The virus and the associated social isolation are causing an immense increase in mental health issues
Currently, in Lahore alone, there are at least 35,000 cases of Covid-19 according to Health Minister Dr Yasmeen Rashid. Lahore has become a hotspot for the virus, with ‘smart lockdown’ blocking the roads across the city. But while the physical changes in our surroundings and lifestyles brought about by the pandemic are the topic of conversations for people everywhere, there are some ‘invisible’ problems stalking us all right.
There can be no doubt that the virus and the associated social isolation are causing an immense increase in anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues in a country where people are traditionally heavily dependent on community and family life.
According to experts, one of the reasons for this is the limited or conflicting information available to people, especially women, whose access to the internet is even more limited than that of men in Pakistan. The result is a sense of fear, which some elite schools have asked parents to help address through school counsellors or therapists.
But of course, the vast majority of school-age children in the country do not go to schools with such privileges. The idea of seeing a therapist is also not an established one, and mental health problems of all kinds bear social stigma in many communities. But we know from global figures that mental health issues among the people isolated in their homes and, of course, those quarantined in hospitals have risen sharply. According to a recent BBC report, heightened loneliness in the UK has led to scammers taking advantage of people relying heavily on the internet to meet people through romance, with these individuals losing an average of £47,000.
A patient, Muhammad Ayub, told me after recovering from Covid-19 which had kept him in a hospital for over three weeks, “I was able to keep relatively calm and positive because even in my hospital room I had access to reliable information on the internet. I avoided sites like Facebook which seemed to be coming up with one alarming story after another.”
He said that he was aware of the fact that only a tiny percentage of coronavirus patients die or develop complications. He also said that he had seen the situation in a public hospital where mass hysteria spread easily amongst patients in overcrowded wards and pitiable conditions. He expressed concern for the doctors and nurses on the frontline of the pandemic, who work long hours under high pressure and have little or no resources and support to help them cope with fear of contracting the virus, inadequate safety equipment, isolation from family, and patients who may try to escape or resist treatment given the misinformation surrounding the virus.
In May this year, the reputable Karachi-based Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH) released a statement about “mixed messages” coming from the government that could turn people into neurotics. The PAMH said it was extremely concerned about the situation.
There is good reason for this. Clinical psychologist Dr Asha Bedar says her clients are routinely coming in with complaints of anxiety and stress, and are affected more than they would be after a traumatic experience. That’s because of the uncertainty of the situation. Her clients are “reporting palpitations, headaches and breathing issues, which are symptoms of anxiety but make them even more worried because they fear they might have contracted Covid. Many are having nightmares, and the normal methods of coping have vanished amidst the lockdown.”
She suggests that the best way to cope may be to seek support through phone calls with friends or family, in order to take a break from the barrage of information online about the death toll and other coronavirus-related crises.
The psychological problems exist for people of all ages, all genders and all income groups. It is not easy to manage, especially in a country which only has one psychiatrist for 10,000 people, as per official figures. Little importance is given to mental health by the government, and most people have been left to manage on their own. There is a dire need to reduce stigma around mental health discussions, and increase access to qualified psychologists in order to prevent a second, mental health outbreak.