Does COVID affect the Mind? Yes, say Patients and Caregivers Alike
But there’s a way to deal with it. Find out how
Google “Covid and Mental Health” and you’ll find a list of advisories asking you to “Be Kind to Your Mind.” These are coping strategies mentioned by WHO. Looking at the sheer number of people suffering from mental health disorders of varying degrees globally, health research organizations and mental health experts are increasingly calling for urgent and punitive action for better mental well-being.
What was initially termed as a reaction to prolonged stress, paranoia, hopelessness amidst dwindling economies and cooped up homes, has now found a place among post-Covid symptoms. Several people in many parts of the world, including India, complained of brain fog, experiencing memory loss, cognitive impairment, depression, panic attacks, anxiety pangs and more even after several months of recovery from Covid. Not just patients, caretakers too have complained of an inability to perform their job roles, lack of mind-body coordination and consistent “pangs in the chest” months after their loved ones recover from Covid. On Twitter, a whole lot of them admitted to hiding these symptoms because they were scared or ashamed until they saw other people going to doctors or counselors to treat such problems.
The Mind-Covid Connect
Doctors say that people with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection ̶ they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death. And there is no age limit to it. In a society that has hardly ever paid attention to the mind, COVID-19 has brought forth the challenges of dealing with one. More importantly, unlike the physical body, our minds require a more long-term, consistent and lasting treatment, with or without medication.
Sushmita Dash, counselor, blames it on reduced social life and cynicism among people. “You can’t go out of the house, meet people, socialize like you used to without a care in the world. We began to do that post the first wave and you see what happened. Human beings cannot exist in isolation, no matter the amount of Netflix binging you do. And I can’t undermine the importance of hugs and friendly touches!”
Dash has seen a lot of increase in the number of people booking sessions, even at exorbitant prices. That apart, she has also begun her private practice online. “A lot of people are very hesitant to speak over the phone. Covid patients anyway lack the energy to do so. Hence, we ask them to use any mode they are comfortable with. Writing is one such tool. It gets exhausting at times, but there’s a lot of power in the written words of consolation.” she says. A lot of people risk losing their jobs while caring for loved ones suffering from Covid. Some lose their jobs because they can’t work anymore owing to post covid complications or problems like psycho-motor impairment, short term memory loss or extreme fatigue. And hence, stress shoots through the roof.
The disastrous impact of the second wave continues to be felt. With innumerable loss of lives and broken families, grief, panic and anxiety have increased manifold. Says Alka, a mother of three who recently recovered from Covid, “I got a full-blown panic attack the day I got to know my daughter and I are positive. I feared for my other two kids. What if they get infected? Who would take care of us and manage the house? I have high blood pressure and cholesterol. I was told later that anything could have happened to me in that moment of panic attack.” Alka’s fears were compounded by the fact that several of her relatives who were infected had passed away in just a month. She would take all precautions, sanitize her house and ask her kids to work from home, just to keep them safe. “And yet it happened. It was very scary and I was constantly worried. I am still for my kids.”
The constant fear, paranoia and several triggering points cropping up among recovered people is yet another important indicator of how desperately people need attention to mental health. Because the repercussions can be damaging. Says Babita Padhi, whose sister-in-law is recovering. “She would not talk to anyone; she’d stare at the ceiling all day, all night. She experienced difficulty sleeping too. Even now, any mention of Covid is enough to trigger her. I think it’ll be some time before she can go back to her regular self.” Aversion to therapy seems to be a major problem too. Most people feel they’ll be given more medication and that’s the last thing they want after gulping a cocktail of antibiotics.
What to do?
The news of the arrival of yet another variant called the Delta Plus variant has further accentuated fears. How does one cope with such a scenario? “We cannot control whatever is happening externally. Fighting an invisible enemy plays havoc with one’s mind and that is why we need coping tools. As part of mental health initiatives, we have municipal corporations to address mental health concerns. We need more such governmental interventions. Even online counseling sessions can help for mild cases,” says Sushmita Dash. “Keeping away from news, meditation, exercises, staying in touch with family and friends does help. Also, I have noticed being generous and helping other people deal with the disease can uplift your mood. We are social creatures and will continue to be.”
It’s the One Day at a Time approach that helps in mental health, both for Covid patients and their families. “Take your time in trying to adjust and do not blame yourself. There are chemical and hormonal changes in both the body and the brain that cause anxiety and hyper thinking. For caretakers, it’s important to not tell the patients that it’s supposed to happen. Instead, make them feel normal, tell them they are okay. Take them out when the situation improves. Do not let them feel there’s danger. That semblance of normalcy is important,” advises Maitri Das, healthcare practitioner. “This Is not the first pandemic humanity is facing. We didn’t have terms like lockdown or pandemic before, that’s the only difference. We will come out of it,” concludes Das.