Lockdown is precipitating mental health problems

We have to be both rational and reasonable if we do not want to cause disruptions that can destroy families and by extension our social integrity. This is what is at stake during prolonged confinement, and it concerns all of us

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A few days ago I learnt from a Community Physician – medical officers who are based at Area Health Centres – that, done with the initial panic about Covid-19, the bulk of patients they were now seeing were those with mental health issues, and as a consequence there is an increasing number being referred for specialized psychiatric opinion.

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“It is human nature to want to be up and about, reach out, meet and socialize. Granted that there is a sanitary emergency – which no one has denied, with broad general understanding of and acceptance of the strict measures that have been put in place. This does not mean, however, that we must lose sight of the other dimensions of the day to day living that we have been used to all our lives. Suddenly putting a brutal halt to the routine sends a shock wave which is akin to an assault on reason, which then has to struggle with the ill-defined contours of a new reality. Even before the ripples have died down, worries begin to accumulate…”


This is in line with a pattern that has been observed in all countries where lockdown has been imposed – and especially when it has been extended. Whether it is in the US, UK, France and other European countries, Asia, Australia, there have been numerous reports about a surge in domestic violence, alcoholism, anxiety and depression, even suicides during the period of forced confinement. There is only so much of being restricted in one’s movements that any human being can take, even if it is in one’s own house. Though the impact is worse where people live in apartments, it is nonetheless equally felt by those who have some yard space to move about in.

It is human nature to want to be up and about, reach out, meet and socialize. Granted that there is a sanitary emergency – which no one has denied, with broad general understanding of and acceptance of the strict measures that have been put in place. This does not mean, however, that we must lose sight of the other dimensions of the day to day living that we have been used to all our lives. Suddenly putting a brutal halt to the routine sends a shock wave which is akin to an assault on reason, which then has to struggle with the ill-defined contours of a new reality. Even before the ripples have died down, worries begin to accumulate as one tries to sort out how to cope with the myriads of challenges that have suddenly come to the fore.  

It is a fact that, like so many other countries including even the most advanced ones like the US, UK, France, etc – we were unprepared for this crisis, and how best to tackle it. There was no precedent in recent times or memory, no template which could be learnt from. The result is that we had to hurriedly apply measures that WHO was recommending based on the medical evidence that was still being compiled, and therefore subject to change. The pandemic was, and remains a dynamic situation. What this implies in concrete terms is that we must be prudent in our implementation of the recommendations being made, and use both hard data and our commonsense in their application at all levels – individual, family, community and the public space.

And when these recommendations are to be applied within a legal framework, a necessary step because there inevitably will be some people who would show resistance, this means that there is going to be enforcement on the part of those responsible for maintaining law and order. In the public space they are the police officers who, unless they are properly briefed during sessions which have to be promptly set up, are likely to be very rigid in the exercise of their duties. This is understandable because they cannot be expected to have the sensitivity that goes with a deeper understanding of the rationale of the sanitary measures.

In a whole of society approach, there must be wide understanding of the unexpected   vulnerability into which people abruptly find themselves, with the potential to cause upsets and inconveniences of all kinds – because it demands a total reorganization of schedules for everybody, and perhaps the most difficult problem is making arrangements for children, if any. Even at the best of times, this is challenging. So one can well imagine what it is at the worst of times as we are in now: there is not only simple apprehension, but actual fear of one or one’s family falling sick with coronavirus, what happens next and so on. One must also remember that we already have an non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic, which means that there may well be other diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, etc., that need to be attended to.

And as the lockdown has disrupted the economy, thousands of households face the added spectre of looming unemployment, possibly of both wage earners. With futures that look bleak, is it a surprise that there should be emotional and psychological imbalance? Naturally this impacts the whole family. On top of that to keep occupied young children, what with their short attention spans and their overflowing energy, is enough to throw many a parent into a mental spin on a daily basis. Especially that we now live in the era of the nuclear family, so that there aren’t grandparents around to help taking care of the kids.

In this context, there’s what I think is a most unfortunate incident that was brought to my attention a few days ago. It was about a couple whose children were feeling so stifled that they had to take them out for a short drive. What happened next is a real tragic irony: they were booked by the police: all four of them. Can one imagine such a blind enforcement of the law?

In another case, an elderly person who was going to hospital to see his sister early in the morning was also stopped and had to plead with the officer to be allowed to proceed.

That is why I have emphasized commonsense and training sessions. And that is why also we need everyone to contribute to the public debate so as to create awareness of issues, all of which it is impossible for the deciders to know.

It is not for nothing that there is a saying about the spirit and the letter of the law. While this  may be beyond the purview of the police officers on the roads, we pray that when such cases as that of the family that was booked come before our learned magistrates, their superior knowledge and understanding will be able to colour their decisions with some empathy towards those who, far from committing any crime, were simply trying to do their duty as good parents in a bid to keep sanity in the family.

We have to be both rational and reasonable if we do not want to cause disruptions that can destroy families and by extension our social integrity. This is what is at stake during prolonged confinement, and it concerns all of us. And those of us who are privileged to appreciate the grave imports of actions – however legal they may be — that may potentially sap this integrity should not hesitate to speak out or to contribute in preserving it by virtue of our positions in society.

RN Gopee
ngopee@intnet.mu


* Published in print edition on 29 May 2020

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