In the last couple of weeks, at least 35 to 40 per cent calls to the mental health helpline run by Sassoon General Hospital have been from the medical fraternity, made by health care staff including doctors and nurses, who are worried about dealing with COVID-19 patients and contracting the virus themselves.
Beyond the fear of infection, the healthcare staff also deal with a labyrinth of issues such as long hours at work, shortage of personal protective equipment and concern about infecting their loved ones.
Pune has emerged as one of the biggest hotspots of the infection, with over 400 cases and 47 deaths, most of them at Sassoon General Hospital, which has a dedicated building to treat COVID-19 patients. At least 15 healthcare workers including nine nurses and five doctors across city hospitals have also tested positive.
The helpline was set up on March 31, well into the nationwide lockdown, and it receives 15-20 calls every day, said Dr. Nitin Abhivant, head of the Department of Psychiatry, B J Medical College and Sassoon General Hospital.
“Majority of those who call are overworked healthcare staff, such as doctors from various hospitals. Clearly, they are under so much stress as they have to handle COVID-19 patients. While precautions are taken by the healthcare staff, there is always a risk of contracting the infection,” he said.
To help them through these tough times, the hospital has organised stress management sessions and ways to provide social and psychological support.
Another major section of callers comprises members of the young student population in the city, who seek details about the disease, said Dr. Abhivant.
Another health helpline – the state-run 104 – received nearly 37,000 calls in March, said senior manager Niraja Banker. “The queries were not only about mental health issues… practically everyone wanted information about COVID-19,” Banker said. The helpline even addressed concerns of callers who wanted to report on a neighbour who was sick or had returned after international travel.
But the past fortnight has seen a rise in the number of calls about the nationwide lockdown and its impact, availability of foodgrain and other related issues.
Fraught domestic situations and unresolved issues have also come to the fore for many, as every family member is forced to remain at home during the lockdown. This has led to many calls from professionals and housewives, seeking on how to deal with certain situations at home, said Dr. Abhivant.
Apart from stress, many are also dealing with depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion and anger amid the pandemic.
One of the callers, on condition of anonymity, said he called the helpline as he was unable to shake off the fear of contracting COVID-19. The call was answered by a woman who explained that it was natural to have high anxiety levels at such a time. “If you are following the guidelines provided by the government, chances of infection are low. Wear a mask when you step out, wash your hands and avoid unnecessary contacts,” the counsellor told the caller.
Other helpful suggestions shared by the counsellor include reducing the consumption of news about the infection, not watching news channels and trying to get a good night’s sleep. The counsellor also urged the youth to cultivate a new hobby, which can act as a distraction and have a calming effect.
(With inputs from Partha Sarathi Biswas)
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