Dr Indla Ramasubba Reddy is director, VIMHANS Hospital, Vijayawada, AP. He was the president of Indian Psychiatric Society and SAARC Psychiatric Federation. Well-known for his extensive work in social psychiatry in Andhra Pradesh, Dr Reddy is a recipient of multiple state government awards.
In a conversation with FM, Dr Reddy discusses mental health during the COVID-19 era as well as other psycho-social aspects of the pandemic, including stigma.
Do you think the mental health aspect of COVID-19 is not being properly addressed in our country, or even globally?
I would say, not fully. Even during normal times, mental health is one of the most neglected subjects in the society, both by the government and by the people. In Coronavirus times, it is much more so. People give a lot of importance to Coronavirus and nobody is bothered about cancer or heart attack or accidents. Now everybody’s concentration and focus are on the virus only. So, mental health, which was already at the bottom of the list, has gone down further.
However, now in COVID times, mental health problems are also increasing. The fear of getting Coronavirus is number one. This fear gets aggravated in people who already have mental health issues. Suicide rates are also high. So, psychological problems are increasing, to some extent, with the pandemic. But mostly, these problems are getting neglected. We, psychiatrists, see our patients coming with more problems now, in addition to existing ones. People are coming with fresh problems too – mostly with the fear of getting Coronavirus.
The mental health aspect is not getting its due share of attention in this present situation because all the resources are focused on preventing the transmission of the virus, nothing else. Mental health has been sidelined to a great extent.
Stigma is a big hurdle in the effort to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you view the situation?
Stigma is there. When somebody gets COVID-19, they naturally take it very seriously. Coronavirus patients are seen as untouchables, at least for some time. People don’t go to them or speak with them. We try to keep a distance from them. This makes the infected person also feel a little unhappy, adding to the individual’s already mounting problems.
What impact does it have on people when even celebrities like Amitabh and Aishwarya Rai get Coronavirus infection? Will it have an impact on the attitude of the people towards the disease?
COVID-19 infection among celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and his family is definitely giving a positive message. The most important message is that the virus can affect anyone. Nobody is immune to it, however big the person is, in spite of the best personal hygiene and the best facilities at home and the best food practices. The virus doesn’t make the distinction of rich or poor, celebrity or layman.
Another message that is going out is, if a person like Amitabh, at the age of nearly 80 and with several comorbidities, can come out of the infection, anybody can recover from it irrespective of their age and health status, and that the fatality rate is very low.
It will instill a type of confidence in people getting affected by the disease. They might think: ‘No problem. I am not going to die’. This helps a lot, because what people require is the confidence and courage to face the Coronavirus infection. Amitabh faced it well without any anxiety or depression. He himself tweeted the news. He never tried to hide it and he recovered well.
Also, anything that comes from a celebrity always gives a very good message to the public. When celebrities like Amitabh or Rajnikanth say something is good, people will accept it automatically. Their message has a definitive psychological effect not only on their fans but also those who are neutral to them.
The stigma gets diluted this way; anybody can get the disease and come out of it.
As a practising psychiatrist, do you see an increase in the number of people seeking psychiatric help these days for COVID-19-related problems?
I do teleconsulting these days. Among the 30 or 40 patients I tele-consult each day, I come across only three or four patients seeking psychiatric help only for COVID-19 related problems. The rest are all my old patients seeking help for their old problems.
Among those people seeking help for COVID, the issues are mainly related to anxieties. The people who come to us are not COVID patients. They come out of the fear of whether they would get COVID in the future. They think that they may get COVID and will die. Real COVID patients come to us only when they have some other psychiatric problems along with the virus.