Social Distancing And The Loss Of Personal Spaces

What are the challenges faced in creating safe spaces for counselling and therapy during the lockdown?


Udbhavi Balakrishna

The COVID-19 lockdown in India has affected people of all age groups and sections of society. For young persons with pre-existing mental health issues, the lockdown has made it harder to get help.

“There is this sinking feeling of not being able to do much. You don’t feel motivated, almost as if the whole situation is pulling you down. Sitting in one place all day without human contact and movement is suffocating,” says Nagarathna Balakrishna (this correspondent's sister), a research fellow based in Bangalore.

What does one feel during such tumultuous times? “Mainly anger. Anger, frustration, confusion and fear. The pressure to be doing something productive because there is extra time on our hands doesn’t help but make you feel anxious and guilty,” she adds.

24-hour news cycles and social media networks in India are focused exclusively on COVID-19 stories, further spreading fear and helplessness. “You cannot open WhatsApp without receiving so many messages about the Coronavirus. Some days, I am so disturbed by all the hatred and fake news, that I have decided to limit my screen time,” says Shradha Shetty, a postgraduate student.

The need for safe, personal spaces

The lockdown has made access to therapists and mental health professionals difficult. While psychologists and organisations have offered to shift to an online platform or reach out to people over the phone, many people are sceptical or uncomfortable with this.

Kavya Reji Chandy, a counselling psychologist at Mount Carmel College, says: “I take one-hour sessions on Duo or Zoom. Because I work in a college, I usually meet about seven to eight girls a day. This number has decreased now because of the lack of personal space.” “There are also a number of people who say that they don’t have space or the network to connect over a call to have a session. Materials are also available online, on Instagram and other platforms, for people who do not feel comfortable or cannot reach out to a counsellor,” she adds.

“I haven’t contacted my therapist because I don’t want to talk over the phone. Since we will not be able to see each other, I feel that I won’t be able to tell her much and she might not be able to help as much,” says Anthony Paul, an undergraduate student.

For others, the struggle involves battling the stress and frustration that comes with ensuring access to supplies while trying to remain connected to loved ones. “I haven’t been able to completely feel at home; this environment has left me wanting to be in what I feel is a safer space. I have been coping by distracting myself, connecting with people because even a casual interaction over social media helps ground me, but sometimes, that is not enough,” says Prafula Grace, a journalist, living away from her family in Delhi.

Talking about the pandemic and the anxiety it causes, Vidya Ramaswamy, a psychotherapist in Bengaluru, said - “I think it is important to understand that our brains and bodies do not have a blueprint for handling a pandemic, so people are experiencing a gamut of emotional reactions. The looming uncertainty of not knowing when this will end is making it more difficult.”

She says insisting on productivity invalidates the context. “It is not voluntary time that we have chosen, it is time that has been thrust upon us. So to expect people to churn productivity through art, cooking, and such is a very unfair demand to have.”

The glorification of using this time to connect with family may not be universally applicable, Vidya explains. “Some homes might be sites of domestic abuse or violence and now they do not have the respite to leave to go to work or access other support structures outside home.”

Doing the best in the circumstances

How should we shield ourselves from the negativity of the pandemic? Vidya suggests that “we need to normalise and validate feelings and understand that this is not a race to transform a negative feeling to a positive one. It is important to normalise feelings of anger, rage, grief, denial - whatever one experiences right now. It is important to understand that it is okay to feel whatever you are feeling right now.”

Benny Prasad, musician and founder of Chai 3:16, talks about the importance of hope and reaching out to people in such confusing times. “I interviewed a lady who was the first COVID-19 patient to be tested negative. She became a message of hope. The media only emphasizes the deaths, hardly any importance is given to the recoveries. This is what we are doing - we are trying to spread the message of hope and recovery through Zoom and Skype,” he says.

Social media apps cannot replicate human contact, says Sadhana, a homemaker. “We need more mental health-friendly spaces to openly converse about the state of our mental health, now, more than ever.”

The author is a BA student (Class of 2022) at National School of Journalism and Public Discourse

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