COVID-19 Frontline Voices: Mental Health in India

Dr Vandana Kanth works at Duncan Hospital, our partner institution in Bihar, India. She gives a firsthand account of how COVID-19 is adding to the mental health concerns in rural India.


On 12 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. India witnessed the largest containment experiment in history, when on 25 March its 1.3 billion citizens were forced to stay indoors in an attempt to flatten the COVID-19 curve. As COVID-19 is a new disease and is having devastating effects globally, its emergence and spread have caused a lot of confusion, anxiety and fear amongst the general public.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our local communities through instilling a “fear of death” from a virus which cannot be contained, treated and is spreading like wildfire. It has reduced the work performance of almost all age groups, including women who are primarily home-makers.

It has also brought extreme, never before seen stigma and discrimination not only for people suffering from COVID-19 but also their carers and the places where they are being cared for or live. Fear and shame are also seen towards migrants returning from metro cities to their own homes. Many were not even welcomed in their own homes by their family members.

It created a kind of fear and panic that it would engulf the whole village that all will perish even if one infected person comes into their midst. There have been instances where migrants were beaten to death when they showed symptoms of fever and cough even before testing.

This disease was labelled a ‘crime’ when the police department got engaged in tracing contacts of infected people. People of some religious backgrounds were singled out and picked from their homes to be kept in ill-managed quarantine centres.

Added to all this is the uncertainty of a future with no employment opportunities, as many daily wage labourers lost their work during the lockdown and most importantly, the uncertainty of life.

An equal level of anxiety was visible even amongst our staff, although they are trained in mental health. Many were concerned about their children and the future if something happens to them due to this disease.

We also observed both children and youth getting frustrated by not being able to go to school and play as much as they did before. We came across incidents of excessive crying and stubbornness from toddlers due to long periods of confinement indoors at home.

A survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society showed that within a week of the start of the lockdown, the number of reported cases of mental illness in India had risen by 20%. According to the Psychiatrist at our hospital, patients in our Psychiatry outpatient department increased with anxiety and somatic symptom disorders.

Finally, we saw varied perceptions of the disease. Some said this came through a Chinese lab which meant some individuals faced discrimination. Another belief emerged that Muslim communities harboured this virus, and this affected the unity and solidarity of our communities which have both Hindu and Muslim populations. One particularly sad incident that highlighted the level of discrimination was when women from a different religion refused to buy glass bangles from a poor Muslim lady whom we had supported through our Income Generation Programme.

This post-COVID-19 landscape will be a fertile breeding ground for an increase in chronic stress, anxiety, depression, alcohol dependence, gender-based violence and self-harm. At-risk populations include the 150 million with pre-existing mental health issues, COVID-19 survivors, frontline medical workers, young people, differently-abled people, women, workers in the unorganized sector, and the elderly.

Your support of the EMMS International Coronavirus Appeal is helping Duncan Hospital and its surrounding community to adapt to the pressures created by the pandemic.

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