COVID-19 and Psychological Side Effects


Donna Vino Theeyatt

The effects of COVID-19 have been multi-faceted – the impacts on mankind have been profound – be it economic, health, social etc. There are considerable psychological influences related to all these. Registered Psychologist Donna Theeyatt spoke to Keralanaadam Sub-Editor Avanish Panikkar, on various points relevant to the impact of this pandemic.

  1. There is an uncertainty about the future that is affecting humanity in general, due to the fact that this pandemic is unprecedented and no one is able to predict when and how this disaster will come to an end. What are the present and possible future psychological repercussions of this on Indians living in Australia?

Year 2020 has changed our lives as we knew it and the change will continue for the foreseeable future. It is impossible for any of us to be untouched directly or indirectly by this global crisis. Psychologically then, every individual is faced with the challenge of making sense of these changes and its effects. Experts in crisis-management strongly agree that uncertainty is the biggest psychological challenge individuals, couples, and families face during the pandemic. We need to reflect on how to live functionally despite ambiguity and this shapes each individual’s journey during this time.

How will the individual manage self, keep responding to the changes and challenges here in Australia while also trying to reach out to their loved ones in other parts of the world? It is very important to acknowledge the complexity of the problems, especially among migrants, posed by this pandemic. To reconcile with the fact that there are no straight forward answers to many of the critical situations and questions we are facing, is distressing.

Flexible and creative thinking prepares people to respond to new information and shifting challenges. How can we allow our dear ones to feel emotionally safe with us to discuss different perspectives, feelings and needs? When people agree to listen to and respect each other’s views in such uncertain times, we can cope better.

We want to avoid brooding over or bottling up unpleasant thoughts and feelings which can lead to higher incidence of anxiety and depressive symptoms. I would caution against both pressurizing oneself to be unrealistically positive or sinking into a state of helplessness. Balanced thinking involves reflecting on what is possible for you at this point of time, acknowledging what is within your control, where you would mindfully devote your time and energy, have a firm resolve that you will get through this and the hope that the world will heal from the pandemic of 2020.

Whether we like it or not, this pandemic has become a part of our life story and you can still decide what the narrative is going to be for you in the future. It is encouraging to see some positive outcomes also for many of my clients due to this pandemic. Many have utilized this time to reflect upon what is really important to them, what they need to let go and find renewed energy towards change and opportunities.

  1. Many businesses have had to close and this has affected the livelihood and employability of migrants. Those on work visa, those on low wages and those who send money to their family overseas etc. will be impacted severely. Can you please assess this among Indian migrants in Australia and what can be done about it, if anything?

There is no doubt that the economy has been impacted globally with this crisis and has caused financial stress to individuals and families. Unexpected financial pressures do put an individual’s resourcefulness to test. Though financial burdens are not considered life threatening, it can compromise our physical and mental health. While the pandemic is posing risks to our existence, financial stressors affect how we exist. 

It is important to work through financial stressors using higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, analytical thinking, problem solving, decision making and mindfully reducing the stress responses of fight/ flight/ freeze/faint. We want to be willing to compromise, be open to asking and receiving assistance and focus on turning an adversity into an opportunity. People overcome situational stressors much better when they know they have support especially from family and friends. It is important to have open discussions with family members to deal with the unpleasant consequences when one cannot fulfill financial obligations for family members overseas. If we are able to be less judgmental and more empathic towards self and others in our community, it would improve the coping capacity of individuals.

  1. Is there an increase in cases of domestic violence during this pandemic? If so, what could be the reasons?

During this pandemic, the public health message has been to stop the spread by staying home where you can. But what happens when one’s home is not a safe place? What happens when we are expected to seek solace in the certainty of our homes to get through the uncertainty of a pandemic; but for many among us, the home environment poses greater risk to physical, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual safety?

Initial reports from emergency services and welfare organisations indicate a steep increase in the rates of domestic violence incidents. These include first time incidents as well as increase in the severity of ongoing violent behaviours during the last few months.

In the midst of a global uncertainty, several unhelpful aspects about individuals might show up more than usual:

-One’s lack of self-awareness

-Poor self-regulation, low frustration-tolerance and unhealthy coping mechanisms

-Being forced into confined space for lengthy periods of time (lockdown)

-Unhelpful patterns of conflict management

-Power imbalance and lack of trust in relationships

-Gender inequality and stereotypes

-Self-medication with substance abuse 

-Sense of hopelessness and helplessness would have all contributed to the concerning rates of domestic violence in our community.

We have to take into account that domestic violence remains hidden among many migrant communities due to shame and guilt which isolates the individual further while experiencing trauma. There is greater risk of normalising coercive control in intimate relationships among the migrant communities.

It is okay to reach out to someone if you feel your home environment isn’t okay. That someone could be a family member, friend, neighbour, work colleague and/or medical/mental health professionals. Most individuals worry about being dismissed, ignored or judged if they share their experience. So, be fully present with that individual reaching out to you.

Q. Is there an increase in the consumption of alcohol during this period and what are its physical, financial and psychological effects on individuals and families?

Society tends to view the consumption of alcohol as an acceptable form of substance use compared to other non-prescription drugs. Social gatherings and festive events are often characterised by the normalised use of alcohol. However, alcohol as an addictive substance builds a tolerance level in our body.

Due to socially accepted nature of alcohol, many individuals use alcohol as 

-an escape/coping mechanism (eg “I need a drink, today was a hard day”)

-a ritual to “unwind” at the end of the day (eg “I deserve a drink after all that I did today”)

-a way of connecting (eg “I need a drink to lighten up”)

-an excuse to violent outbursts and coercive control in relationships (eg “You know I don’t mean it when I am drunk”)

 -a way of numbing all kinds of pain that come with human existence (eg. “What is the point, nothing will change anyway”)

Alcohol consumption tends to increase among habitual users of alcohol when there is an increase in stressors but the substance use often makes things worse for the individual as they have to deal with further impacts on their finances, relationships, health and work. Individuals’ lack of awareness and limited skills to use healthier forms of coping during stressful times creates a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

By staying home more during this pandemic, it has become easier to consume alcohol through the day without having to follow rules and regulations of a formal work environment. Popular trends of online shopping and home delivery options for alcohol have made it harder to delay/resist the urges.

If you notice that alcohol has been your main coping mechanism during this trying time, then it may be an opportunity to work on healthier options. Seek feedback from family members and close contacts to evaluate whether alcohol use is becoming an issue in your life. Seeking external support needs to be looked at as someone getting better and minimising judgement on self and others.

Q. Relatives of elderly people in aged care homes not able to visit their loved ones regularly as they used to in the past – what are the resulting psychological impacts?

While the restrictions are in place in order to protect the vulnerable elderly population in our society physically from the virus, it has increased the risks of mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It would be harder for the elderly to cope with feelings of isolation, disconnection and disruption of their routines including visits from their loved ones. Families are left to deal with feelings of guilt, shame and helplessness at not being able to show the care and love they have for their elders. 

Victor Frankl, author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, once said, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning”. Individuals are faced with the challenge of finding ways to take action that will give them a sense of meaning or purpose while dealing with heavy emotions like guilt and shame. 

Visiting the elderly might need to look different at this point of time but very important to be empathic and engage in conversations about how they are coping. It is important to help them overcome the fear of technology with patience and understanding, to maintain a sense of hope in the midst of their pain.

We need to remember that making an attempt to connect can still be meaningful. With restrictions easing further, there might be more opportunities to visit. When we truly care, there is always a way to show you care by doing what we can (eg. writing letters, sending photos).

Q. Could you please discuss the psychological impacts on young families living in Australia not able to visit their (elderly) parents overseas when they are sick or even when they pass away, due to international air travel restrictions?

At the time of writing, Australia can count itself as one of the fortunate countries globally with low rates of COVID 19 infection and a greater return to normalcy with restrictions. As ‘survivors’, we are continuing with our lives in our homes and communities as the crisis continues to unfold elsewhere and we don’t have the full picture of the impacts yet. Currently, the rate of infections in India is increasing and our loved ones face the threat of becoming infected and even dying.

We cannot simplify the multifaceted issues individuals and families are facing now, like

-Ensuring one’s own survival

-Ensuring safety of family in Australia and overseas while continuing with life as close to normal as possible

-Supporting elderly parents while unable to physically be there with them

-The unknown future about International travel

-Loss of loved ones due to COVID 19 or other reasons

-Unable to grieve the loss by partaking in funeral and other cultural mourning practices

The pandemic has changed the norm for migrant families in relation to visits to India, grieving and spending time with parents in India. One can expect to feel a range of unpleasant emotions like sadness, guilt, shame, helplessness and anxiety in the current situation.

Each individual’s situation is going to vary and is important to have the community around you. When one can acknowledge how much is out of our control at any given point, it reduces the expectations of mastery in problem-solving and to be kinder and more compassionate towards self and others. It is important to be hopeful about the future whether it means we can return to the ‘normal’ or we will have a ‘newly created normal’ as a result of this pandemic.

Have open discussions about your thoughts and feelings with people around you and in India and be there for each other in distressing moments. It is highly recommended to seek professional support to process the grief of loved ones. It would be helpful to find culturally meaningful ways to grieve with the community around you.

Q. Being a small community, Malayalis have relied on social festivities organised by local associations for large community gatherings and stage programs for their kids to showcase their talent. This has all but disappeared for this year, are there any psychological or social impacts from this and how has online events via Zoom and FaceBook live helped? What could be improved?

The pandemic brought upon all of us multiple layers of change by quickly ushering us into spaces which were unprecedented, challenging and even distressing. It has heightened our awareness of the lack of control we have in our lives. We try to make our life as predictable as possible to maintain a sense of control over it. We have had to tap into our internal resourcefulness and rely on safe connections to keep going. Local associations bringing the community together through social or festive events and stage programs are ways for individuals to stay connected and celebrate the rich cultural heritage we share.

How can we continue to stay connected in a culturally attuned way until such time that it will be okay for us to come together as a large gathering? More than ever, we need the sense of community around us as it will reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness during these distressing times. Certainly, technology is facilitating the level of connectivity and we need to continue working on more creative ways of celebrating our culture and values we hold dear. The pandemic has highlighted the enabling aspects of technology even though it has some very serious disabling aspects too.


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