Silent epidemicPsychiatrists warn the second wave could be more severe for mental health.
As many as 249 people succumbed to Covid-19 last month, and the death toll in the first five days this month is a staggering 196. The pandemic has spared no one. It is killing and infecting people at a rate not witnessed last year while an increasing number of people developing severe conditions and requiring critical care are filling hospitals.
The situation is grim. The horror that we read, watched and heard about in India as the second wave ravaged the country in late March is Nepal’s reality today. We are anxious and afraid as the deteriorating situation intensifies our uncertainties. Just when we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, disruptions have come knocking hard, isolating us en masse from our family, friends and colleagues.
The lockdown last year taught us how restrictions could lead people to depression and heightened anxiety stemming out of economic uncertainty and fears of acquiring the virus or even dying from Covid-19. A recent national-level survey also shows a widespread prevalence of mental health issues in the country. The pandemic has only heightened these challenges, especially for children, frontline workers and their families, and those who rely on daily wages to survive; but the dire situation we are in right now is bound to affect us all.
We need to act before our problems deepen. The Oli administration’s finger in the dike approach to a complex public health emergency has cost us a situation where people are increasingly worried about their health and finances. With no sight of certainty, immersing in round-the-clock developing and sensational news, being exposed to misinformation and doomscrolling the night away, experts say, will make people more worried and anxious at the cost of their health, both mental and physical.
The second wave has two epidemics raging at once. There are no anxiety curves or daily statistics to tell us how Covid-19 takes a toll on our mental health, but the impacts of this silent epidemic, psychiatrists warn, could be more severe for our psychological wellbeing as stay-at-home orders get more stringent. Lest we forget, during the first 74 days of the nationwide lockdown last year, 1,227 people across the country committed suicide—149 of them were teenagers. The fiscal year 2019-20 also saw an alarming increase in suicides—6,262 people compared to 5,785 in the previous fiscal year.
These unsettling figures validate what mental health specialists say about disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and schizophrenia increasing significantly, sometimes at rates of 3 to 5 percent, during and after high-stress situations like pandemics, natural disasters and wars. Last year, psychiatrists at the Nepal Mental Hospital reported a sudden rise in mental health patients. Over 80 percent of the cases were associated with depression as the pandemic gripped the country.
It is only a matter of time before the psychological toll manifests itself as severe mental health and physical health conditions, accelerating risks of non-communicable diseases, which is an epidemic on its own. But all this is preventable, and as the idiom goes, prevention is better than cure. The World Health Organisation long warned that the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health will drive a massive increase in mental health issues, and that governments must increase investment in service for mental health.
At a time when the government has the public's attention, it must utilise this precious window to raise awareness about mental health and lifestyle practices for all ages. There is also an urgent need to focus on children and young adults who find themselves in worse conditions than last year as schools and offices are closed again. On a personal level, we all need to connect virtually with family, friends and colleagues and learn to take care of each other. It starts with talking and knowing that mental health is as important as nutrition or exercise to maintain a strong immune system.