Written by Mythili Hazarika
It is becoming very clear that Covid-19 has put an enormous stress on healthcare professionals and patients alike.
As a mental health professional who was part of the team that conceptualised and operationalised MONON, one of the largest government-initiated mental health services in India, as part of which around 350 government and non-governmental mental healthcare personnel (psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and others) provide support and psycho social counselling to Covid patients in Assam, I was moved by the kind of issues we came across.
There were calls about pregnant women not receiving food supply, a son who had met with an accident but had no financial or other support as the family was in quarantine, a couple contemplating suicide due to financial difficulties, an entire family suffering from Covid with no one to supply them with basic necessities, children with no play items or books in isolation centres, the stigma and discrimination people faced, and anxieties over joblessness. We addressed all of these with various strategies over tele-counselling sessions through Sarathi-104, a health helpline, and did our best to attend to their needs.
And then, in the midst of all this, I tested positive. This crossing over gave me an entirely new perspective about what MONON outreach meant to a lot of Covid patients.
A PPE-clad person came up to me and said, ‘Ma’am, you have tested positive’. Strangely, I felt no fear then, only a sense of déjà vu. Maybe it was because I had been dealing with this disease for the last five months. Or maybe it was because all the negative emotions I had been dealing with over the last two decades had made me numb to my own emotional state.
But while there was no fear for myself, I feared for my family, my daughter. So I immediately packed my bags and called an ambulance — as my driver refused to drop me to the hospital — and went to the Covid hospital where I had been doing tele-video counselling sessions with patients until the day before.
Now, I was just another patient – a loud knock on the door was a sign that the attendant had placed food outside the door for me to collect.
During my initial days in the hospital, I rested and introspected about the unpredictability of our lives. Relinquishing our desire for certainty and control is easier said than done.
Imagining the status of Covid patients who could not connect with their family triggered an ‘emotional tsunami’ in my mind. This is a ‘Covid fact’ all around the globe — that your near ones can never be with you when you are suffering alone in the wards.
That was the first time I was gripped by a sudden restlessness: what if I died alone? This fear of an unknown virus, uncertainty of the future, unfamiliar surroundings and an uncontrolled environment bring a huge turmoil in the minds of the infected. I felt lonely and desired to talk to a counsellor from MONON. That’s when I experienced the necessity of mental healthcare and felt proud of what we did.
I felt lost for a while, but then I gathered all my therapy skills and started writing down my thoughts. That was cathartic. I also wrote my will and signed it digitally. I had prepared myself for the worst cognitively, but emotionally, I wished to fight and come out of this illness.
I also battled guilt. Maybe I hadn’t maintained the required physical distance after I came back from duty. Had I infected my daughter? My brother? My mental health was associated with my family’s health and I started praying.
My daughter called up and asked about my mental health. I was taken aback. Until now, treating Covid patients was a task, a duty and a passion. But now, I had no answer to give her as I didn’t know about my mental health. It’s what we call a state of ‘alexithymia’.
My Covid patients would often complain about the stigma and discrimination they faced. But now, I experienced it myself — for instance, when my driver refused to drop me in the car.
When the doctors didn’t enter my room and when my food was served outside, I introjected this feeling sometimes as a curse, as treatment meted out to a social outcast, or accepted it as a natural part of the treatment process. My feelings were based on my perception. Many questions came to my mind about the virus.
A lot of people said it would be easy for me to cope since I am positive, free-spirited and a professional psychologist.
But at the end of the day, we are all humans and we have our own share of emotions. I conceptualised that everything happens for a reason, and that maybe this disease has in some way sent me an important message — that I need to take care of my mental health and learn to feel my own emotions just as any other person does.
My Covid status and the numbness I felt posed another question before me: had I acquired a new capacity to empathise with Covid-positive patients?
The post-Covid era is slowly changing the meaning of life, its objectives and purpose. These are unprecedented times and it is okay to feel fearful. This is normal anxiety in an abnormal situation.
I am grateful to MONON for giving me a new mission and to my Covid status for giving me a new vision.
The writer is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital