Rebuilding community: An argument in favor of hope
Society and mental health

Rebuilding community: An argument in favor of hope

Having lost access to their usual support systems, people find new ways to retain emotional connectedness 

Shruti Ravi

In India the COVID-19 pandemic brought in its wake, the world’s most stringent lockdown. It turned people’s lives upside down; led to the migration of a large number of people and caused irreparable loss to their lives and livelihood. The strict measures meant that the communities that people accessed and relied on for emotional, social, and material relief, were cut off. This writer came across instances of people who on feeling a sense of loss at this time decided to create a new space to fill this absence.

“How are you?”

“When I started doing this, I didn’t know what to expect, but over time it became important. It involved showing up on a daily basis, and holding space for others,” shares Ranjitha Jeurkar, content writer in the White Swan Foundation team. She found the transition from regular life to lockdown difficult, and would message friends only to  learn that she was not alone in how she felt. The common thread of isolation, loneliness, uncertainty and anxiety led her to post, everyday on her Facebook profile, ”How are you?”. What has followed since includes certain people who always ‘like’ her post, some who write a comment no matter what, and others who write to her expressing how reading these posts helps them feel less alone. This pocket of familiarity, carved on social media, has become a regular place for people to share what’s on their mind, and say that which they may not find space to express in their own lives.

Radio Quarantine

Darshana Mitra, who along with a group of friends started ‘Radio Quarantine,’ a community radio station consisting of original programming in the form of a kids’ show, storytelling sessions, a music show; and social commentary by way of interviews talks about why she started the station: “There had been months worth of mobilization and awareness drives around the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), how it would affect people, suddenly all that work had stopped. It felt very odd.”

Mitra, a faculty member at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata,admits that the core reason behind starting it was “To keep in touch with each other.”

When asked how it has made a difference to her and the others, she says it’s hard to explain, but shares this—someone who works as an air hostess, her cousin’s friend’s, got in touch with her asking if she could record herself singing a song and share it for the radio. “Play it only if it’s good,” as it turned out the singing was very good and went on air. Later the same person called to say thanks, explained how much it meant to her. And mentioned how while she was stuck abroad, it was a way for her to reach out to her father who was alone in Kolkata.

Cogworks

Cogworks, in Annaswamy Mudaliar Hospital, Bangalore, was started by neuropsychologist Jwala Narayanan, and is managed by psychologist Priyanka Kuppuswamy along with other psychologists and volunteers. It is a space where elderly persons living with various neurological disorders, ranging from Alzheimer’s to dementia, come twice a week for three-hour long sessions. Here, they pursue a mix of art and movement therapy. Through this space, its structure and routine, a deeply-knit community has been formed—this happened naturally, with minimal influence or intervention by the therapists.

This is a space where an elderly person can talk about their own life and problems with others who understand what they’re going through. This aspect of connecting with others in a group—where isolation and loneliness faced by elderly persons living with dementia is high—has been helpful towards their wellbeing.“They dance, play games, talk about journaling their stories, and sometimes even make fun of their memory loss,” says Priyanka.

The effect of not being able to access Cogworks during the lockdown has been hard for the participants. The therapists have observed changes in them, like less motivation to engage in activities, social withdrawal and less communication at home. They have received reports of caregivers getting constant reminders from the participants about going to Cogworks, as well as inquiries being made about others in the group. Some caregivers are even finding it hard to manage their restlessness.

The therapists are now working on creating an hour-long online session, consisting of a set of activities that group members can take part in. This isn’t a replacement for the regular sessions but something to see them through this period.

Community and its health impact 

The importance of social connectedness is well-documented—a study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that strong relationships increase our odds of survival by 50%. Conversely, the absence of these connections increases the mortality risk at a rate that is roughly comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Maitri Gopalakrishna, a counseling psychologist with a specialization in drama therapy, says that at this point, she doesn’t offer advice on how to deal with the lockdown, but focuses on listening to what her clients are doing—they are building new relationships by helping out a neighbour, purchasing essential items for their house; using technology to substitute in-person interaction; and coordinating relief work for supply of ration kits to people who have been left to fend for themselves.

“Many of them are people who’re doing something like this for the first time, who have never been privy to working for a social cause like this before,” she says, underscoring the element of community that forms an integral part of these efforts.

Meeting a need

Mumbai-based therapist Aparna Menon speaks to the widely internalized social norm of romantic relationships, “Society has conditioned us to believe that being single is not okay.” Thinking of a romantic partner as your primary source of love can lead to feeling as if not being romantically partnered is an incomplete state that needs to change. She offers the concept of re-imagining this mindset: “If a need is met, your brain does not care for the source, just so long as the need is being met.” This translates to the concept that feelings of self-love, warmth and safety experienced in close friendships, a community of your choosing, can also serve as a real source of fulfilment.

This pushes us to think about the usual images that come to mind when we think of community. In a world where accessing physical spaces is no longer possible with the ease of doing so before, we are creating alternatives. Many of us currently view these alternatives as a stand-in until a vaccination is invented.

It might be useful to consider the efficacy of these alternatives. It could mean building—and believing you can build—strong ties in a changed world.

Is it truly possible for these new spaces to help us feel the way accessing community would, pre-pandemic? There’s only one way to find out.  

White Swan Foundation
www.whiteswanfoundation.org