Warning: This article references mental health issues and suicidal thoughts

Family violence and mental health service provider, Roopa Aur Aap has experienced a surge in mental health referrals since the start of the lockdown, as Auckland continues to battle the latest Covid-19 outbreak.

Roopa Suchdev, Chief Executive of the community-based non-profit organisation that focuses on South Asian families, said the agency has seen a spike in cases related to depression and anxiety.

“People have reached the end of their tolerance. We have seen an increase in fights among family members, and an increase in frustration, that have led to cases of depression and anxiety,” she said.

Dr Anil Channa, mental health specialist and psychiatrist said, “Because of lockdown and restrictions, we have received more cases, both among those who never had any mental health issues and those who have suffered a relapse in their illness.”

Last week, Lifeline Aotearoa said calls and texts to its helpline skyrocketed in the past 18 months - up 88 percent compared to 2019.

Lifeline operations manager Helena de Fontenay said the increase in calls shows New Zealanders are actively seeking mental health support through conversations, “which is a good thing”. She added, however, that the stress of Covid-19 is showing up in more complex calls involving suicidal thoughts, self-harm and risk to others.

Helena said the first week of the current lockdown saw Lifeline receive about 8,500 calls and texts, which rose to 8,700 in week two, 10,900 in week three, 11,167 in week four, and 10,713 in week five.

Roopa Aur Aap manages at least 10 referrals per week, which includes interventions as well as multiple counselling sessions with more than one family member. The agency has seen over 70 cases of counselling in a month since the start of the lockdown.

“There is an increased amount of anxiety in people, not just among those who are not working and are at home, but also those who are working from home”, said Dr Channa.

“Lately, we are seeing a lot of patients who are suffering from depression. Part of the depression is due to anxiety and loneliness. Many people, students have been away from their families, they are feeling depressed, and some actually need to be treated for depression with medication along with counselling,” he continued.

Dr Channa also noted a relapse in patients suffering from psychotic illness due to increased stress. Recent University of Otago research findings suggest that many people with mental health histories struggle and are disproportionately affected during these lockdowns.

In July last year, the residential mental health inpatient unit at the Counties Manukau District Health Board reported a marked increase in the length of stay of patients during the lockdown.

Dr Channa remarked that there is a deficiency in the number of counsellors that are needed as well as accessibility to patients for these counsellors. He said, “What we have found is that we are doing a lot of counselling through zoom, which is alright but it’s not ideal. The results are not as good as with face to face because we are counselling and treating the patients.”

In Asian cultures, mental illness often carries stigma and discrimination. Dr Channa believes there needs to be greater awareness among the Indian community about mental health issues and reaching out for help.

He said, “The more we talk about it, the more people will come out and speak openly. We need to talk and give a platform to have conversations on mental health. We need to also reiterate that whatever is spoken during a session is all confidential. If we do these three things, it will give our community the confidence to come forward and seek help, rather than suffer.”