When discussing mental health, our society often falls back on its favourite archetypes: the impoverished farmer, the dejected student, the troubled celebrity. However, the pandemic has demolished all these myths once and for all. Months after the UN predicted a long-term upsurge in mental health problems, reports indicate a rise in emotional distress across the board in India.

From labourers to salaried employees, the elderly, students, business owners and health workers, no one seems immune to the psychological fallout of the coronavirus. While the government has a big role to play in addressing this upcoming wave, individuals and communities must also pick up the gauntlet.

Recognise the symptoms

While the spectrum of mental illnesses is very broad, depression and anxiety together affected around 9 crore of the nearly 20 crore Indians living with mental disorders in 2017. Hence, in the wake of the pandemic, it is important to keep an eye out for these two disorders.

While depression and anxiety can only be diagnosed by medical experts, there are some ‘typical’ warning signs to watch out for. Depressive disorders are often characterised by concentration or memory trouble, feelings of emptiness or hopelessness, a loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities, thoughts of self-harm and erratic sleep patterns. Anxiety disorders, meanwhile, have symptoms like panic, irritability, hyperventilation, sleeping trouble or concentration issues.

If someone around you repeatedly exhibits these behaviours to the point that it affects their health, personal life or work, offer to assist them in getting professional help. Their well-being might depend on your timely intervention and support.

Be protective of your mental health, and that of others

Different people have different levels of stress tolerance. For some, reading or watching the news might evoke rage or sadness. For others, getting trolled on social media might evoke fear or self-blame. If you are aware of any such triggers that are threatening your mental health, try to distance yourself from the stimulus, at least until you feel ready to deal with it.

Today, many people are spending time offline, turning to meditation and yoga, or simply taking time off from work to care for their mental health. Building better self-care routines like getting enough sleep every night, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping a daily journal, and staying in regular touch with friends and family can also be helpful in safeguarding your emotional health.

If you know anyone living with a mental condition, the best thing you can do is be kind and respect their privacy. If they choose to open up about their disorder, listen without judgement and offer support if you can. Most importantly, don’t try to fix their issues yourself—refer them to an expert who can.

Go beyond hurtful labels and stereotypes

In India, the term ‘lunatic asylum’ was replaced with ‘mental hospital’ in 1920. Yet, a century later, pejoratives like ‘lunatic’ and ‘crazy’ are still used to describe people living with mental disorders. One of the first changes we can make is to shun judgemental words like these, since they can often isolate people and prevent them from seeking the help they need. Similarly, avoid trivialising medical terms like depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), etc. or using them loosely in everyday conversation—being gloomy and being clinically depressed are very different things.

Finally, avoid stereotyping and labelling people. Mental disorders do not discriminate on the basis of age, gender or social status. And when they do occur, they do not define the person’s whole existence. Experts today recommend substituting the phrase ‘mentally ill person’ with ‘person having (or living with) a mental illness’. Not only is the latter a more accurate description, it also stresses that a person is not synonymous with his/her diagnosis.

Open up about mental health

The best way to erase the stigma around mental health is to talk about it openly. This is because having a mental disorder is not the end of the world. With timely and proper treatment, people can live perfectly functional, healthy and happy lives. But for that to happen, we need many more conversations around mental health, especially in the context of the pandemic.

Today, many people are struggling to manage COVID-19’s impact on their health, livelihoods and relationships. It is critical that we shed our inhibitions and talk to our friends, colleagues and family members about our experiences of loneliness, anger, fear or addiction. Sharing personal experiences enables people to draw inspiration and support from a larger group. It is also useful in challenging prevalent stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illnesses.

The World Mental Health Day 2020 is coming up on Oct 10th. We need all of us to do our bit to become a mental health champion, and move the needle on mental health. It was earlier estimated that 1 in 4 people around the world would face mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Now, Covid-19 has upped the stakes. However if individuals and communities seize the initiative instead of just waiting for authorities to act, we can still cushion ourselves from the mental health crisis that looms on the horizon.