Created on 2020-05-04 16:15

Published on 2020-05-04 16:20

It’s been 40 days since 1.3 Billion people went into lockdown, possibly the biggest containment experiment in history. We officially completed the “Quarantine” yesterday. As parts of the country wake up from lockdown 2.0, and transitioned to lockdown 3.0, there is a silent epidemic that is emerging, one that we will have to deal with, for many months to come.

We knew that young people, elderly, and people with existing mental health issues would have a tough time during the lockdown. What we were totally unprepared was the impact this period will have on healthcare workers on the forefront of care. Not to mention police, essential supplies provider and other frontline workers. And there is another segment of people, the informal workers, people in the gig economy, who have the dual burden of financial insecurity and stress, due to loss of wages, dislocation from their own community and apprehension about their personal safety.

When we launched a mental health support helpline – Let’s Talk, early April, we knew we had to get as many resources possible to support existing efforts of governments and other civil society organisations who are stepping up to support during this period. What we have learnt, however in the last 40 days, makes us believe, there is no short term solution, and we have to be prepared for the long haul.

Based on our own experience fielding calls from people in distress, we believe these are the areas that need immediate attention

– Destigmatization: The narrative of social distancing, rapid spread of the virus compounded by immediate access to worldwide data, has created unprecedented amount of stigma and apprehension. In many cities, doctors and health-workers, who are treating covid patients were forcefully evicted out of their homes. People who tested positive are being shunned in apartment complexes by their own neighbors and resident associations. The entire narrative has to be rebuilt to combat this. I really like the way some of the early corona positive individuals who were later tested positive, turned to social media to share their experience, build confidence amongst others and set the right tone. May be there is an opportunity to train the 10,000 + people who have now recovered into champions of COVID – equipping them with tools and training to be counselors and buddies for people who are now being tested positive or are under suspicion. These champions, having gone through the stress themselves, have the empathy and are the right people to lead this change.

– Community Infrastructure for Support: Even with a team of 200+ volunteers at Lets Talk, we realise that it is impossible for us to be of long term support to this issue. Neither a small group of volunteers or the formal mental health system with limited number of specialists is adequate to address this long term. What we need is a focus on building community based capacity, to handle local issues, long after the acute phase of the epidemic passes. A small team of lay counselors working under each District Magistrate, or Municipal Commissioner, supported by a local organisation and trained on established models like Dr Vikram Patel’s Sangath’s methodology or the Athmiyata model by CMHLP might be the way forward. This needs a close partnership between civil society, local administration and a standardized training and tech backbone to deliver consistent, good quality support. The local anchors will build accountability and ownership, along with contextualizing it for their own surroundings.

– Rebuilding wellbeing of employees: Work from home at this massive scale, compounded by uncertainty about the future of their careers, slowdown of economy and reintegrating back into the workforce 33% at a time, is leading to tremendous stress for employees. This is particularly taxing for small and medium enterprises, startups and mid-size corporate who don’t have the luxury or the balance sheet cushion to tide over this setback. Reports suggest economy will take 12-18 months to recover with downsizing, salary cuts and scale downs looming in the months to come. How do we build a channel for employees in these tough times, to deal with anxiety and stress and to provide a support system to manage their emotions? These are the questions that HR heads and CEOs are asking themselves today. Today, employee health is just mental health. Companies are reaching out to us to organise talks, share the helpline number and organise counseling sessions. These are good steps, but only limited in impact. What is needed is a conscious effort to build a resilience focused approach to mental wellbeing of the employees. This is not the first pandemic. And will not be the last. We have to be prepared to deal with many more such pandemics.

This pandemic has tested the entire world. It has aligned all of us against a single enemy. But true victory over this pandemic will not be a cure or a vaccine, but how resilient we are in dealing with the pandemic and how much stronger we emerge on the other side.

And to make sure we all come out stronger, each one of us has to play an important role in destigmatizing, building community support and taking care of employee wellbeing.

The time is now.

Let’s Talk!