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World Mental Health Day | Is the news making you ill?

Even as research papers establish how watching negative TV news has an adverse effect on psychological health, my key takeaway is that we must take the onus to safeguard our own mental health

Mumbai based psychologist and psychotherapist Shwetambara Sabharwal equates the psychological impact of toxic news to chronic stress disorder.

Everybody’s cortisol levels are at an all-time high… we are marinating in stress hormones,” says Shwetambara Sabharwal, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and columnist, speaking to me from a farmhouse in Khopoli, a few hours from Mumbai, where she is riding out the pandemic while managing her patients virtually.

While Indian TV channels are in the cross-hairs for a different reason this week, the constant stream of sensational, toxic reporting has been a cause for concern through the pandemic, given our increased reliance on TV. Scores of research papers establish how watching negative TV news has an adverse effect on psychological health. Sabharwal equates its physical impact to strenuous cardiac exercise and its psychological impact to chronic stress disorder, which can result in decreased cognitive function and sleep loss, “especially when consumed at night”. Perhaps you are the kind of person who says “I don’t even watch TV”? But how do you balance the need to stay informed and participate in the national discourse while protecting yourself? What, for instance, do I tell my mother who has compromised her sleep because she follows updates on “her daughter” Rhea Chakraborty every night?

“The first thing I would say is one has to identify and be aware of one’s own vulnerabilities and triggers. A certain pitch of voice or a drumroll can also be a trigger. If news about rape and sexual violence disturbs you, stay away from it. Identify and stay away from the sources of your triggers. Print media is better in the sense that since it’s not audiovisual, it does not stimulate you in multiple ways,” says Sabharwal, adding that TV news cannily uses sound effects, drama and resolution in a way that is creating addicts. “It triggers the brain’s reward system,” she adds. With news about covid-19 transmission and more recently, the Hathras rape case, she has noticed a rise in hypochondriasis and disorders in the anxiety spectrum. “A lot of diagnosable conditions have been triggered by the way news has been imparted in recent months,” she says, adding that those with existing anxiety spectrum disorders, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorders and bipolar disorders are particularly vulnerable. Her suggestion is to replace TV news with other stimulus that might interest you: TED talks or cooking shows.

Sabharwal and her colleagues in the fraternity are keen to point to the lack of mandates for responsible media behaviour during the pandemic. “We have all seen a high incidence of relapsable and new conditions, including new mothers who are already hormonally compromised,” she says. “People are going to remain impacted by the events of this period for years, whether it’s from job losses or divorces so we must be careful.”

Sometimes, the triggers come from friends and acquaintances. I, too, have the odd acquaintance who only gets in touch to share disastrous news. How do you get the message across to such acquaintances without hurting their feelings? Sabharwal suggests sandwiching it between a request and an apology, though she stresses that one shouldn’t have to apologise.

As we mark World Mental Health Day today, it is prudent to acknowledge that conversations around mental health are on the rise. This issue of Lounge has stories ranging from ways to broach the topic of mental hygiene with children to author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s sublime essay on everyday sadness—what lies “a few inches behind depression, a smaller, subtle thing”. Incidentally, our cover story on women caregivers of partners with mental illnesses was motivated by the vilification of Rhea Chakraborty by sections of the TV media, which revealed a gross ignorance of the role of a primary caregiver. But as we talk about sensitizing society and putting checks on news, my key takeaway from the exchange with Sabharwal is this: As much as possible, we have to take the onus for safeguarding our own mental health. We have to make good choices. We have to be selfish in that regard. “Intention converts into effort,” stresses Sabharwal.

If you are still on the fence about seeking psychological counselling, communications consultant Mary Therese Kurkalang’s intensely personal, bare-all piece might give you the encouragement you need. Long before the pandemic, Kurkalang writes, she had cut down considerably on eating out and many other expenses to be able to afford therapy. “I truly believe it’s the only worthy investment I have made on myself.” She calls getting therapy not just an act of self-love, but an act also of love for the people in her world.

The writer tweets at @aninditaghose

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