Mental Health in the Times of Protest
For the past week, India has seen a nation-wide eruption of student protests and subsequent police action surrounding the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and NRC (National Register of Citizens).
Stories of violence, tear gassing, and even sexual assault are everywhere, with news reports of Internet and mobile phone service shutdowns, even in the capital, spreading. There's anger, hopelessness, frustration and fatigue all at once.
When there’s a rising movement on socio-political lines, emotions run high and run out fast too. There’s fear of a growing listlessness, and many people have turned off the barrage of disturbing news for break.
Fawzia, a 24-year old professional (who requested her last name not be used) tells FIT, “I’ve been really scared, spent a whole day actually just feeling not okay, not being able to look away from the news, and honestly it just felt like my future - basic things like getting married and having children, was snatched away from me. Potentially still might get taken away. It’s just not something I expected to face when I imagined being 24 years old.”
But there’s a list online that’s making waves and offering hope: connect mental health experts to the people, free of cost.
On the growing list, so far there are about 20 counsellors, psychologists and peer supporters most of whom are queer affirmative and from QACP Delhi.
But why was the need for this now?
The Personal is the Political: Why Counselors are Volunteering Time
Politics is for the people, and so of course, political unrest causes some sort of instability in our lives. This naturally creates mental distress as well.
“Mental health concerns do not take place in a vacuum,” adds Farah Maneckshaw, a psychology masters student in TISS, “ We cannot look at depression or anxiety as simply a neurochemical imbalance or a pathology within an individual’s mind, because often their distress is located within a larger social context.”
Srividya, a psychologist in Delhi explains why she thinks mental health professionals need to become socially engaged as well and why she put her name on the list,
“A group of peers and I realised that psycholigists tend to be apolitical and be neutral in their counselling. We separate the politics from the person. But world over, there is a conflict in recognising the interlinked nature of politics. I think this is something we cannot be neutral about, systematic oppression is directly linked to the mental health of a person. For example, if a queer Hindu and a queer Dalit person come in to my clinic, systemic differences in how they are treated in society seep into their differing emotional distress levels.”
In August 2019, The Lancet, got into some hot water in India over their reports on the mental heath crisis in Kashmir arising from their “decades-long conflict.”
There has been extensive research on the social determinations of mental health, like this 2014 WHO report that explicit says: mental health is largely determined by socio-economic conditions. Minorities and oppressed people are therefore likely to face a higher burden of mental health issues - precisely because of the marginalisation they face BECAUSE they are minorities.
Srividya says that especially right now, as our country dives into civil protests, mental health services are essential. But it’s not just because of the latest anti-CAA and NRC protests, this feeling of collective unrest has been simmering for a while.
“People have been emotionally bombarded with a range of issues from the delaying of the Nirbhaya trial to the economic slowdown to Kashmir. I have clients who had a business for 22 years and now they don’t. You cannot not be affected, it’s everywhere and in everything you are consuming online. There is so much to grapple with and no space!”
Komal, a counsellor on the list tells me that the list has helped people reach out, “It's been mostly protesting students needing a space where their concerns about the anxiety they're experiencing can be heard without any judgement or talking about the lack of support from their families and friends or sometimes even ranting about the current situation.”
How Do You Cope?
Durgesh, a counsellor on the list adds, “In the current situation of unrest, it is going to impact the psychological balance of the people, even if they are not directly participating in it. People are being impacted directly and indirectly, and so availability of a support system might help to maintain the various feelings.”
Because psychology and dealing with trauma is individualist, there are a few strategies suggested:
- Understand Your Feelings and Communicate Them
"This is a fundamental strategy. At times, it might not be clear and then they can talk to others like friends, family members or anyone from the list, of they think that will help,” says Durgesh.
He says to keep a tab on these, and monitor when you’re feeling uncomfortable - this is the time to take a break.
Hena, another mental health professional from the list adds, “Communicate - with peers, loved ones, family (whether they are of origin or found), fellow citizens. Acknowledge how you’re feeling, and seek help if you need to. There is no shame in reaching out, and there are many mental health professionals who have volunteered their time (myself included) to do so in the face of our current crises in this country.”
Srividya adds that for the common person, it is important to engage - you cannot run from this situation, so it is important to confront issues. “Find out how you feel about it, educate, go back to safe spaces to get comfort and courage. But these issues will only grow and we must become aware, while also keeping ourselves grounded and do what we normally do everyday as well.”
- Take Time Off
Distancing yourself from traumatic news for a while is important to give yourself time to recharge. SnehaJanaki, a counselling psychologist on the list as well adds,
“Only yesterday I advised a girl from Jamia Millia Islamia to install the app called Off time, Stay Focused, it’s a self timer on when to switch off from news. She was unable to plug off.”
Through this, you don’t feel like you are too disconnected but there is a clear break from the traumatic images too.
- Read, Know the Facts
A lot of the fear is from misinformation and miscommunication - beware fake news! Read, form your own opinions to combat the feelings of helplessness by taking charge of your own mind.
- Find Safe Spaces
“You can go to your family, friends, communities or even take to journaling, sketching, anything that makes you feel better and safe,” says Srividya.
- Listen to Your Body
Durgesh says, “Focusing on the body is another important aspect, sometimes our body gives signals which helps us in understand what needs to be done.”
SnehaJanaki also says, “I think it's important to find ways to notice how dis-regulated our nervous system is and to truly do something as an act of care for ourselves. Unplugging is one such option.”
- Put the Stress to Constructive Use
Find your sources of agitation, and once you feel ready, use that stress to motivate you to make a difference in whatever way you can.
- Maintain a Healthy Routine
Hena says, “We need some form of predictability in our daily lives, especially when the world outside seems unstable.” It’s common to see addictive habits during this time as “they serve as self-soothing mechanisms but can be detrimental to your overall health in the long run,” she adds.
- Be Kind to Yourself
Lastly, SnehaJanaki adds what’s really of utmost importance is: “Being kind to oneself on how we can resist!”
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