Yesterday, I skipped dinner as the dinner time in the cafeteria was over and food was no longer available. I had a carefully designed schedule for the work to be done last night, but all attempts proved futile. My constant hunger pangs deterred me, not just from focusing on my work but everything else too. It spread its unruly tentacles into all possible faculties of my mental and emotional life, leaving me with a blunt, almost omnipotent sense of sadness and self-pity.
The night invoked two powerful revelations. One, this is not a regular phenomenon in my life. Two, I do not have mouths to feed.
I look around to see that India is currently a ticking bomb waiting to explode, economically and possibly in every other way. Uncertainty is the only certain thing. For the privileged, this uncertainty revolves around the termination of lockdown, the craving of delicacies, pining to meet friends and the like. For the have-nots, uncertainty has crept into the very basic necessities of life like food; an unceremonious death out of starvation or untreated illness arising out of loss of livelihood appears on the horizon for many.
For us, the period after lockdown holds the promise of resumption of education and employment, but for the poorer sections of society, such promises are audacious. Its implications for physical health are still talked about but the mental health of these families remain enshrouded in the garb of a “luxury” they cannot afford.
Against the backdrop of uncertainty and poverty, these individuals grapple with darkness to find safety signals – sources of food, water, and medical help. Inability to procure one or more of the above may lead to subclinical or even clinically significant anxiety that threatens to cripple their productivity. In reality, humans are prone to planning, particularly people with families to take care of. For the poor, securing basic amenities of life gain precedence in planning since that itself remains a daily challenge.
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Although it is commonly said that lives and livelihood are not antagonistic, rather they are mutually reinforcing, there exists a stark difference between the classes. While, the rich prioritise life and livelihood, the poor prioritise livelihood or life. With survival itself coming under the purview of uncertainty, all plans fall apart; every day ends with anxiety about tomorrow. Our usual suggestions of scheduling and pursuing hobbies to keep anxiety at bay fall flat on the face against the mammoth challenges endured by them.
Inability to fend for the family also puts feelings of competence into question. For the parents, watching their children go without food, strips them off their defined role as “caregivers” and evokes suppressed cries of helplessness and anguish. Sense of competence or the lack of it also becomes pronounced in terms of the skills required for a job. The role of a worker in a particular trade is defined by a specific set of skills, eviction from the job and subsequently taking up another job would require learning and unlearning – both of which can be daunting, more so for middle-aged people who have mastered one trade to perfection. Not being able to learn the ropes of the trade well enough could lead to a slow but steady degradation of self-efficacy and sound the death-knell for employment. The unholy trinity of depression – helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness – loom large in their lives.
This effect, bolstered by grave experiences like carrying the dead body of one’s own child for several kilometres for cremation or watching family members die of exhaustion and starvation en route to native villages, may amount to significant trauma. Grieving is interrupted by biological needs that drown all other voices. The mind wants to heal, but the body wants to survive. Unprocessed emotions possibly find a less-visited corner of the mind where they nestle comfortably, only to vehemently demand recognition later.
The most common response to trauma is resilience and this is possibly what these families are showing. However, there is a desperate need for the government to sit up, take notice of their mental health and say something reassuring; professionals need to come together to develop adaptation strategies that accommodate the harsh, ground realities of these families.
Amidst sincere attempts of reviving the economy of the country, the individual cannot be forgotten. The individual must be kept at the nexus of all measures, needs to be heard, validated and supported so that her/his mental and emotional resources find optimal utilisation.
Till the time mental health continues to be neglected, no amount of products or policies can save the nation from drowning in despair. Hence it is time to better prevent and prepare than to repent and repair for the forgotten.
Poulami Sengupta is from Kolkata and is currently pursuing M.Phil in Clinical Psychology from LGBRIMH, Tezpur, Assam.
Featured image credit: Reuters