What Happens Within: Will ‘Eastern resilience’ help in coping with the psychological impact of Covid-19

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Bhavna Patel and her daughter Bindiya Patel, who are due to fly to New York to reunite with family following the relaxing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) travel restrictions, pose at their home in Croydon, Britain, November 5, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

That dealing with Covid-19 has left lasting impact on everyone all over the world is common knowledge now. Most of us have known feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, irritability and impatience in the last two years.

The year 2021 saw an increased need for help with mental health issues among the South Asian community. People who did not have any prior history of having any such need also reached out and sought professional help. According to Reshma Shah, LCSWR, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York, eighty percent of her clients seeking help for mental health were South Asians. Of that, the largest group was of ages 18 to 35. The second largest group was that of people above 45 years.

We have been made aware of what mental health issues would surface during the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control (cdc) noted increased mental health outcomes among young people, ethnic minorities, essential workers and caregivers, which include headaches, body pains, stomach problems, skin rashes, changes in appetite, and substance abuse. The American Psychological Association (APA) mentions anxiety, excessive worry, restlessness, irritability, sleep problems, panic attack, depression, lack of interest in daily activities, lack of energy, and feelings of guilt. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have published a number of research papers about the psychological impact of Covid-19. One of the research papers by Passavanti, Argentieri, Wijayaratna, et al, also mentions noticing increased levels of stress and anxiety among their 1612 study subjects  distributed in Australia, China, Ecuador, Iran, Italy, Norway and the United States, along with the risks of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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Government and private agencies mention simple ways to deal with some of the symptoms, chief among which are practicing self-care and helping others to prevent them having long term mental health impact. New York City’s Government site also lists similar symptoms and suggests ways to deal with them. The basic advice on their site, among other things, is for people to maintain daily routines and focus on them, and to stay connected with supportive people and communities. It also advises people to speak with a trained professional for help and referrals.

The symptoms are no different among the Indian Americans and other South Asians. However, there are added impacts on the first generation immigrants who have families they left behind in India. Worrying about them constantly and feeling irritated at the masses in India who ignored the pandemic and went on with their lives without wearing masks or maintaining social distancing have been reported as very common feelings.

The SACSS, along with the office of NY Councilman Peter Koo has organized a panel discussion on mental health June 3, 2021 entitled “Anguished From Afar” with experts, to help relatives of those from the South Asian Subcontinent. Photo: Facebook SACSS

ANXIETY. Increased anxiety was one of the main stressors that most people mentioned, according to Shah. In an exclusive interview with News India Times, Shah said many people reported a feeling of constant worry, inability to stop their thought processes, a fear of future – this especially in the beginning of the year 2021. People were scared to go out, and socialize. “If they tried socializing, ten minutes into the event, they would start worrying, feel scared and leave. And, these were people who had no prior history of any fear syndrome,” Shah said. Shah said anxiety was also reported by her teenage clients.

The Patel family is pictured at their home in Long Island, N.Y. From left to right: Tejas, Sonali, Suri, Shivani and Vihas, holding Roshan. The parents, both doctors, work long hours caring for covid-19 patients. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Celeste Sloman for Th

BEREAVEMENT. Bereavement related guilt was another specific symptom among South Asians noticed by Mental Health Consultants, according to Shah. “Not only was there guilt about parents dying in India, but there was secondary guilt related to it,” Shah said. In the beginning of last year, people still could not travel to India. “When their parents died in India, there was the general feeling of loss, combined with unexpressed guilt that they could not do anything,” Shah said, adding, “There was a lot of sadness”. Shah said children of the families called her for help for their parents.

MARITAL CONFLICTS. An added psychological impact for the Indian Americans  and other South Asians was domestic conflict in their majorly patriarchal families with traditionally defined female roles.

Shah said she and her professional colleagues saw an increased need for marriage counseling.  “Most of the clients seeking help reported problems arising from working at home together,” Shah said. “When clients called for services they mentioned a lot of arguments,” Shah recalled. “Being at home made it difficult to resolve these arguments,” she said. Shah said her colleagues also mentioned an increase in domestic violence in the South Asian community.

India Community Center in Milpitas, California, which also has other enters in Cupertino and elsewhere, started four-hour Zoom programs for seniors from early March. (Photo: courtesy ICC)

SENIORS. An unusual occurrence for the Indian Americans was that of many seniors seeking help. According to Shah, many seniors have not been able to go to home in the last two years, leading to problems which they did not have earlier. “Seniors had sadness at having lost friends, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and other such issues they reported,” Shah said. Shah said seniors became a large responsive group for anxiety counseling.

Many non-profit organizations have been providing specialized services for the South Asian seniors, chief among which, in New York, are the Premier Adult Daycare, India Home and South Asian Council for Social Services, all of which have been reaching out to the seniors and holding wellness and support workshops.

Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic. Photo by: Harper – handout via The Washington Post service

“These workshops on Anxiety, Depression and Coping Skills were very well received by the senior South Asian community,” Shah said, adding that a lot of seniors participated in the Zoom workshops. “I noticed that our seniors were actually talking, asking many questions and sharing personal problems, such as not being able to sleep, in front of a group of people,” Shah said. “It is remarkable that South Asians are becoming aware of mental wellness, that mental health is important. There are many who are still not coming out, but the stigma attached to mental health is reducing,” Shah said. “People are realizing that help is available, and culture sensitive help,” Shah added.

ADJUSTMENT PROBLEMS. Shah said she feels that the new year, 2022, is not going to be easy in general and more so for the South Asians. In her opinion, 2022 will have adjustment issues related to the transitioning back to the earlier way of life. “There will definitely be need for help with the adjustment issues,” she said. “However, there is more openness to seeking help,” she said. She explained that corporate offices have a lot of South Asian employees who will need culture specific help with coping with the adjustments required. “I try to assure them that these are not permanent issues, that these are short term, solution focused therapies with a goal of acquiring coping skills,” Shah added.

High profile attendees were at the ribbon-cutting event Aug. 12, 2021, to inaugurate the new Community Center of the South Asian Council for Social Services. From left, New York State Assemblymember Nily Rozic, NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm, New York State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, NYC Council Member Peter Koo, New York State Senator John Liu, SACSS Executive Director Sudha Acharya, Congress Person Grace Meng and, New York City Council Member Barry Grodenchik inaugurating SACSS’ new Community Center. Also seen (second row left to right) SACSS Board of directors -Mysore Gandhi (board secretary), Swarna Shah (board treasurer), Devi Ramchandran (board vice-president) and Rekha Gupta (board president). Photo: courtesy SACSS

EASTERN RESILIENCE. Indian philosophy has a built-in response to calamities and hardships. A lot of South Asians believe in the Karma theory or Destiny, and thus are able to survive, withhold hardships with a philosophical approach, and bounce back. South Asians are culturally trained to seek internal help, help from within, through prayers, through spiritual discourses and readings, and through sheer perseverance. There has been enough proof in the social science of psychology that religion helps cope with life stresses.

Indian Americans seem to have utilized this aspect thoroughly during the pandemic. A lot of people have formed individual groups when they pray together or listen to discourses together. A lot of such groups have been attending the Chinmay Mission discourses and prayers, while others have been listening to uplifting talks by Sister Shivani of the Raj Yoga Center. There have been noticeable advantages gained from watching video discourses of Sister Shivani, as reported by many who all seem visibly calmer and more grounded.

Seeking help outside of one’s self is partly the result of acculturation, many feel. And so, therapy for Indian Americans would need to include a reminder of their inner strength, their inherent ability to rely on forces bigger than the calamity. Shah corroborated this. “People who come to me for treatment receive a fusion of both treatments,” she said. “We weave in our spirituality and religiosity into the therapy. We combine yoga, spiritual talk, and science,” Shah said who recently did a workshop along with Sunita Singh, who taught Pranic Healing techniques which were very well received. “I give examples from our cultural background, and combine what we have in our culture with what we can add technologically,” Shah said. “Religion has all the counseling solutions built into it. The mind-body-soul alignment is basic to Hinduism and that is why we emphasize yoga and meditation,” Shah said.

Thus, the prognosis is much better for our mental health going forward into 2022. In 2021, not many were mentally prepared for the changes to their lives. In 2022, we stand at a different point in this ongoing test of our personalities. Knowing that help is available in the form of a professionally trained expert who also understands your lifestyle and your culture and traditions and belief systems will prove to be very helpful through the remaining and upcoming mental health issues.

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