This Sussex Life. Pattie Gonsalves: “I don’t know anyone who didn’t lose at least one person to Covid.”
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 5 July 2021
Psychology doctoral student Pattie Gonsalves talks about her experience of the second wave of Covid-19 in India, and why she has been working on a podcast and set up a virtual well-being centre to help those affected by the pandemic.
Prior to my PhD my background was in working with young people's well-being. In the last five years I was setting up and running a young people’s mental health campaign in India called It's OK to Talk for a non-profit organisation in India called Sangath.
One of the programmes we’ve been running through this campaign is a podcast. Telling people’s stories has been a big part of my work in general. It’s a powerful tool for building dialogue about difficult-to-discuss topics. So we’ve used personal stories, storytelling and digital storytelling as a way of telling young people’s mental health stories and encouraging help-seeking.
Some of the key challenges that young people listed in the first Covid wave were the loss of control, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, problems related to domestic abuse, violence and so on. You've seen this all over the world, but I would say the severity of the pandemic in the Global South last year appeared much, much less than we experienced this year.
We recorded the first podcast episode just before the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic here in India. We were reflecting on how Covid-19 was for us last year. But as we began the second episode, our second wave began. We had to be more responsive to what was happening and changed the podcast title from ‘Lesson from a Pandemic’ (past tense!) to ‘Stories from a Pandemic’ (present tense). We’ve interviewed 75 people for five episodes.
In retrospect there was a false sense of security about 2021, especially when the second wave happened. I live in one of the most affluent, well-connected cities in the country. But we saw a complete breakdown of the health system. Even young people like me, who have access to technology and to medicine and private health care, felt completely stranded.
I spent two weeks on social media, finding oxygen on the black market and hospital beds for family members. The pandemic was at its worst for six weeks. Anxiety levels for everyone went up and we had to find ways to make sense of it. One of the ways that I did, and I think a lot of young people did too, was to be helpful to others. Because that’s a tool that helps you too.
A lot of people were risking their lives without any protection. We were interviewing people who were bereaved, frontline and essential workers for the podcast – including doctors, nurses and health technicians – and speaking to delivery drivers and volunteers. There were just thousands of people who started doing this, people who were independently organising million-dollar campaigns to get oxygen from China and elsewhere, or were driving across cities to deliver blood and oxygen to help others. People and communities rallied around each other to get people through the second wave.
I led the set-up of a helpline at Sangath, a sort of virtual Covid well-being centre, in June. It has three parts: the first being listening circles, where we wanted to talk and find solidarity; the second was a national helpline, so that was launched in June and is being managed by counsellors and therapists at the non-profit where I work; and the third is a resource bank for people to help themselves or help others, but without meeting.
We know so many who lost loved ones to Covid. I don’t know anyone who did not lose at least one person in their immediate or extended family. Although things feel as though they have returned to normal, everyone has a fear of the next wave. I've had to work much harder on managing my own mental health through this. You have to know what’s in your control and what isn’t. It’s still evolving.
My PhD is focusing on mental health issues for young people in India. trying to identify simple and low-cost interventions that students in schools can be part of that help improve their mental health. More recently, I’ve started a new project on suicide in young people, which is a huge challenge in India, especially for young women. No one can really confirm the reason for it yet, but the hypothesis is that it’s a combination of social and cultural reasons – such as patriarchy, gender discrimination and conservative ideas about relationships and marriage and pressures to achieve academically. Covid may have longer-term impacts on suicide too in the future, which is why it’s been very insightful to capture these experiences.
I chose Sussex for my PhD because it has a free-spirited, free-thinking vibe, open to new ideas and new kinds of research. And [because of the work carried out by my supervisor Daniel Michelson with young people and adolescents]. It’s a shame that I haven’t been able so spend much time on campus, as I had to leave very quickly last year in order to get home to India. But I hope to be able to see it again before I graduate.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.