Covid pandemic in India sees worrying spike in anxiety and depression

·4-min read

The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the possibility of a third wave in India is contributing to a spike in cases of depression, phobias and anxiety.

Mental health professionals in India are warning that people will feel the impact of Covid on their personal wellbeing for many years to come.

Disruption to a regular lifestyle, recreation, as well as concern for family income and health, is leaving a huge swathe of youth feeling afraid, angry and concerned for their future.

A new Lancet study early this month confirmed that major depressive and anxiety disorders had increased substantially.

The first-ever global estimate of Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on mental health showed that cases of these two ailments increased globally by 28 percent and 26 percent respectively.

India hit hard

In India, depressive and anxiety disorders both saw an increase of 35 percent, the study noted. Other estimates have found the prevalence of major depressive disorder increased to 3,478 cases per 100,000 and anxiety disorders to 4,063 cases per 100,000.

Not surprisingly, countries with high Covid-19 infection rates and major reductions in the movement of people such as India had the greatest increases in prevalence of major depressive disorders.

Similarly, Unicef's "State of the World’s Children 2021", which takes a comprehensive look at the mental health of children, adolescents and caregivers, found that the pandemic had a significant impact on children’s mental health.

“What we know about the mental health impact of the pandemic on children is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Unicef India representative Yasmin Ali Haque.

The UNICEF report found that around 14 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds in India, or one in seven, reported often feeling depressed or having little interest in doing things.

Specialists working in this area have found that unresolved grief could erupt in the years to come and vulnerable groups need immediate mental health intervention – especially those families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and those who have lost jobs and incurred financial losses.

“Overall, there has been an increase of patients. I see a lot of cases of panic attacks and people with bursts of fear or anxiety. Yes, if untreated this could well be the next crisis we might have to deal with,” says psychiatrist Anjali Nagpal.

Increasing despair

Even before the pandemic, a report released by the country’s health ministry of Health and the Indian Council of Medical Research in December 2019 stated that one out of seven Indians is mentally ill, and approximately 200 million people in the country need treatment.

These include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, conduct disorders and autism of varying severity.

What it also found was that prevalence of depression is highest in older adults, which has significant implications for the aging population of India and was associated with suicide deaths in India.

“This post-Covid landscape will be a fertile breeding ground for an increase on many issues leading to an overall rise in morbidity, suicides and the number of disability-adjusted life years linked to mental health,” said Nelson Vinod Moses of the Suicide Prevention India Foundation.

Moses believed another public health crisis was rearing its ugly head and the new danger could perhaps unleash more death and despair than the coronavirus itself.

“Mental health needs a multi-pronged approach ranging from creating social, psychological and economic safety nets. We need a large-scale public health campaign that tackles mental health and suicide in the same way we attacked polio and AIDS,” adds Moses.

Undiagnosed

Children with mental health disorders, it was found, are mostly undiagnosed and hesitant in seeking help or treatment. According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2019, at least 50 million children in India were affected with mental health issues and majority had never sought support.

The number of psychiatrists in India currently is about 9000 and counting. Going by this figure, India has 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 population while the desirable number is anything above 3 psychiatrists per 100,000.

Experts agree that the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for the National Mental Health Programme to broaden the national mental health agenda from a focus on reducing the treatment gap for people affected by mental disorders, to the improvement of mental health for the whole population including suicide prevention.

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