“The nights are the worst,” says Aanya Wig, a final year student at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. “At times, I have called 50 hospitals in 10 minutes but I couldn’t find a single bed." Wig is part of an online community of youngsters that is trying to get people Covid-related help, from hospital beds to oxygen cylinders. She says she has no time to step back and process the deaths she experiences almost every day. “It’s always those who you aren’t able to help that stay with you,” she says.
Ronit Sadhukhan agrees. Living in West Bengal's Hooghly district, Sadhukhan says he’s glad he’s seeing a therapist since January this year. "When I started calling hospitals to help people find beds, I couldn't sleep for the first week. I would hear voices. I still have (those) dreams." If not for the pandemic, the 25-year-old visual effects artist would have been out observing how clouds move and waves rise, to create computer simulations "as close to reality as possible". Instead, working on his job for nine hours each day, he was left wondering whether he could have done anything more to help people, a thought echoed by many others.
Last in line for getting a vaccine and with schools and colleges shut, India’s young adults (aged 15 to 25) are forced to make many sacrifices to protect those around them. Covid-19 has served them a cocktail of guilt, fear and anxiety, and the mix is getting really bad. Some are spending over 16 hours each day helping strangers find hospital beds, while others are fearing another washed-out year marked with online learning. Some have had to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, or a relationship.
Their lives halted, many more youngsters are now seeing a therapist.
“More than half of young adults I saw since the pandemic are seeking help for the first time,” says K John Vijay Sagar, professor and head, department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Nimhans (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences), Bengaluru.
When Covid cases rose last year, the psychiatry department of Nimhans was partially converted into a Covid care centre. More adolescents, showing signs of severe depression and anxiety, then started visiting its emergency services department. In the one year since April 2020, Sagar’s department has held 3,094 teleconsultations and provided e-prescriptions over WhatsApp to those requiring medicine.
Many of Gyanendra Jha’s middle-aged patients succumbed to the virus in the second wave. Now their adolescent children are undergoing therapy with him. “When you see such loss in your family and that’s reflected all around, maladaptive coping mechanisms like eating disorders and substance abuse may ensue, and so may anxiety. That’s what we are seeing these days,” says the psychiatrist from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
A lot of young people are also feeling lonely in their homes and are concerned over privacy, spending time with friends and maintaining relationships, says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta. One of them mentioned “how they missed so many of their important milestones – like the first day of college, the college festival, canteen food and even access to a good library.”
More than half of young adults I saw since the pandemic are seeking help for the first time, said K John Vijay Sagar, Head, Child & adolescent psychiatry, Nimhans
Even social media, which was a wonderland for many, turned into a gruesome reflection of reality. SOS requests and obituaries deluged everyone’s timelines. Shachi Mathur, head counsellor at Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, says she advises students “to take time off when needed… being assured that disconnect does not equate to ignorance”. Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad also organises counselling sessions over the web or telephone, and shares digital content on emotional wellness with students. This assumes significance as those aged 15–29 years are at the highest risk of dying from suicide in India, according to a study published in the <Lancet>.
However, for the marganised, if accessing mental health resources was hard before Covid struck, now it has only got harder.
Many young, financially-dependent queer and transpeople have had to return to live with their parents, where they are facing conversion attempts through pressure for getting married, says Pooja Nair from Queer Affirmative Counseling Practice by Mariwala Health Initiative, Mumbai. While on a session with her, “if they cut the call, I don’t call back as they may have done so out of concern for their safety. We also discuss whether I should identify myself as their friend if someone else answers the call," she says.
It’s tough for families with a child with disabilities, too. Already feeling marginalised from the community, they banked on schools, persons with disabilities departments and therapy. For many that’s been taken away. Youngsters with disabilities are also unsure about the medical services available to them, and say they have no clue how they will get jabbed as most vaccination centres are inaccessible.
In these times, groups from their community are helping out. Take the example of Anusha Misra. It could be life-threatening for her to go out even with her mask on, as she is immunocompromised. But having friends from her digital magazine group, Revival Disability Magazine, helped her “talk openly about my disability, and share memes and experiences with friends” throughout the pandemic.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Amit Sen says we need to understand the young. “Confronted with acute trauma, the immediate effect is you either go into paralysing inaction or become extremely restless,” says the co-founder of Delhi-based Children First. “The problem is not with youngsters, it’s what’s around them. In fact, this is just the response”.
Mental health practitioners say it is time to decouple therapy from being in a crisis or extraordinary mental pain. Says Chennai-based psychotherapist Nishi Ravi: “Therapy can be a profound healing process to understand yourself better, gain an external and unbiased perspective, reflect and grow, or just a space where you can feel unconditionally valued without needing to earn it. There's never a bad time to seek help.”