Mental Illness at the time of Covid

Patricia Mukhim

September 10 is observed as World Suicide Prevention Day. This year the country has been furiously and sometimes more than necessary on the death by suicide of Bollywood celebrity Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) on June 14 this year. Never before has a person’s state of mind been ripped apart and dissected by so many non-experts blabbering their views on any TV channel that gives them space. But what’s worse is that SSR’s own therapists have made public his mental state thereby violating patient-doctor privacy. That the family of SSR don’t find this violative of his personal life is reflective of today’s family values.

Having had a family member with mental illness who subsequently died by suicide, one fears to tread this territory because one can never really understand the human mind and why some are pushed into the zone of mental disequilibrium which then manifests in their behaviour. In 2019, India reported an average of 381 deaths by suicide daily totaling 1,39,123 fatalities over the year, according to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. We will have to wait and for this year’s data and it is expected to be a staggering figure considering we are all battling not just the pandemic but also the economic and mental consequences it has unleashed. We are all staring at an uncertain future and those with already fragile minds are now teetering on the edge.

We don’t have enough therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists to deal with the growing number of mental health cases. As family members we are often at sea on how to deal with our own kin who pass through this dark night of the soul. What do we say which can trigger depression and what should we not say? It’s a tough call that only those who have walked the tortuous path of having a family member ‘with a different mind,’ can comprehend.

It’s hard enough for people with mental illness who live with their families to deal with their demons. At least such people still have a support system; someone to tell them it’s time to eat; to sleep and to complete their chores to the extent possible. Think of a celebrity having to live up to a star status, surrounded by fair weather friends and to pretend that all is well when everything inside is a blistering furnace that triggers anger, restlessness, despondency, panic attacks, anxiety, sleep disorders; and of course a craving for substances that temporarily numb all feelings. It must be worse after waking up from such a sedated sleep. Then there’s the quest for the same substances because the real world seems formidable and scary. Add to that the pressure to look ‘normal’ and smile when meeting with prospective film makers and producers. One can only imagine the pressure that Bollywood stars live with. From the outside it looks hunky dory but inside it’s apocalyptic. Only the person with such a mind knows what she/he lives through.

Peter Stockland of the think tank Cardus says, “The combined effect of fear and exhaustion produces a cynicism so deep, murky and toxic that it verges on the sin of bearing false witness against reality.” The reality today is that nothing is certain; millions of people holding a job are not sure when they will lose it and after that, where the next meal will come from. To bear false witness to this reality is to pretend that things are normal; that there is no need for course correction in one’s life and relationships; that one can continue to be uptight and unrelenting in one’s stances and still emerge unscathed after the pandemic. This is to ride the wave of unrealism.

Covid has brought along with it a dystopia that we are all just beginning to deal with in ways we are unsure of. Our comfort zones have been rudely shaken and we face new challenges every day. Some in a profession that requires constant engagement with the custodians of the public purse which is what journalism is all about, are expected to stay above the gurgling torrent of waves in their sub-conscious minds and to continue to ask questions with respectful diligence. It’s a different matter that we sometimes overstep our brief and don the mantle of jury, judge and executioner and pass verdicts on a daily basis. Clearly that’s not our brief. We ask questions and put out answers after we have analysed them and found they are not clever attempts at cover-up. At the end of the day it is the reader that has to judge who is right and who is wrong and give the verdict come election time.

The mental health of journalists is of great import because every journalist sees the world through his/her prism. That prism is derived from our own conscious, unconscious and sub-conscious minds. Our view of politics, economics and society may not always be correct. If our prism is distorted our reports too are coloured. We see the world as a place where people are unjustly punished; where there’s no justice; where everyone is conspiring against the proletariat and wrongdoing is therefore the only thing we can write about. We miss out on positive stories that are hope giving especially during these times. Covid has cast its dark shadow over the world. Why should we add to that darkness with stories of pessimism? And might it not be that such pessimism comes out of the depressed mind of the journalist?

Gabriel Arana, a freelance reporter who edited the Huffington Post series on mental health, once said, “As a journalist, you’re sort of expected to be the one reporting on trauma, not the one suffering it yourself and so a lot of people see it as almost their professional poise not to divulge when they’re suffering, when they’re either feeling burned out or going through a depressive episode.” He says that the idea that journalists are supposed to be superhuman observers of history and not feel anything “is not true and sort of harmful.”

During the Covid journey, although journalists are not considered frontline workers, they are very much in the firing line. Journalists are now more prone to burn-out. Look at reporters covering the Rhea Chakraborty/SSR case for some TV channels. They look like people possessed by a fervour to find the culprit in what they believe is a case of murder. And now when it’s getting murkier with the cocktail of Bollywood stars, drugs and sex and what have you, journalists seem to be pumped up with adrenaline the whole day. But by evening the fatigue they suffer is a silent, unspoken, private matter witnessed only by their family members.

Philip Eil in an article for www.vice.com titled, ‘When Being a Journalist Is Terrible for Your Mental Health’ said, “When I had my burnout episode, it was like a spell had broken, and I could clearly see the mental health risks of the job. And they were everywhere. A Commander-in-Chief (Donald Trump)who has declared the news media the “enemy of the American people.” An industry where literally hundreds of thousands of print journalism jobs have disappeared in recent decades, and where remaining jobs can pay less than the local median income. A job that requires absorbing some of the worst aspects of humanity, from corruption, to climate change, to crime, to child abuse and so much more. A job that presents a never-ending stream of deadlines, an urgent sense of competition, and an expectation to—in the words of a journalism job posting I recently read —”dominate the conversation on social media.”Any one of these factors could have an effect on the mind of a level-headed, healthy person. Toss them together and you’ve got a psychological minefield.

Philip Eil admits he has been rattled by his work, sometimes severely, and he is fine with admitting that. He says, “From my conversations with experts, I’ve learned that ignoring mental health issues may actually make a person a less effective reporter. University of Toronto, psychology professor Anthony Feinstein tells me that, just as an unwell physician might make a bad diagnosis, “I think there’s a real risk that if a journalist is unwell psychologically, that can affect their work…It could give a certain slant to a story that might not be accurate.”

Journalism is serious business. If a journalist no longer has an open mind because cynicism and distrust have become second nature then its best to leave the profession than be a prophet of doom and gloom.

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