Hunger, abuse, and financial insecurity leading to mental distress in working class families

Written by Chahat Rana
| Chandigarh |

Published: May 26, 2020 11:41:49 am

Hunger, abuse, and financial insecurity leading to mental distress in working class families Three suicides were reported from the working-class neighborhood of Dhanas village in the span of a single day on May 9. (Representational image)

Three suicides were reported from the working-class neighborhood of Dhanas village in the span of a single day on May 9. Even as preliminary police reports mentioned that the extreme step was taken after familial squabbles, family members, neighbors and other residents from working class colonies in the city, have a different, more harrowing story to tell.

“You know how it is with these people. They had some familial issues and they just take any step without thinking much,” said a police personnel, dismissing the slew of suicides as a morbid co-incidence.

Talking about the lockdown taking a toll on the people, especially those from the working-class backgrounds, a neighbour of one of the victim’s said, “He had a fight with his family yes, but it was about what he will feed them next the day. Every day, just thinking about how will we feed our children keeps us awake all night. Staying locked inside our home and unable to work has driven us all up the wall. He just lost faith before others.”

Madan Lal, a contractual employee at PGIMER, used to live in Dhanas before he committed suicide. Though the official reason for his suicide has been labelled as familial discord and distress, the reason for this distress is evident to the residents of Kachi colony in Dhanas, who have been quarantined in their cramped shanties with their families since the colony was sealed on April 21.

“Since then, we have had no job security, no constant source of food, and have been dependent only on the charity of the government,” said Babli, another neighbor and a sanitation attendant from PGIMER, who is worried she will lose her job soon since she has been unable to leave the colony to attend her duties.

“What do we do now? People keep calling me and telling me about their issues. They are mentally stressed. They tell me they will die if they are not able to attend the job and earn their daily wage. But I can’t do anything for them!” said Sundar, who heads the union for contractual sanitation staff at PGIMER.

Sundar alleged that Madan Lal had lost hope due to his economic circumstances. “I can’t even talk to these people anymore. It is mentally harrowing to listen to them when I have no power to help them,” added Sundar.

Ten kilometers away, a larger population of people- some estimate 60,000- are facing the same crippling daily battles of hunger, destituteness and mental stress in the sealed containment area and hotspot, Bapu Dham Colony.

“I lie awake at night thinking about what we will eat the next day. But I have gotten used to it now. Earlier there was some escape. I could walk down the street at least, but now they send us back to our homes even if we set a foot outside,” said Rohtas, a vegetable vendor who lives in Phase 1 of Bapu Dham Colony.

“Still I believe after the lockdown I can work really hard and get back on my feet. I can’t afford to lose faith now. I am sure everything will be back to normal soon, won’t it?” the vendor asked innocently, trying to speak above the clamor of a packed household full of children.

Summarising the reason behind extreme anxiety in working class households, Dr Adarsh Kohli, a psychologist from PGIMER said that these people have been left with insurmountable challenges, compounded by no escape or avenue to vent.

“They are inside their dingy homes, cramped with so many others with limited amenities, fear of illness, anxiety about what’s going to happen, limited knowledge about its ways of spread, running around for rations, no food, no job, no money at hand, living from day to day, calling their employers enquiring about work, fearing that they might lose their jobs forever,” said Dr Kohli. He added that abuse, marital discord and fights with no recourse further augment their challenges due to the lockdown.

“Add to that the fact they have no outings, no diversion, no opportunity for catharsis, accompanied by anxiety, no social support, feelings of helplessness and a sword of Covid-19 hanging on their heads,” said the psychologist.
Back in Dhanas, this lack of an escape accompanied by mounting mental distress caused by an abusive relationship led to 23-year-old Neelam end her life.

“She always had this ex-boyfriend who was abusive. But since she went to work every day to a parlour, she was relatively happy. However, since the lockdown began, she seemed to be really perturbed. She was crying and fighting with everyone. Our financial woes didn’t help either,” said Neelam’s sister, Rekha, who is now left with three unemployed younger siblings to feed, and the Rs 5,000 salary earned by her aged mother as cleaning staff in a government institute.

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