By – M Rajaque Rahman
One of the biggest collateral damages of the ongoing upheaval in Manipur, besides the insurmountable loss of lives and properties, is going to be its impact on the mental health conditions of our population. The prolonged conflict is sure to take a big toll on the larger public, irrespective of whether they are directly affected by the conflict or not. The side-effects of the long spell of sleepless nights our population, especially the women folk, is spending are beginning to show up and threaten to result in disastrous consequences for our society in the long run.
A scary encounter I recently had with a lady from a village bordering a “buffer zone” where intermittent firing is going on jolted me to writing this article in the hope that we become aware of the latent dangers sooner and initiate collective actions to reduce risks, build resilience and establish supportive environments for mental health of our population. While narrating her trauma and the necessity of staying awake the whole night ever since the violence broke out May this year, she was dozing off in between and even needed to be tapped and awakened. While we sacrifice everything and fight for defending the dignity and integrity of Manipur, the need for action on the mental health aspect of our population is indisputable and urgent as the impacts are much more widespread than we think.
Global evidence says one person in five, that’s 20 per cent of people, that live in a conflict situation have some form of negative mental health conditions, ranging from mild depression or anxiety to psychosis. Almost 1 in 10 develops a moderate or severe mental disorder that requires psychiatric assistance. When the conflict is as emotionallyclose as the one we are going through now, the effects could be worse. Apart from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), anger, fear, anxiety, panic attacks, depressionand suicidal tendencies can surface more intensely than at normal times. Mental health is already a global crisis even under normal circumstances. Every 40 seconds, there is someone committing suicide somewhere in the world. Depression rates and stress levels are at the highest. It’s estimated that three out of four doctor visits today are stress-related. In the award-winning documentaryStress: Portrait of a Killer, renowned neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky reckons, “Stress is not a state of mind… it’s measurable and dangerous, and humans cannot seem to find their off-switch.”
The prevailing unfavourable social, economic, geopolitical and environmental circumstancesin Manipur and the struggles of everydaylife against a backdrop of instability and violence will certainly make our populace more vulnerable to mental disorders.
“Not just the displaced or directly affected people, the whole population of Manipur will have long-lasting psychological impacts of the current conflict and there will be increase in trust deficit,” says well-known mental health activist Dr R K Lenin Singh. According to him, there is already increase in the cases of common mental disorders like anxiety, depression and substance abuse. He talks of children in relief camps showing clinging behaviour, having nightmares and refusing to play and mingle with other children. He also sees rising levels of angst, frustration and loss of hope among youth of Manipur.
The pointers are worrisome but there is a lot we all can do, individually and collectively, to ensure mental health of our population during these trying times. Interestingly, people who are actively involved in or are in the frontline of the conflictmay cope betterwith the emotional consequences of what has been done to them and what they are doing to others as long as “the struggle” seems reasonable and justified. It’s the general public which is exposed to higher levels of stressand tension,and it’s they who needto be helped in tackling the psychological repercussionsof the ongoing unrest. If the stress is not handled and managed in time, it will impact the way our people think, feel and behave, leading to a self-perpetuating negative cycle and even makingthem antidepressant dependants. Dr Lenin fears the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorders in the coming days and says long-term mental health consequences will be an extra burden in our society. Manipur can’t afford to get into such a cycle at this crucial juncture.
The most important thing we all need to do to stay strong and alert during these demanding times is to keep the inner energy high and the mind calm. For this, we will need to learn some practical techniques and acquire tools that are free from side-effects. Yoga, meditation and breathing techniques are globally recognized and adopted as effective coping strategies for overcoming traumatic experiences and the high level of stress associated with conflict situations. “Meditation and breathing techniqueshelp to calm the mind and make us feel empowered from within,” says renowned spiritual leader and founder of The Art of Living, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. “The secret of accessing the inner calmnessand the strength lies in our own breath. With a proper understanding of our breath and regular practice of a few simple breathing exercises, we can regulate negative emotions and thoughts, reduce anxiety and eliminate stress and tension,” he explains. “Yoga, meditation and other spiritual inputs that enlighten us about the reality of life and the law of nature will be an ultimate refuge in the present situation and beyond,” prescribes Dr Lenin.
Independent medical research has demonstrated significant falls in cortisol levels, known as the “stress hormone” among practitioners of SudarshanKriya, a powerful breathing technique taught in the Art of Living Programs, suggesting greater levels of both relaxation and resilience to stress. A study by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, concluded that regular practice of SudarshanKriya invokes positive emotions, replacing anger, frustration and jealousy. It’s also found that it improves the blood cholesterol profile with significant drops in total cholesterol and LDL (harmful) cholesterol, as well as increases in HDL (beneficial) cholesterol.
In a study conducted by National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, the researchers found that the breathing techniques taught by the Art of Living were as effective as drugs in treating depression and the result came without any side-effects. After practising the SudarshanKriya, brain wave patterns were found to stabilise and there was an increase in serum prolactin count. The bottomline is that by harnessing our own breath, we can calm and relax the mind.
When the mind is disturbed, our perception becomes blurred and we are ill-equipped to make informed decisions. The prevailing situation in Manipur demands that we stay ready and alert to take decisivedecisions at any time and act with an understanding of the reality. This makes it imperative for us to learn and adopt techniques that will calm our mind. Organizations such as The Art of Living are making such tools available to the masses in Manipur, including those taking shelter in relief camps. Inmates who have attended the Art of Living workshops talk about significant improvements in their state of mind. The international NGO is also conducting regular workshops for the general public that teach powerful techniques such as the SudarshanKriya at its Happiness Centre located at Keishamthong in Imphal.
Such techniques not only reduce anxiety and stress but also infuse and rejuvenate us with life-energy, or prana. When the life-energy is high, positive dimensions of life manifest. Once the prana dips, nothing will make one feel good, positiveand strong. Yoga and meditation help us tapthe inner source of energy. It’s now scientifically known that 20 minutes of deep meditation can give rest equal to eight hours of good sleep. This formula could effectively aid our population which is being deprived of proper sleep because of the unrest.
Apart from yoga, breathing and meditation, what will help us cope better with the mental risksis to attend to our diet and sleep, and also cultivate a larger vision of life. “We must know that there’s nothing more important in life than life itself. Only if we are alive, then everything else is.Remember that we have faced many challenges in the past and we have overcome them all,” reassures Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. And, we shall overcome this one too.
What we all can collectively do is to establish supportive environments which will make people recognize the intrinsic and instrumental value of mental calmness and also feel free to seek help when psychological challenges arise. The ball is already rolling. The Art of Living Manipur, for instance, is running a free Mental Health & Anxiety Helpline to assist people to cope with the mental challenges of the crisis and spread awareness about mental hygiene. The helpline can be accessed on 7005658504.
May all of us experience peace in the body, mind and in our environment!
(A former journalist, the author is associated with the Art of Living and has been active in the field of mental hygienefor the last 23 years)