Avoid Covid Talk, Avoid Stress: Kashmir’s Top Psychiatrist

Dr Arshad Hussain.

AS more and more people are reporting mental health issues in the second viral wave, Kashmir’s noted mental health specialist, Dr. Arshad Hussain, says people should watch less news regarding Covid-19 “since the important and necessary information that one needs to fight Covid-19 is already there”.

The only information that has been added to Covid-19 is regarding the vaccination, while rest is the same, the psychiatrist says.

“So we need to avoid watching news of death and destruction on a daily basis because it will affect your mental health,” he warns.

Plus, he says, people should use social media as much as possible for virtual-meetings, grief-sharing, gossip and humour.

“Let’s not talk about Covid-19,” Dr. Arshad Hussain reiterates. “We should’ve a normal talk. It really releases the stress.”

In an exclusive conversation with Kashmir Observer, the distinguished psychiatrist and professor at the Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (IMHANS), Government Medical College, Srinagar, advises new habits, proper sleep and optimist outlook as some measures to avoid stress.

Wondering and worrying.

How’s Kashmir’s third straight year of lockdown affecting people mentally?

Undoubtedly lockdowns are bad but they’re necessary evils for survival, for saving lives and at the end what only matters is life everything else can get compensated. Even the European countries with great health infrastructure had to implement it.

If there’s any relaxation at this moment it’ll invite devastation.

But yes, lockdowns will have economic costs and that has its own negative effects on mental health.

How has coronavirus cast its shadow on Valley’s mindscape?

As per many reports and studies, the pandemic has hit the mental health of the people but let me tell you honestly, it had very little impact here in Kashmir last year.

Although our hospital, Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences Kashmir, saw over 77,000 patients in 2020, they were mostly non-Covid mental health issues.

But somehow, the last six weeks have been really bad.We see 5 to 6 patients with mental health issues because of Covid-19 every day.And that’s huge for us, as mental health problems mostly show an iceberg phenomenon.

There’s not a single day I don’t see a patient with a mental health issue because of Covid-19.

However, I’ve also said in many seminars and workshops that let’s not bother about mental health right now and let’s focus on how to control mortality and morbidity. If we’re able to limit mortality and morbidity because of Covid-19, mental health is going to be fine.

But sadly, we failed to do so, and we reached a point where mortality has become a reality and this is what we feared because we knew once mortality sets in, the mental health is going to be the consequences and that is what is happening now.

Covid-19 has reached every home and everyone is struggling. It has hit our coping and defences, social networking, social bonding and most importantly grief-sharing process and this is why there’s a rise of mental health issues due to Covid-19.

The freeze frame.

Has this Covid mental crisis initiated any research in your department?

Yes, in the last year we did over 6-7 Covid-related research projects.

Our hospital was the only mental health institution which was running physically throughout the year. As I told you, we saw over 77,000 patients with mental health issues.

We managed to run the hospital very smoothly despite so much influx of patients and we had a detailed research and wrote about how we managed it.

We also started Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a lifesaving and emergency procedure in many of the patients. We also wrote a paper on how we did it throughout the year.

We were the first institution who started talking about post Covid delirium. We witnessed about 49 cases where memory and consciousness of elderly Covid-19 patients started getting affected.

We also set-up a full Telepsychiatry service through which we saw around 20,000 patients. It was the first of its kind in Kashmir.

Presently, we’re working on two important projects — the mental health morality among Covid patients and the mental health conditions among the families of those who lost their loved ones due to Covid-19 with regards to stigma, shame etc.

What kind of patients and issues are you dealing with these days?

Severe anxiety and depression are the common issues in pandemic.And most of the patients come from families who lost their members due to Covid, since they couldn’t share the grief after the loss of their loved ones.

Also, young entrepreneurs who lost their business due to lockdown are also arriving for the checkup.

The patients who were isolated after their tests came positive are also among the visitors. But many of them coped up with the pressure, while others are still coming-up for the follow-up.

We must understand that Kashmir has a culture of grief-sharing.And the way deaths happen now, one can’t visit the families, participate in the funeral. The families struggle to deal with it and it leads to several mental health issues.

So, it’s very important for all of us to control the spread of diseases. Once the deaths are under control, the mental health will be fine.

At the same time, mental health has to be always made available, accessible and acceptable. Most importantly, right now, anyone with any difficulty should avail the help immediately, so that the mental crisis doesn’t become a pandemic, like Covid-19.

I say, we’re already witnessing three pandemics currently: Covid-19, mental health issues due to it and economic deprivation due to lockdown.

Since all the three are feeding on each other in a vicious circle, we should not leave the other two unattended while dealing with Covid-19.

At the locked doors of sanctum.

How should people engage themselves at home in order to avoid stress?

I would suggest people watch less news regarding Covid-19. Because I believe the important and necessary information that we need to fight Covid-19 is already with us. We need to follow it and avoid unnecessary videos, stories etc.

The only information that has been added to Covid-19 is regarding the vaccination, rest is the same. So we need to avoid unnecessary stuff because it will affect your mental health.

Plus, for a change I as a mental health professional advocate use social media as much as possible for virtual meetings, grief-sharing, gossip and humour. All that lessens the burden of distress.

Let’s not talk about Covid-19.We should’ve a normal conversation. It really releases the stress.

Also, we should develop new hobbies and teach our children new things. We must talk to our families to avoid loneliness and social isolation inspite of practising physical distancing. Put your faith in God and do practise precautions and then let go of all worries.

I would say follow the saying of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) that is going viral on social media nowadays: “Tie your camel first, and then put your trust in Allah.” Follow the necessary advisories and then be at peace.

We should sleep and rest and keep one thing in mind that no difficult time will last and this too will pass and on the other side of it is light and happiness for everybody. We only have to survive these moments and for it we need to do whatever is necessary.

What about the impact of constant campus closures on students?

See, these things will have a long term impact on the development of kids. The effects are usually either neutral or positive or negative. Such traumatic situations might go into the development of kids. Some of them might become good human beings or some might succumb to the pressure and live with lots of fear. So there’re all possibilities.

The parents have to play an important role here. They shouldn’t inculcate fear into children, rather teach them being cautious without getting fearful. For example, we need to teach children how to cross the road by looking to the right and then left to verify it is safe from both directions. When you believe it safe to proceed, you look left again before proceeding to make sure it is still safe to go. Rather than telling them you will die if you don’t learn how to cross the road.

Don’t watch television in-front of children, showing Covid-19 related stuff. Just make them responsible and inculcate advisories in their own way to deal with the crises.Allow them to play, meet and have fun within their own bio-bubble.

What will be the mental impact of Covid-19 in the long run?

It’ll have long term effects and there’s a lot of research regarding the same.

I believe there’ll be mental health issues in the longer run where we witnessed more mortality and mobility.

And the areas where it remained under control, the mental health issues will be temporary.

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