classes to compliment the theory lectures. Ankita Drolia, 22, also shared her anxieties when they had to resume college. She said, “Medical colleges were the first to open up because even though we had covered the theory in the online classes, we were called back for the final exams as it is compulsory for us to finish about a month or so of postings / practicals which is not possible online. It was very tough for us as usually we have postings for 45 - 50 days but we had to cover it all up in two weeks.” 

Added screen time was another factor that led to an ‘online fatigue’. Unnati Trivedi, 22, aspires to pursue her post-graduation in psychology. She said, “I haven’t felt this lonely before. By 7 pm, I am already exhausted and have no motivation to catch up with friends on the screen again. I did not feel well and so I finally reached out to my college psychology professor and spoke to her about my struggles.” 

The break from online classes and academic pressure is usually a shift to a different screen. The excessive dependence on gadgets, binge eating, disrupted sleep schedules were some common factors that I noticed amongst the students that I spoke to. Yash Gada, 22, a digital marketing student, said he found himself binge eating regularly throughout the lockdown and with no access to the outdoors and hardly any physical activity his sleep cycles were disturbed. He said, “In the initial months of the lockdown, I used to be awake till late at night and hardly got 5-6 hours of sleep. I felt lethargic throughout the day and couldn’t sit through an online class and retain information. I couldn’t find stability, my sleep cycles were haywire and anxiety was on a rise.”

Therapist Ridhi Golechha says, “Young adults are also having a lot of body image issues because of social media because they are constantly on the phone and they are constantly scrolling and comparing their lives to other people and that is creating a lot of unrest and further anxiety.

 Increased screen time during distance learning takes a toll on the health of students. Shot by Ria Chheda

According to a study conducted by Suicide Prevention India Foundation (SPIF), 68.6% of the therapists reported an increase in the number of people they see and in the hours they spend taking therapy after the pandemic hit. 54.7% of therapists said that number of people they see are those who have never sought therapy before and have risen since the outbreak of the pandemic. They also state that younger individuals are seeking more help during these times which means they are most open to help-seeking but this doesn’t take away from the fact that almost all demographics are affected adversely in the current situation.


As people were confined to their homes, many experienced a lack of  ‘personal space’ leading to arguments with their parents. Shruti Dave, 19, a second year B.A. student said, “I did not get along with my family during the lockdown, we fought almost every day and I had nowhere to go and vent, I felt lonely and helpless at times.” 

Most experts shared the opinion that parents must acknowledge their child’s stress and give the space that they might need. Dr. Sujay Prabhugaonkar, a psychiatrist from Mumbai said, “Parents must pick their battles, not nag their children, give them enough space and acknowledge that, even if they are in college they might be facing an equal amount of stress and anxiety as them. Parents must know when to put their foot down and when to let go.” 

 

Students also reported experiencing the bright side of online education. Om Vaknalli (22) said, “For me online theory classes did work because our college provided us with the recordings of the live lectures and the pre recorded ones and so I was able to revisit the recordings again and again if I had any doubts. Plus, I feel that a lot of the students found it helpful as not everyone can approach the faculty to clarify their doubts or some people might even be shy.

Also, this way we had the content for the entire semester with us and it made it easy for us to study by revisiting the lectures.” Besides the few academic benefits that some students saw, a lot of the students I spoke to shared how the online classes helped them develop many more skills and gave them the space and time to pursue their hobbies and learn new things. 

 

I also joined a post graduate diploma course at SCM Sophia during the lockdown, thinking the college would reopen soon but that uncertainty still lingers. I was vulnerable before the pandemic but the lockdown aggravated my anxieties. Karuna Jaggi, a college counsellor at a college in Mumbai and Ridhi Shiv, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist registered in the state of California, shared a common opinion that since, people are already socially isolated during the pandemic and  must physically distance themselves to stop the spread, they should not socially distance themselves. It is extremely important for people to stay connected with their friends and family socially in these difficult times.

I experienced my first online therapy session at the beginning of the lockdown. I started exploring more exercises that would help me stay calm. I tried to find a way to navigate through the academic pressures and deal with my anxiety. Towards the end of the year, I started going for walks and they helped me a lot. I would come back with a fresh mind. The uneasy feeling of helplessness creeps in some days and sometimes simple tasks are overwhelming but I found things to keep me grounded like listening to my favourite podcasts, stopping for just a little bit to watch the sunset and talking to my mother over coffee.

Others found ways to deal with the situation. Unnati Trivedi, 22, said, “I developed a routine, which included starting my day with good breakfast, then finding time for yoga and finally trying to maintain a diary at the end of the day. This helped me get through the day with a sense of normalcy.” Krishna Trivedi, 19, also shared her experience of starting online therapy. She said, “I experienced my first ever counselling session last year. I am intimidated by psychologists and hence had never visited one, but the online session was helpful as I could stay in my comfort zone while I spoke to the therapist.”

Rujuta Joshi said, “My house got really gloomy and tense when my mother tested positive for Covid. We were all really scared but we got through it together. I eventually gathered the courage to step out for groceries later. I also found time to paint which was soothing and I also found cleaning to be therapeutic.”​
 

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 Students try to cope with the online dynamic and the pressures of distance learning. Shot by Ria Chheda

 

Marriage and Family Therapist Ridhi Shiv also speaks about a much needed systemic reform. She says, “The system is constantly failing us and making people fall through the cracks, there’s a need for a complete systemic change. Therapy feels like a band-aid solution when there is no systemic care, and people in power don’t care about what is happening. The failure of the system is being mirrored as symptoms in individuals who walk into therapy.” 

In times like these, it is critical that we are kind to each other, that we check on each other, prioritize ourselves without any guilt and find ways to stay connected no matter how disconnected we feel. Indians have neglected the severity of mental health issues from before the pandemic and if the stigma still lingers, there is going to be a wave of an entire generation of young adults who will be experiencing depression, anxiety and other serious mental health issues. According to Covid-19 Blues, an online survey conducted by SPIF (Suicide Prevention India Foundation) across the country, suicide ideation, self-harm and relapses have all risen. 

This pandemic has laid bare the need to start a conversation around mental health, spread awareness and destigmatize mental healthcare. 

It’s okay to ask for help!

Reach out to these helplines if you or someone you know needs urgent help and requires a mental health professional’s attention.

Source - Helpline list curated and verified by Invisible Illness India

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