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COVID Creates Hunger Crisis in India

As the COVD-19 tsunami began its global spread, it exacerbated crises that were already taking a toll of vulnerable populations across the world.

In India the pandemic triggered a domestic migrant worker disaster. In Yemen it threatened a death toll far worse than the one inflicted by civil war.  And in Central America, where farming was destroyed by years of extreme climate events, the pandemic wrecked food security for 1.7 million people, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

“COVID is making the poorest of the world poorer and the hungriest hungrier,” said Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP, at an ethnic media press briefing on February 26 to discuss the fallout from the pandemic. Advocates warned that a coronavirus-induced global famine loomed for millions.

“270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation need our help today more than ever,”  WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley, told the UN Security Council last year. “Famine is literally on the horizon.”

The pandemic has inflicted its heaviest toll on poorer communities in the developing world, exposing the inequities driven by poverty and economic inequality that plague marginalized populations.

In India nearly 1 in 3 people face moderate or severe food insecurity, said Parul Sachdeva, India Country Representative for Give2Asia, a non-profit that supports charities in the Asia Pacific. India has the distinction of being the country with the largest number of food insecure people, and accounts for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity. When the pandemic hit, people were already struggling with poverty and socio-economic crises that gave them less food to eat. The lockdown that followed disrupted both the harvest and the food supply chain. More than a hundred million people and their incomes were affected by the inability to harvest crops in time.

When India enforced a shutdown to stop the coronavirus spread, it forced tens of thousands of migrant workers to make the long trek back to their villages after they lost jobs and wages. Without ration cards or money to buy food, the disruption to food chains put thousands at risk of hunger, leaving them to rely on NGOs and charitable civic organizations like Akshaya Patra, rather than the government, to provide food aid.

In a double whammy, the pandemic lockdown that increased food insecurity also fueled gender-based violence (GBV).

During lockdown, reported cases of gender-based violence more than doubled during the pandemic, said Aradhana Srivastava, of WFP’s India office. “The extent of suffering is actually much larger than what is being seen.” Research shows that domestic violence closely correlates with income levels, said Srivastava, and GBV is higher among lower-income households and food-insecure families. Increased food insecurity causes mental stress in households and triggers domestic violence towards women. “The increased incidence of domestic violence is linked to loss of livelihoods, loss of access to food — so there is a direct bearing.”

Since 2014, prolonged drought and excessive hurricanes in Central America have destroyed staple crops. But severe climate events and poverty – the key causes of food insecurity – have worsened with the pandemic. “The face of hunger In Central America has changed,” stated Elio Rujano, a Communications Officer for the World Food program. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, food insecurity has now spread from rural communities into urban areas. COVID lockdowns have taken away income from daily wage earners – 50% of the economy depends on informal labor – which has made it harder for people to meet basic needs like food.

Six years of conflict inYemen has ripped apart the country’s infrastructure and fragile heath system, displacing almost 4 million of its 30 million inhabitants. Conflict has become the main driver of hunger, as food prices skyrocket, and frontlines move. With COVID and the ensuing lockdown, the hunger situation hit new peak in Yemen. WFP forecasts a severe risk of famine and acute malnutrition in 2021 for 2 million children aged 1 to 5, which will have severe long term impact felt by “generations to come.” But famine has not been declared in Yemen even though “people are dying of hunger,” said Annabel Symington – Head of Communications for the WFP in Yemen, calling for funds to mount programs and interventions. “The time to act is now.”

The WFP feeds 100 million in 88 countries every year divided between 3 initiatives:1.Natural disasters, typhoon, cyclones, 2. Conflicts, and 3. Ongoing non-emergency aid such as school meals, pregnant women new mother nutrition, community help, and small farmers. In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger.

“We provide basics for sustainability till long term solutions can be developed,” said Taravella.  For years the WFP “chipped away” effectively at hunger rates. But conflict, climate and COVID-19 are causing  humanitarian crises of catastrophic proportions, making it impossible for people to access food. Before COVID-19 there were about 135 million hungry people in the world. Today nearly 690 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. WFP projects they need $13.5 billion to bridge the gaps in their budget.

According to Taravella, a small group of 2200 billionaires hold about $8 trillion in global wealth. They could help to overturn the tidal wave of food insecurity washing over the world’s poor.

“We are making an appeal to the world’s exceptionally wealthy people to help us close that gap,” he added.

To donate

https://secure.wfpusa.org/donate/save-lives-giving-food-today-donate-now-7?ms=2000_UNR_wfp_redirect_EX&redirected=UShttps://secure.wfpusa.org/donate/save-lives-giving-food-today-donate-now-7?ms=2000_UNR_wfp_redirect_EX&redirected=US

https://sharethemeal.org/en/index.html


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Image by billy cedeno from Pixabay

College Tuition Sparked a Mental Health Crisis

Then the Hefty Hospital Bill Arrived!

Despite a lifelong struggle with panic attacks, Divya Singh made a brave move across the world last fall from her home in Mumbai, India. She enrolled at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, to study physics and explore an interest in standup comedy in Manhattan.

Arriving in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and isolated in her dorm room, Singh’s anxiety ballooned when her family had trouble coming up with the money for a $16,000 tuition installment. Hofstra warned her she would have to vacate the dorm after the term ended if she was not paid up. At one point, she ran into obstacles transferring money onto her campus meal card.

“I’m a literally broke college student that didn’t have money for food,” she recalled. “At that moment of panic, I didn’t want to do anything or leave my bed.”

In late October, she called the campus counseling center hotline and met with a psychologist. “All I wanted was someone to listen to me and validate the fact that I wasn’t going crazy,” she said.

Instead, when she mentioned suicidal thoughts, the psychologist insisted on a psychiatric evaluation. Singh was taken by ambulance to Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, and kept for a week on a psychiatric ward at nearby Zucker Hillside Hospital. Both are part of the Northwell Health system.

The experience — lots of time alone and a few therapy sessions — was of minimal benefit psychologically, she said. Singh emerged facing the same tuition debt as before.

And then another bill came.

The Patient: Divya Singh, a 20-year-old student at Hofstra University.

Medical Service: Seven-day inpatient psychiatric stay at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.

Service Provider: Northwell Health, a large nonprofit hospital system in New York City and Long Island.

Total Bill: Northwell charged $50,282, which Singh’s insurer, Aetna, reduced to $17,066 under its contract with Northwell. The plan required Singh to pay $3,413.20 of that.

What Gives: Singh had purchased her Aetna insurance plan through Hofstra, paying $1,107 for the fall term. Aetna markets the plan specifically for students. Under its terms, students can be on the hook for up to $7,350 of the costs of medical care during a year, according to plan documents. Singh’s Northwell bill of around $3,413 is the plan’s requirement that she pay for 20% of the costs of her hospital stay.

Although such coinsurance requirements are common in American health plans, they can be financially overwhelming for students with no income and families whose finances are already under the extreme stress of high tuition. Singh’s Hofstra bill for the academic year, including room and board and ancillary fees, totaled $68,275.

As a result, Singh found herself beset by a double whammy of bills from two of the costliest kinds of institutions in America — colleges and hospitals — both with prices that inexorably rise faster than inflation.

Divya Singh, a student at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, sought counseling help after feeling panicked when she had trouble paying a big tuition bill. A weeklong stay in a psychiatric hospital followedalong with a $3,413 bill. (Jackie Molloy for KHN)

For hospitals, there is supposed to be a relief valve. The Internal Revenue Service requires all nonprofit hospitals to have a financial assistance policy that lowers or eliminates bills for people without the financial resources to pay them. Such financial assistance — commonly known as charity care — is a condition for hospitals to maintain their tax-exempt status, shielding them from having to pay property taxes on often expansive campuses.

Northwell’s financial assistance policy limits the hospital from charging more than $150 for individuals who earn $12,880 a year or less. It offers discounts on a sliding scale for individuals earning up to $64,400 a year, although people with savings or other “available assets” above $10,000 might get less or not qualify.

The IRS requires hospitals to “widely publicize” the availability of financial assistance, inform all patients about how they can obtain it and include “a conspicuous written notice” on billing statements.

While the bill Northwell sent Singh includes a reference to “financial difficulties” and a phone number to call, it did not explicitly state that the hospital might reduce or waive the bill. Instead, the letter obliquely said “we can assist you in making budget payment arrangements” — a phrase that conjures installment payments rather than debt relief.

Resolution: In a written statement, Northwell said that although “all eligible patients are offered generous financial payment options … it is not required that providers list the options on the bill.” Northwell stated: “If a patient calls the number provided and expresses financial hardship, the patient is assisted with a financial need application.” However, Northwell lamented, “unfortunately, many patients do not call.”

Indeed, a KHN investigation in 2019 found that, nationwide, 45% of nonprofit hospital organizations were routinely sending medical bills to patients whose incomes were low enough to qualify for charity care. Those bills, which totaled $2.7 billion, were most likely an undercount since they included only the debt hospitals had given up trying to collect.

Singh said the worker who took down her insurance information during her hospital stay never explained that Northwell might reduce her portion of the charge. She said she didn’t realize that was a possibility from the language in the bill they sent.

Northwell said in a statement that after KHN contacted it about Singh’s case, Northwell dispatched a caseworker to contact her. Singh said the caseworker helped Singh enroll in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. Foreign students are not generally eligible for Medicaid, but in New York they can get coverage for emergency services. With the addition of Medicaid’s coverage, Singh should end up paying nothing if the stay is retroactively approved, Northwell said.

At the same time the caseworker was helping Singh, Singh received a “final reminder” letter from Northwell about her bill. That letter also mentioned Northwell’s financial assistance, but only within the context of people who completely lack health insurance.

“Send payment or contact us within 21 days to avoid further collection activity,” the letter said.

The Takeaway: Despite stricter requirements from the Affordable Care Act and the IRS to make nonprofit hospitals proactively educate patients about the various forms of financial relief they offer, the onus still remains on patients. If you have trouble paying a bill, call the hospital and ask for a copy of its financial assistance policy and the application to request your bill be discounted or excused.

Be aware that hospitals generally require proof of your financial circumstances such as pay stubs or unemployment checks. Even if you have health insurance that covers much of your medical bill, you may still be eligible to have your bill lowered or get on a government insurance program like Medicaid.

You can also find documentation online: All nonprofit hospitals are required to post financial assistance policies on their websites. They must provide summaries written in plain language and versions translated into foreign languages spoken by significant portions of their communities. Be aware that financial assistance is distinct from paying your full debt off in installments, which is what hospitals sometimes first propose.

Although the IRS rules don’t govern for-profit hospitals, many of those also offer concessions for people with proven financial hardship. The criteria and generosity of charity care vary among hospitals, but many give breaks to families with middle-class incomes: Northwell’s policy, for instance, extends to families of four earning $132,500 a year.

Singh’s family has paid off her fall tuition and half of her spring tuition so far. She still owes $16,565.

Singh said the back and forth over her hospital bill continues to cause anxiety. “The treatment I got in the hospital, after I’ve gotten out, it hasn’t helped,” she said. “I have nightmares about that place.” The biggest benefit of her week there, she said, was bonding with the other patients “because they were also miserable with the way they were being treated.”


Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Sachin Helps Homeless by Stepping “In Their Shoes”

Sachin Radhakrishnan, the co-founder of the San Jose non-profit  In Their Shoes was recently honored by  AACI (Asian Americans for Community Involvement) for his work with the homeless population.  “Through his work, Sachin reminds us that our actions speak volumes. His many accomplishments are a shining example that any ordinary person, like you and I, can change lives.”  A high honor indeed for this self-effacing young man but when you read his journey of how he got to this point, you will not be surprised.

When Sachin was in college during the economic downturn of 2009, he was aghast that “the first thing that our state cut was colleges, community colleges.”  It became an issue because he and his fellow students could not get their required classes.  So, he fell into community organizing and started lobbying with professors in Sacramento to effect change.  He switched his major from engineering to politics because “I wanted to get into and learn as much as I could about how do you solve a problem.” The rest as they say is history.

After college, Sachin was working in City Hall in San Jose, when homelessness was becoming a challenging issue. In December 2014, the city decided to dismantle San Jose’s massive homeless encampment known as “The Jungle” which set off a chain reaction.  This encampment was thought to be the largest of its kind in the US.  Many people had been living there for almost 20 years and had built waterproof but non-traditional homes for themselves. While the city found other housing for some residents, many others were left with few viable options when their encampment was dismantled.  Sachin started fielding calls from city residents when homeless people started moving into their neighborhoods.  

Sachin realized really quickly the ramifications of the city’s actions.  Instead of solving the problem of homelessness, their policies were only moving it around.  “Just imagine your state of mind when you’re constantly being moved around.  You feel like you’re breaking no law, but you’re just poor. You have no control, you lose your medication, you lose your identification. So, I started learning like that.”

Homelessness is not just a humanitarian issue for Sachin, but a deeply personal one.  A close friend suffered from mental illness and was homeless himself.  “His family did not know how to deal with that. And so, my friend was homeless just because relationship-wise, he was not doing a great job of respecting his parents. And at the same time, his parents didn’t really know how to talk to him.” 

Sachin tried to make sense of his friend’s struggles, “Because he had money, his parents had money, but how does he end up homeless?  And, he is intelligent and he has a lot of stuff going for him. How does he end up homeless?”

It has been a long journey but this story has a happy ending because his friend is now in the army and is doing well and. But that experience had a profound effect on Sachin and helped him better understand this complex issue.

Sachin and his friend Jamie Foberg had long conversations about homelessness and came to the conclusion that one of the key components that most of us take for granted – strong interpersonal relationships are completely missing for the homeless.  They co-founded In Their Shoes to do just that – be a buddy and support the homeless. “To be one positive relationship that hopefully would spark other relationships. Maybe it would get them to heal relationships they had burned in the past. Because if they keep the relationship good with us, we’ll continue to help them. We advocate for them. We’ve been to the hospitals advocating for people, we’ve gotten people back on the list for housing.”

It started very organically for Sachin and Jamie. They would befriend the homeless in San Jose by bringing socks, water etc and start a conversation with them.  They built relationships with them.  They did not even pretend to have any understanding of their situation but just try to “step into their shoes” to really understand what their life is like and what they are dealing with.  

Sachin recognizes that his unique background at City Hall helps him see the issues from both sides.  One of the biggest aha moments for him was when he realized that the government can try to solve the cases while blaming homeless people for drug use etc, but “when you are working for the government, you should see the effect of your own policies.” 

“Jamie and I, we would go and help people. When the city came in and kicked them out, they would lose their phones. It wouldn’t be so hard to find that same person who maybe we have a bed for at the shelter.  The city needs to understand that you’re making social work harder.” 

One of the myths of homelessness is that drug users end up on the street, but the fact is that people who end up homeless, often resort to drugs as a way to cope with their feelings of despair and hopelessness.

As inequality grows in our society, people are actually becoming homeless faster than before.  Silicon Valley is the poster child for this problem but the right to a secure home is a universal right under international human rights law. Sachin is not the lone voice who thinks the policies guiding homelessness nationwide lack empathy and actually criminalize it.  A United Nations expert on housing has called the Bay Area’s treatment of the homeless “cruel and inhuman”.  

Sachin believes that “ it would be great if we could focus on that housing part, but at the same time, stop kicking people around. You know, I can’t imagine someone’s mental health after a year of being homeless.  I’m actually so surprised when I see people happy in the streets, they have some sense of pride, they still have hope. I don’t know how they have it. They’ve been kicked out so many times.”   But when they are moved around so much, they lose that pride, security and sense of self and that leads them down a spiral.  

Today at the Bill Wison Center, Sachin is doing outreach and case management for youth and loves being a part of this endeavour.  He plans to go back to graduate school for business, concentrating on finance.  He has seen first hand the effects of not understanding basic finance and learning to budget. “You’re easy prey to other people that may understand it. If people just even know a little bit, they may be able to stop the cycle of poverty.”

When I asked Sachin what we could do as a community to better understand the problem and be a part of the solution, he shared this point of view. 

 “So much of our culture is philanthropic and service . But there’s also another side of it that is very, very callous. Really disrespectful to people and their experiences. And yeah, that’s something in our society that we need to really think about, on how we talk about others. How we may even perpetuate certain stereotypes.” 

He also urges all of us to get rid of the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality.  Sachin would like us to get  involved in our community and be a proponent for solutions for low income and subsidized housing.  There are many reasons people become homeless. Being empathetic and trying to understand them instead of criminalizing and stigmatizing them would be a start.  

Changemakers: Individuals making a difference in all walks of life

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor, India Currents

 

 

Sushant Singh Rajput Jolts Global Mental Health Dialogues

Trigger warning regarding mental health and suicide.

Sushant Singh Rajput, Disha Salian, Sudha Devi lost to mental health

Mental health has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Headlines relating to suicide have sent shock waves through the community. A successful tinsel star, Sushant Singh Rajput and his former manager, Disha Salian, succumbed to their mental health within one week of each other. And in a tragically poetic fashion, as Sushant Singh Rajput’s last rites were performed, his sister-in-law, Sudha Devi, passed away, who had allegedly stopped eating upon learning of his death. The rippling effect of mental health ran its course.

Popular for his acting in both TV and film, the 34-year-old actor, delivered a strong anti-suicide message in his last seen 2019 film ‘Chhichhore’. On June 14, 2020, the actor was found in his Mumbai home. He was reportedly suffering from depression. A week earlier, he had written a heartbroken Instagram story addressing the suicide of his 28-year-old former manager, Disha Salian.

Is it the lockdown and the resulting loneliness or is it the disease itself?

“It is both,” said Dr. Farida Sohrabji, Regents Professor and Interim Head, Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics, Texas A&M College of Medicine, at a webinar organized by Ethnic Media Services, June 12, 2020. Both the molecular impacts of the virus and the pandemic-related isolation leads to depression,” she said.

The impact of social isolation can be quite devastating in many ways. Social isolation increases the risk of cardiovascular ailment, heightens the symptoms of autoimmune disease, and increases mental health issues. Not interacting with people increases the stress hormone cortisol and weakens the immune system. People who don’t have the virus but are being socially isolated slip into depression. The senior population, or those with comorbidities like diabetes, hypertension, etc., are isolated for their own good. They are entrapped by voluntary confinement and fall prey to depression.

And then there are those that are infected by the virus.“The virus enters the body through the nose,” says Dr. Sohrabji, “The nose is somewhat exposed to the brain and the virus can end up in the brain in the olfactory system (how we smell things). This area is strongly implicated with depression.”

Additionally, the full-blown inflammation caused by the virus has an effect on the brain and mood of the patient. “The proteins that fight the virus slash and burn cells in the war against the virus and the resulting inflammation can lead to depression,” she said. “ The medical community’s first thought was that the virus is akin to a respiratory disease but it has been noticed to be more than that. A broad basket of mental issues has been caused by it.”

Social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus can lead to depression and anxiety, while those infected with COVID-19 can experience mental health issues, including depression. Being cognizant of the dangers caused by the lockdown can help us help each other stay sane and safe. 

What can help?

A study by Harvard Medical School has a unique solution. Foster a pet. Pets have a calming effect. Dogs’ calming effect on humans appears to help people handle stress, the study says. Research suggests that people with dogs experience less cardiovascular reactivity during times of stress. That means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, dampening the effects of stress on the body.

The power of touch appears to be an important part of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog. Having a dog is good for your heart too, says the study. Besides, dog owners tend to get more exercise as well. As coronavirus spreads across the US, Americans have stepped up to foster and adopt animals, keeping them out of shelters.

Contextualizing

”We come up with our sort-of explanations, even if they are not particularly persuasive, and then file the event away,” says Malcolm Gladwell on suicide. “I keep coming back to how important context is in understanding behavior.” 

The incontrovertible fact is that Sushant Singh Rajput, Sudha Devi, and Disha Salian were casualties of mental anguish during the lockdown. Rest in peace to all the lives that have been lost due to mental health.

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author whose interest in history has led her to chronicle our life in times of COVID. How many more must we lose?

Keeping Young Adults Safe During The Pandemic

Last month, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered most of the state’s residents to stay home, I found myself under virtual house arrest with an uncomfortably large number of Gen Zers.

Somehow I had accumulated four of my children’s friends over the preceding months. I suppose some parents more hard-nosed than I would have sent them packing, but I didn’t have the heart — especially in the case of my daughter’s college roommate, who couldn’t get back to her family in Vietnam.

So, I had to convince six bored and frustrated 18- to 21-year-olds that, yes, they too could catch the coronavirus ― that they needed to stop meeting their friends, wipe down everything they brought into the house and wash their hands more frequently than they had ever imagined.

The first two weeks were nerve-wracking. I cringed every time I heard the front door open or close, and when any of the kids returned home, I grilled them remorselessly.

The day after a house meeting in which I laid down the law, I found my son, Oliver, 21, inside his cramped music studio in the back of the house with a kid I’d never seen before. And that night, I saw one of our extra-familial housemates in a car parked out front, sharing a mind-altering substance with a young man who used to visit in the pre-pandemic era.

If I’ve been neurotically vigilant, it’s because the stakes are high: I’ve got asthma and Oliver has rheumatoid arthritis, making us potentially more vulnerable to the ravages of the virus.

But even as I play the role of enforcer, I recognize that these kids are as anxious and worried as I am.

My daughter, Caroline, 18, is filled with sadness and despair, feelings she had largely overcome after going away to college last fall. She recently started doing telephone sessions with her old therapist. Oliver has begun therapy — remotely, for now ― after dismissing it as pointless for the past several years.

A study released this month by Mental Health America, an advocacy and direct service organization in Alexandria, Virginia, shows that people under age 25 are the most severely affected by a rise in anxiety and depression linked to social isolation and the fear of contracting COVID-19.

That is not surprising, even though the virus has proved far deadlier for seniors. Mental health problems were already rising sharply among teens and young adults before the pandemic. Now their futures are on hold, they can’t be with their friends, their college campuses are shuttered, their jobs are evaporating — and a scary virus makes some wonder if they even want those jobs.

Paul Gionfriddo, Mental Health America’s CEO, says parents should be attentive even to subtle changes in their kids’ behavior or routine. “Understand that the first symptoms are not usually external ones,” Gionfriddo says. “Maybe their sleep patterns change, or they’re eating less, or maybe they are distracted.”

If your teens or young adults are in distress, they can screen themselves for anxiety or depression by visiting www.mhascreening.org. They will get a customized result along with resources that include reading material, videos and referrals to treatment or online communities.

The Child Mind Institute (www.childmind.org or 212-308-3118) offers a range of resources, including counseling sessions by phone. If your young person needs emotional support, or just to vent to an empathetic peer, they can call a “warmline.” For a list of numbers by state, check www.warmline.org.

Caroline’s case is probably typical of college kids. She moved back home from San Francisco last month after her university urged students to leave the dorms. Her stuff is stranded up there, and we have no idea when we’ll be able to reclaim it. Meanwhile, she has been planning to share an off-campus apartment starting in August with four of her friends from the dorm. We can get attractive terms if we sign the lease by April 30 ― but what if school doesn’t reopen in the fall?

For Oliver, who’s been living with me all along, the big challenges are a lack of autonomy, a need for money and cabin fever. Those stressors got the best of him recently, and he started doing sorties for a food delivery service. Of course, it makes me crazy with worry every time he goes out, and when he returns home I’m in his face: “Did you wear a mask and gloves? Did you keep your distance? Wash your hands!”

But what can I do, short of chaining him to the water heater? And if going out — and getting some cash in his pocket ― makes him feel better, that can’t be all bad (unless he catches the virus).

If your kid dares to work outside the house, and you dare let him, several industries are hiring — particularly grocery stores, pharmacies and home delivery and food services. Child care for parents who have to work is also in demand, so your fearless teen might want to ask around the neighborhood.

Volunteering ― again, if they dare — is another good way for young people to feel independent and useful. In every community, there are vulnerable seniors who need somebody to shop for them or deliver meals to their homes. You can use www.nextdoor.com, a local networking app, to find out if any neighbors need help.

Food banks are in great need of volunteers right now. To find a food bank near you, go to www.feedingamerica.org. Blood donations are also needed. Older teens and young adults can arrange to donate by contacting the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org). For a list of creative ways to help, check out Youth Service America (www.ysa.org).

While the kids are inside the house, which in my case is still most of the time, put them to work. “Anxiety loves idle time, and when we don’t have a lot to do, our brain starts thinking the worst thoughts,” says Yesenia Marroquin, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

I’ve harnessed the able bodies of my young charges for household chores. A few weekends ago, I decreed a spring cleaning. They organized themselves with surprising alacrity to weed the backyard, sweep and mop the floors, clean the stove and haul out volumes of trash.

Considering the circumstances, the house is looking pretty darn good these days.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Corona Casts Dark Shadow Over Mental Health

Dr. Madhu Bhatia, a psychiatrist in Washington D.C., finished setting up her home office a few days ago, two weeks after the Metro area began to sit up and take notice of COVID 19.

“I’ve already seen an uptick in anxiety among my patients,” she says, “and now, more than ever, I need to stay in touch. I’m expecting an increase in cases, and more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) type symptoms.”

“This is the first time I’m practicing telepsychiatry on this scale,” she adds wryly. “It’s going to be a new experience for me and many of my colleagues – but it may be the future, for a long time.”
The suddenness and speed of COVID19’s onslaught has sent our health care and our social systems into shock. Equally important, (but in danger of being underplayed as all our attention focuses on the battle with the virus), it has been a massive, invisible shock to our collective psyche.

As we live this in real time, health professionals all over the world are getting more concerned about the long-term emotional fallout from the pandemic. The complete cessation of normal activity in lockdown, a constant ticker tape of rising numbers of those infected and dying on TV, and economic insecurity associated with the shutdown is the perfect formula for creating a sense of suppressed panic and helplessness, which, in turn, is a perfect breeding ground for anxiety disorders and depression.

We can look to China, which was ahead of the curve, for the trajectory of anxiety and anxiety related disorders. Early studies on the effect of the pandemic indicate an enormous, lingering impact on mental health. In the first few weeks of the lock down in China, there was mostly worry about contracting the virus and the safety of loved ones. As more time passed in quarantine, financial strain and more stress with family relations piled onto the general worry for safety.

In an ITV report, Dr. Peng Kaiping, the head of Psychology at Tsinghua University in Hubei province (where the epicenter, Wuhan is located), says they are now increasingly seeing symptoms of PTSD among the population.

“It’s important to remember,” says Dr. Bhatia, “that even something as innocuous as more enforced time at home with the family can become a source of great anxiety, if it isn’t handled correctly. There can be something like too much togetherness. Time has to be managed carefully, especially in families which already have underlying stresses in relationships.”
She advises setting up strict daily routines, especially if there are children at home.

“Children need the security a routine provides. However, they also need social interaction with their peers and a sudden cessation of contact with friends creates anxiety. If they are young, set up facetime playdates for them.”

“For teenagers, try to give each individual enough time on their own and permission to retreat into their own space if they want to, but designate a family time where you come together, especially for meals. Make that a pandemic free space, where things like homework or activities are discussed and optimism about the future is restored.”

“South Asian families are often not very good at expressing their feelings, and there is a sense of shame, specifically in the older generation, in admitting that they are fearful. This is a time when parents should reassure their children (and sometimes their own parents), that it’s important to talk frankly about one’s fears and be supportive of each other.”

Therapists and providers are increasingly adapting their practices to technology to get their message out.

Pallavi Surana, a resident of Herndon, Virginia, and a meditation therapist, has guided a group meditation session every Friday for the past 10 years.

With Virginia’s COVID restrictions, she has now taken it to Facetime (the group dials in from home and meditates together) and increased its frequency to an hour every day.

“Daily Meditation is more important than ever during this crisis,” she says. “We are locked in at home, with our fight or flight responses highly aroused. Calming our minds has an enormous impact on our immune systems, and doing it collectively is even more beneficial. Even a short 20-minute session has an impact.”

Alice Walton in a recent Forbes article suggested important ways to preserve sanity and maintain optimism during these trying times.

Gratitude is a therapeutic emotion. Take time to be grateful for family and friends, and for all the things which are working for you in life. In a Harvard health study, it was found that writing down even 5 things you were grateful for, just once a week, had an enormous positive effect on emotional well-being.

Exercise and meditate daily. Treat these activities as necessary, medicinal doses of stress relief and give them priority. There are several online sites offering free exercise routines and meditation. Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat Zinnat at UMass, has been shown, through many studies, to be very effective. Several organizations now offer this online. Meditation is a proven stress buster and is especially good for our immune systems.

If you aren’t into meditation, studies have shown that just calming your breathing – taking a few minutes a day to sit quietly and breathe deeply – can greatly reduce daily stress. Simple breathing exercises, like those taught in Yoga, (check out these top rated apps), are also great at soothing the mind and producing a sense of well-being.

Your daily exercise routine should be supplemented by “quality time” outdoors. The Japanese concept of “forest bathing,” which means spending as much time in nature as possible and mentally “bathing” in its beauty, is now backed by science. Being around greenery doesn’t just calm the mind – it has a proven effect on our immune system and lowers the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Consider positioning your home office where you have a view of the greenery outside.

And last, but not the least, connect to friends and family daily through whatever means available. Social isolation is like a punishment for our species, because we are wired with a strong need to interact. A recent article in the Washington Post by social scientist, Arthur C. Brooks, emphasizes the importance of social interactions which allow eye contact. Looking directly into a person’s eyes while talking releases oxytocin, the pleasure hormone, and is the most beneficial for our social needs. So, choose a medium like Skype or Zoom or Face Time where you can see your friend or family.

Stay safe, dear reader, and remember to hug your family often! Human touch is a proven therapy for anxiety.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents.

In The Valley, Hi-Tech Collides with Mental Health

I have lived in the Silicon Valley for over twenty years and watched the Indian American population increase in number and influence but some things stay the same, the stubbornly insular thoughts on what success is – meteoric academic success followed by a STEM degree and financial success in a tech company. There is nothing wrong about those dreams, but it leaves little space for any others.

Saila Kariat started on the same path, a doctorate in Electrical Engineering followed by a successful career in the tech world.  But she was not happy because, since her childhood, Saila had always dreamed of being a filmmaker. So, she took a chance and went to film school to learn about screenwriting, directing and film history.

And then her brother died.  Losing a sibling was traumatic, but what was more devastating was that her brother, who was schizophrenic, never got the help he needed.

Her family was not alone in their failure to help a suffering child because they were unable to cope with an illness they could not understand.

Saila acutely remembers the pain of being shunned by other Indian families because of her brother’s mental health condition.  For a long time, mental illness has been a taboo subject in the Indian American community, and society at large did not recognize or acknowledge the issue, or provide much needed therapy.

“My brother had a very rough life,” said Saila.  She realized that this story was replicating itself over and over again, and it gave her the impetus to write what would become her first movie – The Valley.

As a novice scriptwriter, it took her nine revisions, and input from many folk for over a year, before Saila had a finished script for The Valley.

Then came the really hard part – finding the money to produce the movie. Saila encountered various obstacles, including potential producers who suggested that she make her characters Caucasian, to appeal to a wider audience.

Eventually, she found the right investors and cast and learned how to schedule and budget the making of a movie – competencies Saila is now confident about when she makes her next film.

In 2017, Wavefront Pictures released The Valley, written, directed and co-produced by Saila Kariat, and starring well-known actors Ally Khan and Suchitra Pillai.  The movie has been invited to 22 film festivals.  It has won several awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island International Film Festival as well as Best Original Screenplay for  Saila Kariat at the Madrid International Film Festival.

Saila Kariat’s award-winning film, The Valley

The Valley addresses a difficult subject matter.  It raises issues like self-harm and suicide, as well as sexual assault and violence.  It is important to understand that watching or reading about these themes could serve as  a trigger for individuals suffering with mental health issues; according to experts, stories about teen suicide (currently the second leading cause of death for children and young people 10 to 24 years old), can have a ‘contagious’ or copycat effect.  So while movies like The Valley can serve as a powerful teaching tool, “children in groups at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and actions should not watch the show alone.”  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers additional guidelines on how to view such programs with vulnerable or at-risk children.

I saw The Valley at a premiere in Palo Alto, Calif. and was moved. The story centers around Neal Kumar, a father agonised by his daugher’s suicide, who goes on a quest to understand what happened to her, and why. His search reveals that there are no villains in this story and despite everyone doing their best, nobody recognized the signs of anxiety and depression. And that was the ultimate tragedy.

That the story plays out against a backdrop of affluence and success in the Silicon Valley, is fundamental to understanding how some vulnerable kids lose their way.  The devastated father is confused by his daughter’s suicide in a family that had the best life he could provide.

In the Silicon Valley the pressure to succeed  is extremely high, especially on kids from successful, immigrant families, where parents are not able to stomach any failure from their children.  It’s hard to tell desi friends you are struggling with anything, because everyone pretends to be perfect. The Silicon Valley loudly trumpets the mantra of  “Fail fast, Fail often”, but also masks the fact that there is frantic pedalling going on unseen, underwater. This sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Saila shares her motivation, “I wanted to tell a story that shows that every person – regardless of their ethnicity, position, wealth or education – has intrinsic value. And I want to shed light on mental health issues, which often go unnoticed and untreated, particularly within the Asian community. I want people to think about the inherent conflict between ambition and human connection. The first breeds hyper competitiveness, while the latter encourages empathy. Empathy is what is needed to deal with any mental health issue.”

Does Saila think her movie is a success?  Yes, because she has seen first hand the impact that it has had on some young people who are now getting the help they need.

Saila has other ideas in the pipeline on hard hitting topics, including gun control.  It takes a lot of courage and grit to launch a new career. But Saila is doing them for the right reasons.  I applaud her for it!

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8772540/

You  can watch it on Amazon Prime and YouTube, among other streaming services.

Saila Kariat is writer, director and producer at Wavefront Pictures

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Meera Kymal