Between stigma and survival: A sketch of Mental Health in COVID-19 patients of Assam
“We were confused, scared, and anxious. My husband was quarantined at Kanoi College, while my five-year-old child and I were at Lahoal hospital. I was scared since the day we tested positive. Even a slight hint of fever would send chills down my spine, as I feared losing my life,” says Sarita of Dibrugarh to EastMojo while describing her mental state after being tested COVID-19 positive.
Sarita and four others in her family; her husband, child, brother-in-law, and nephew tested positive for COVID-19 in August. Speaking on the social stigma attached to the disease Sarita who stays in a rented apartment says, “Our owners reside on the ground floor, and we live on the second floor. More than half of us were asymptomatic, yet even after several requests, they refused us home quarantine.”
In yet another similar case, Sangita Bajaj who says that she and almost her entire family was COVID-19 positive. This was during the month of September. She says, “My husband’s condition was quite critical, his oxygen levels were dropping down and he also got pneumonia. So, in spite of being COVID-19 positive myself, I had to wake up at every hour of the night for two-three days and check his oxygen level. Then, if the figures were not good, I would ask someone to come and give him oxygen.”
Sangita and her family had to go through a lot of stress since the doctors they were trying to consult with were ‘not responding’. “We could not properly isolate ourselves, because if I would have isolated myself who would have looked after them?” This went on for days and both of them were later admitted to a hospital for further treatment. She describes the entire scenario of being equally taxing on her mental health as it was on her physical health.
The story of Sarita and Sangita is representative of a bigger picture of all COVID-19 patients in Assam, as well as worldwide. A telepsychology programme named 'Monon' started by the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) revealed the mental trauma faced by COVID-19 patients in Assam. From anxiety arising out of social stigma, financial and job loss, and even delay in receiving reports, experts chronicled and provided interventions wherever needed.
'Monon', which stands for mental well being, is an initiative of the National Health Mission, Assam, and was launched on June 13. Through this programme, trained mental health professionals reached to patients and evaluated their physical, mental, and social health. They investigated depressive, anxious, suicidal, and sleep issues.
Experts observed mental health symptoms in most patients in isolation centres. These psychological factors ranged from isolation from friends and family, financial worries, to stigma and discrimination.
Matilal Bayan, a 59-year-old Guwahati resident, decided to isolate himself in a quarantine centre even after being asymptomatic. Speaking about the concern behind his decision, he tells EastMojo, “I decided to stay away from home because my eldest daughter was pregnant and my wife is a diabetic. I did not want to contaminate and put the lives of my family members at risk.”
Juhi Haloi of Kaziranga says, “My father and I had both tested positive for COVID-19. The first day when he tested positive was the worst day of my life, but the very next day I also tested positive.” Juhi and her father were quarantined in the same hospital. Her family has been her greatest strength through this tough time, “Negative thoughts were constantly poking my mind, but my family helped me a lot in recovering from it.”
Dr Angirash Bhattacharya has been working with COVID-19 patients since the outbreak in Assam. He served at the Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital (MMCH), and is currently at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH). Sharing his observations with EastMojo Dr Bhattacharya says, "When the first case of COVID-19 appeared in Assam in late March, people were stigmatised and traumatised. At that stage, the worries of the patients revolved around two basic things. First, more than their health, they feared infecting their family members. Lactating mothers were the most worried in this case. Secondly, the people were scared regarding the social stigma attached to the disease and were anxious about whether the society would accept them after being tested negative."
He explains how once the community transmission started people with weaker immunity, especially the ones with kidney ailments began dying. Still, at the same time, the fear of the disease decreased drastically in the minds of the public. “Being locked at home for many months, people desperately started feeling the need to go out. So, they built their assumptions regarding the disease and stopped fearing it, even though in reality the number of cases was still exponentially rising,” he says.
Dr Angirash Bhattachrya believes that the absolute disregard for the disease is not a good sign, and is a matter of worry. He further adds, “It’s shocking to observe, that from late September people have started behaving like the pandemic is over. A huge chunk of people that have come to GMCH since September are without masks and not following the social distancing norms.” He says that the only people wearing masks strictly in the hospital are the doctors.
Dilip Kr Saikia, another COVID-19 survivor from Jorhat, says an early acceptance of the situation helped hi. He says, “The pandemic has hit the entire world; there is not much that we can do about it. We should carefully follow the instructions laid down by the government and scientists.” On asking him how he spent his time in isolation, he replies, “I practised Yoga and listened to music to make myself feel good. Also, being physically isolated does not imply being completely socially distant. So, I stayed connected with my friends and family on the phone.”
The WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Use, laid down a series of messages on March 18, targeting the mental well being of different groups of people. In their message to the people in isolation, they have specifically mentioned that they should stay connected with their social networks via phone and other means and keep practising a daily routine. During times of stress, the message asks people to pay attention to one’s needs and feelings while engaging in healthy and relaxing activities. Anyone may feel anxious by a constant stream of news reports about the outbreak, so the message advises people to avoid listening to rumours and updates, which makes one feel uncomfortable.