Saturday 29 January 2022
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Media Alarmism Can Affect People’s Mental Health

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused anxiety and panic among the public, which was aggravated by repeated negative media coverage of the same

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The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on our lives.  It became a risk not just for our physical health, but our mental health as well. The pandemic threw us Indians into a situation that we have never experienced before – social distancing, quarantine and lockdown. India is a socially rich country, with most people living in large joint families, in communities that come together in hundreds to celebrate even a small event. India is known to celebrate its religious festivals through public gatherings within the family, and in temples, mosques, churches and melas. Weddings are big and fat, with the number of guests proportional to the socio-economic status of the couple in most cases. The pandemic suddenly put a halt on all of it, throwing the unprepared Indians into a very unfamiliar territory that demanded a lot of personal restraint.  These challenges have been stressful, overwhelming, and causing strong emotions in people. Public health actions, such as social distancing, which are necessary to reduce the spread of Covid-19, made people feel isolated and lonely and increased stress. In addition, fear of contracting the virus, new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, has caused anxiety and panic among the public, which was further fueled by repeated negative media coverage of the same.  

We have overcome the first wave, and even the second wave appears to be receding, but there is still no clear foresight about the future. When will we be free from the pandemic? Will there be a third wave? Will there be a deadlier variant of the virus? These are some of the questions people are asking. However, there appears to be no definite answer to these questions. The union government is doing its best with the resources available. India’s death rate is low compared to other countries with high infection rates. India’s Covid-19 mortality rate stands at 1.3%, whereas the same rate is about 1.8% in the US and Canada, 2.6% in the UK, and 3% in Italy, 2.9% in Australia, 2.4% in Germany, according to Johns Hopkins University. Further, India has vaccinated overall 36.9Cr people till date, and about 7.03Cr people are fully vaccinated. Given the large population of 136.64 crores, this has been no easy feat. Several developed western countries haven’t been able to match up to India’s performance. However, quite often, media tends to ignore the positive news and focus on negative incidents that happen once in a while, exaggerating it to create panic in the minds of the people. For instance, western media dignified the burial of the dead with limited coverage, whereas in India, journalists flooded cremation grounds, not only disrespecting the dead and their families but creating panic among the public. Added to this are fake news and pictures getting circulated.

These events can spike mental health difficulties in people. In order to address the mental health issues of the public during this crisis, the union government launched a 24X7 toll-free mental rehabilitation helpline for providing psychological support to people. Several mental health organisations including NIMHANS, the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists, etc., have also opened a helpline for counselling via phone. Stress plays a major role in developing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. However, stress can be managed. Covid-19 norms may have put a cap on popular stress-busting and recreational activities such as going to movies, travelling, etc. Despite these restrictions, there are things you can still do to cope with the stress:

Take care of your body

  1. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, include plenty of vegetables and fruits and whole grains.
  2. Exercise regularly. Do yoga, walk around in safe place around your house.
  3. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
  4. Get plenty of sleep.
  5. Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.

Take care of your mind.

  1. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media.  While it is good to be informed, but hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.
  2. Make time to unwind. Try to do activities you enjoy — music, gardening, cooking.
  3. Develop some hobbies, perhaps develop a skill — drawing, music, etc. Attend online classes/courses for them.
  4. Do things you have always put off for another time

Connect with others

  1. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
  2. Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations online, through social media, or by phone or mail.

Take care of others

  1. It is especially important to stay connected with your friends and family.
  2. Helping others cope with stress through phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel less lonely or isolated.

If you need psychological help, reach out to the helpline KIRAN (1800-599-0019) which was launched by Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. The helpline will offer mental health rehabilitation services with the objective of early screening, first aid, psychological support, distress management, mental wellbeing, promoting positive behaviour and psychological crisis management, and is available in several Indian languages, and in English. 

Fortunately, in recent times, the number of Covid-19 positive cases are decreasing. Government is slowly lifting the sanctions on public movement. However, the pandemic is still here and will be here for some more time, at least until everyone is vaccinated and a cure is made available. Our government and our scientists are working on it. But it becomes the responsibility of the public to prevent the spread. We cannot start rushing to crowded places. We saw what happened with the first wave. As soon as it receded, people started moving about carefree, and it led to a second wave. A lot of lives have been lost because of it. So, despite decreasing Covid-19 cases, and easing of Covid-19 norms, it is important to continue with preventive measures such as wearing masks, sanitizing hands, hygienic practices and social distancing.

Getting Covid-19 vaccination is also an important step towards fighting the pandemic. There are many myths and false information getting circulated. If you are concerned, discuss with your health care provider to get a clear understanding of the vaccination. Finally, we need to remember that the government cannot be expected to police us all the time. Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi too expressed his concerns to his ministers over the sight of crowded places with people not following Covid-19 norms, stating “there should be no space for carelessness or complacency. A single mistake can have a far-reaching impact and may weaken the fight against the pandemic.” It is a stressful period for everyone, but our collective discipline will help off fight the pandemic.

Source: John Hopkins University. As on 10.07.2021
Sahithya BR
Dr Sahithya BR., MSc, MPhil, PhD. is a Clinical psychologist working in the mental health sector with vulnerable children, adolescents and adults. She is also actively involved in research and training. She is currently working as an assistant professor of clinical psychology at DIMHANS, Dharwad
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