Although we cannot say anything definitively right now, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be declining in Nepal. The number of daily cases has fallen below 50 within the nation. More than five daily cases have been recorded in the country for a few weeks now. The government has also lifted all of the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus and our society seems to be slowly but steadily recovering. But sadly, this does not apply to everyone. While the physical signs of the outbreak may be vanishing, the mental scars it has left look set to stay for a long time.
Most Nepalis had never experienced restrictions of that scale when Nepal entered into its first lockdown on March 24, 2020. The entire nation was put just under house arrest with very little notice and preparation. This disruption of people’s lives combined with the heightened fear of the virus and the possibility of contracting it shattered many people and their mental health. The number of suicides rose considerably.
Part of the reason mental health took such a hit in the country during that time was, ironically, due to the constant presence of family members. Family obviously is a great support system and this hypothesis does not apply to all but the uncomfortable truth remains that Nepalis do not share their mental health disturbances with their guardians, spouses or relatives. Our familial institutions do not have the appropriate mechanisms to appropriately deal with mental health problems. As a result, we do not recognise the early signs.
This lack of recognition does not mean a lack of understanding though. People do genuinely understand the mental health problems keeping their near and dear one(s) down – for a time. Parents, spouses, siblings; all understand at first. They show compassion and try to provide help. But then, after a week, month or year, their patience runs out. They start wanting you to do something you know you cannot – get better. The fact that mental health, just like physical health, may not be restored with home remedies and illnesses cannot be given time limits to disappear sadly does not seem to register.
To borrow the idea put forth by Lala Tanmoy Das, a medical and doctoral student studying the neurobiology of addiction in New York City, in his 2021 article published in the LA Times, our perception of our family members’ resilience is so strong that it overshadows our comprehension of their suffering. We cannot fathom our fathers, mothers, wives, husbands or children being vulnerable because we have not seen them be vulnerable in the past. We do not realise the intricacies of the things they are going through because we do not see them going through them. We do not understand the wound because we do not see an injury.
And this again circles back to our inability to recognise signs. We have a set picture of mental illness developed mostly from the media. Depression, anxiety, distress: these words are treated as punchlines more than actual medical conditions. Even today, many feel that mental illness only happens to those who have attitudinal problems, who do not socialise, who engage in substance abuse and so on.
But that is not so. Mental illness can affect anyone of any background, gender, social status, ethnicity, religion, etc. Also, while mental illness can occur at any age, according to the American Psychiatric Association, three-fourths of all mental illness begins by age 24.
But the most important thing is that mental illness is just like physical illness and it can be treated with proper help. What we need is recognition, acceptance and patience, especially after this two-and-a-half-year pandemic that hopefully, is now over.