Ever since the first case of COVID-19 infection was confirmed in Kashmir, Dr. Iqra Majid, a registrar in Srinagar’s Government Medical College’s microbiology department, began taking medicines like paracetamol and sinarest on a daily basis. 

She feared that she might be exposed to it while collecting swab samples from suspected cases and that the medicines would somehow help. Dr. Majid also read a new research every day, updating precautions she took at home with as and when new information was available. So far, 1,308 people have died due to the coronavirus in Jammu and Kashmir, while more than 80,000 have tested positive.

“I broke down completely once,” said Dr. Majid, adding that months of isolation from her family had made her feel lonely. “I even started praying in the middle of the night for peace and praying to God for my and family’s safety.” 

Eventually, however, the disease caught up with her. Dr. Majid and two of her family members were infected in September. “When we came positive, I couldn’t get rid of the guilt for a good time for infecting my family members,” she said. “I was the one who had come into contact with a positive patient at the hospital.”

In the same boat

The job has taken a toll on Dr. Majid’s mental health, who continues to hold herself responsible for infecting her family members.

But Dr. Majid is not alone. For the past eight months, doctors across Kashmir–working day in and day out–have been experiencing psychological issues such as anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, stress etcetera, as per experts.

“I broke down multiple times in the last seven months,” said Dr. Khawar Khan, 32, who is posted at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar.

Dr. Khan’s friends at the hospital told him that they hear ambulance sirens, the constant beeping of the monitors, and the noise of the hospital that they are habitual to.

While everybody else was asked to stay home, doctors couldn’t afford it. “It’s difficult to experience the fear that you might get infected in the hospital, your family might get infected in your presence,” said Dr. Khan.

Dr. Khan has been living in accommodation provided by the hospital. “Staying away from my family, at this point in time, when I am emotionally vulnerable and I need the support of my family is hard,” said Dr. Khan.

To deal with the stress, Dr. Khan confides in his fiance, a psychologist, and his friend and brother-in-law, both psychiatrists. 

Another doctor at the SMHS, Dr. Irtifa Kanth said that his colleagues get nightmares and he has himself become short-tempered. “My family says that my behavior has become more aggressive and intolerant towards them,” he said.

Dr. Kanth, too, lived away from his family —  for the past two months that he has been working in the SMHS hospital’s COVID-19 ward — in an accommodation provided by the government.

“Even if I visited my home, it was only from outside just to wave at my family and see them once,” said Dr. Kanth, adding how sad the past few months, away from his family, have been for him.

Dr. Kanth said that the helplessness that doctors feel in cases of severe COVID-19 infections, a sense of inferiority was creeping among the doctors. “I feel helpless sometimes,” he said. “We are doing our best; the institution is doing its best. We are doing whatever we can. We are dealing with the virus with whatever we have.”

Stressed and guilt-ridden 

A survey conducted by the British Medical Association showed that while a number of British physicians had previously suffered from depression, anxiety, stress, or other mental health issues, these problems intensified during the pandemic.

Ufra Mir, a peace psychologist has been voluntarily providing support to over fifteen doctors during the pandemic. Many of them, she said, were troubled because of staying away from their children.

“There is actually a lot of stress among doctors. Doctors have a responsibility of saving lives and when they are not able to do that, it puts them into guilt,” said Ms. Ufra.

However, Ms. Ufra believes that it’s still very difficult to help doctors emotionally as they believe that they don’t have safe spaces to express themselves right now. “I think a lot of doctors may start having PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, panic attacks,” she said.

“Life is not normal” 

From washing her hands many times a day to constantly using sanitizer to reassuring herself that everything is fine, Ms. Majid’s life has changed; it has become “not normal”, she remarked. 

Dr. Sabreena Qadri, a lecturer at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), said, “The fear of contracting the illness, the guilt of being responsible for infecting a family member, and helplessness in the absence of treatment as there is yet not a very clear understanding of the pandemic, have been degrading the mental health of doctors.”

Dr. Qadri believes that doctors’ fears and anxieties have reduced as the realization that the pandemic is here to stay has set in. “Neither I am living now [because of paranoia and fear] nor am I letting my family live in peace and I don’t know how long this is going to work like that,” said. Dr. Majid.

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