Achieving a Bose–Einstein Condensate from my living room during lockdown

During the COVID-19 lockdown which led to the closure of many labs around the world, Amruta Gadge, a postdoctoral researcher in the Quantum Systems and Devices group at the University of Sussex*, made headlines for remotely setting up a Bose–Einstein condensate from her living room. Gadge, an alumna of the University of Pune, tells us how she achieved that.

Amruta Gadge adjusting a laser before the lockdown in the apparatus put together to produce the Bose-Einstein condensates.

Rebecca Bond

When the UK government announced a national lockdown on 23 March 2020, my lab at the University of Sussex was forced to temporarily close its doors.  We had a strong inkling this was coming, and rushed to get ourselves in order before the lockdown. We were determined to keep our laboratory experiments going as best we could although we had never run them remotely before. Bar a few essential maintenance visits to the lab, the only way to continue our experiments was to use remote control and monitoring technology.

Pre-lockdown, our team was building an apparatus to produce Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs).  A BEC consists of a cloud of hundreds of thousands of rubidium atoms cooled down to nanokelvin temperatures using lasers and magnetic fields.  At such temperatures the cloud suddenly takes on different characteristics, with all atoms behaving together as a single quantum object. This object has such low energy that it can be used to sense very low magnetic fields, a property we are using to probe novel materials such as silver nanowires, silicon nitride nano membranes or to probe ion channels in biological cells.

Already a few months into assembling this system, we were looking forward to a big milestone – producing our first BEC. To run such an experiment from home was no easy feat — the large and complex laser and optics set-ups in state-of-the-art labs couldn’t just be transported. In the days leading up to lockdown, equipment, chairs, and computers were being ferried to various homes, deliveries of equipment were diverted and protocols for remote access and online control were put in place.

Ultra-cold atom experiments are very complex. Obtaining a BEC involves a large amount of debugging and optimising the experimental sequence. When not in the lab, at times it felt almost impossible to debug. We set up software control for the equipment, such as oscilloscopes, vacuum pumps, and others. However, the tool that played the most important role was our environmental monitoring system. Trapped cold atoms are extremely sensitive to variations in the environmental conditions. Changes in the ambient temperature of the lab, humidity, residual magnetic fields, vacuum pressure, and so on, result in laser instability, polarisation fluctuations or changes in the trapping fields. All of these effects lead to fluctuations of the number of trapped atoms, as well as their position and temperature.

Debugging the system is a long process, but this can be greatly helped by monitoring the environmental conditions at all times. This may sound elaborate, however with the rising popularity of time series databases and data visualisation software, it is possible to develop a convenient monitoring system. We made use of cheap and easily programmable microcontrollers for data collection, and two popular open source platforms, InfluxDB and Grafana, for storing and visualising the data, respectively. We set up a large network of sensors throughout the labs, aimed at monitoring all the parameters relevant to the operation of the experiments. If atom numbers fluctuated, or something wasn’t performing well, we could quickly narrow down the problem by looking at our Grafana dashboards. This meant that our experimental control sequence could be quickly tweaked from home for compensating the environmental fluctuations, and the monitoring system proved to be an extremely useful tool in achieving BECs remotely.

We were installing a new 2D magneto-optical trap atom source in the lab, and managed to see a signal from it just the day before the lockdown. I remember being worried that the lockdown was going to delay the progress of our experiment significantly. However, thankfully we could keep operating remotely, and managed to achieve our long-awaited first BEC from my home.

I was very excited when I saw the image of our first BEC. I had spent the whole day optimising the evaporation cooling stage. It was past 10pm, and I was about to stop for the day and suddenly the numbers started looking promising. I continued tweaking the parameters and in just few attempts, I saw the bimodal distribution of the atoms — a signature of a BEC. It was strange to have no one there to celebrate with in person, but we got together for a virtual celebration — something we are all getting used to now. I was really hoping to get the first BEC of our experiment before moving to my next post-doc, and having it obtained remotely turned out to be even more gratifying.

(*Amruta Gadge is now a post-doctoral researcher in the cold atoms and laser physics group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.)

(Lightly edited and cross-posted from Nature’s onyourwavelength blog.)

Working towards harmonised peer-review of controlled-access data at human data repositories

Guest post by Viki Hurst, Locum Associate Editor for Scientific Data

Scientific Data is exploring how peer-review mechanisms for sensitive human data can be improved. Here, we outline some of the initial feedback we received from leaders of human data repositories (HDRs), and some innovative alternatives to peer-review. Read more

A number of pictures

Posted on behalf of Nina Meinzer, senior editor at Nature Physics

The October issue of Nature Physics marks the journal’s 15th anniversary, complete with a cover on which four experimental images are arranged in such a way to form the number ‘15’. Here Nina Meinzer tells the story of how the images that make the cover were created.

Earlier this year, the Nature Physics editors started to think about ways to mark the journal’s 15th anniversary. Little did we know then that, by October, we would not be able to come together and raise a glass to the occasion, and so the celebration had to be confined to the pages of the journal. We knew early on that we wanted to give our past and present editors a chance to reminisce about their time at the journal, and that turned into a collection of memories of their favourite papers.

But how do you turn those assorted papers into a visual concept to make a cool cover? Once we started thinking about it, it struck us that it’s not unusual to see experimental methods, especially imaging methods, demonstrated with the help of numbers or letters as simple test objects. So we asked some of our authors if they had any images of a 15 (or a 1 and a 5) on their hard drives that we might use for the cover. We were deeply moved by the response: although nobody had the sort of thing we were looking for on file, they offered to take some data especially for us — in August, in the middle of a pandemic.

Our art editor then took four of these images and arranged them into a collage to create one big number 15. Bringing together methods from different areas of physics reflects the aim of Nature Physics itself to be a platform for the entire physics community.

What are the methods used to create the images that eventually made up the anniversary cover?

Credit: Hugo Defienne, Daniele Faccio and Alex Wing

Quantum holography (Hugo Defienne & Daniele Faccio, University of Glasgow)   

“Holography is a widely used imaging technique that can be applied to the full electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to radio waves and relies on the coherence properties of these waves to extract information from interference patterns.

We have recently extended holography to the case of intrinsically incoherent waves, so that no phase information can be retrieved from a classical interference measurement. Instead, the phase information is now encoded and decoded using entanglement. Entangled photon pairs are used to probe complex objects of which amplitude and phase components are retrieved by imaging the spatial structure of entanglement. As an example, the image on the cover shows the quantum holographic image of the number 15 imprinted onto a spatial light modulator. See also the preprint for more details”

Self-assembly (Serim Ilday, Bilkent University – UNAM) 

Credit: Serim Ilday and Alex Wing

Credit: Serim Ilday and Alex Wing

 “These are microscopy images. Each dot forming the number ‘15’ is a laser beam. Laser pulses that get absorbed by the liquid heat it. The rest, untouched by the laser pulses, remains cold. The liquid starts flowing from the hot to the cold regions, just like in a steam engine. The flows carry polystyrene spheres (red image) and E. coli bacterial cells (green image) towards the beam spots. When they exceed a threshold number, particles and cells slow down the flow the same as the water slows down when you drain it over a sieve. Then, their numbers grow further and write ‘15’.

The recipe? Couple an ultrafast laser to a microscope through a series of optical elements, including a spatial light modulator, which divides a single beam into multiple beams. Cinema projectors have at least one of these for precisely the same reason. Sandwich a thin liquid layer containing the material of interest between two glass slides. Put it under the microscope and shine the laser. Record using a camera. Enjoy!”

Quantum gas microscope (Immanuel Bloch, Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics)

Credit: Immanuel Bloch and Alex Wing

“The ‘birthday candles’ forming the ’15’ are individual atoms fluorescing in ultra-high vacuum. Lithium-6 atoms are cooled down to around a billionth of a degree above absolute zero and trapped using laser beams. By interfering three pairs of beams, an optical lattice is created which forces the atoms onto a micrometre-spaced regular grid.

An additional custom-shaped laser-pattern coaxes them into the shape of the ’15’. Visible light is then scattered off the atoms and collected with a microscope objective and a single-photon sensitive camera. During illumination, the atoms need to be hindered in heating up via continuous laser cooling. The resulting black-and-white photo is finally coloured. When the atoms are not sending special birthday greetings, they simulate the quantum mechanical behaviour of complex many-body systems.”

 

 

Diaspora scientists gauge India’s pandemic ‘new normal’

What could be the challenges for Indian diaspora scientists wanting to explore career opportunities back home during the novel coronavirus pandemic? Sayan Dutta, a doctoral fellow in the Neurodegenerative Disease Research Laboratory at Purdue University, analyses the key learning from a recent global meet.

Sayan Dutta

Bappaditya Chandra

As the global economy took a hit with the coronavirus pandemic, and science job opportunities seemed up in the air, more than 400 diaspora Indian scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs got together in early September 2020 to make sense of what this ‘new normal’ might look like.

At the Science and Research Opportunities in India (Sci-ROI) annual meet – which was forced to go virtual this year, like many other conferences worldwide – this bunch of engaged scientists and researchers heard 40 eminent speakers over four days, keenly picking up nuggets on the current and future projections of the career landscape in India.

A volunteer-run organization established in 2015, Sci-ROI is a gateway for young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the U.S. to access professional opportunities across academic, industry and private sectors in India. When we were wrapping up Sci-ROI’s annual event in 2019 at the University of Chicago, its founder Prof. Aseem Ansari prodded me gently about the new challenges we had vowed to undertake in 2020. I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that the “new challenges” would entail organising a full-scale virtual event amid a global pandemic.

Back in April 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic shook the world necessitating complete lockdowns, it seemed impossible to organise this year’s in-person event in September. After deliberations, the organising team became sure about two things – that the event should go virtual, and that no one had the slightest hint on how to host a virtual event. But soon enough, a diverse team got working overtime – countless hours of online meetings, event planning, programing, technical troubleshooting, media moderation and visual media creation (all by hidden talents in parallel to being postdocs), were unleashed.

Speakers from 39 Indian institutes joined the panels to address attendees from more than 150 institutes around the world. The deliberations revealed that there has  been no major setback in India’s research funding due to the pandemic yet. Most Indian academic institutions are still actively engaged in the hiring processes, and funding agencies have taken steps to mitigate the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, though in the long run things might slow down.

A session discussing perspectives of new faculty who have relocated to India saw high participation at the virtual event.

Unique sessions such as entrepreneurial seminars and careers beyond the professoriate spotlighted opportunities in both the sectors. India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to widen its support for new biotech start-ups and deep-science entrepreneurial ventures. The conference also brought forward India’s growing career landscape in the sectors of science communication, management, administration, and policy making available to researchers after Ph.D.

Through online polling, participants at the event, mostly from the diaspora, actively identified some major challenges they face while trying to transition back to India.  Among them were the age barrier of 35 years on entry level positions (such as assistant professorship), lack of a centralised and transparent recruitment process, and slow or no correspondence and follow-up emails on their application status from Indian institutes. In view of the pandemic, researchers also strongly advocated making academic applications completely paperless.

Although we did not realize it at the onset, the virtual format of the event turned out to be more informative and far-reaching (involving even the Indian diaspora outside the US) than the traditional format.

A global pandemic got us out of our comfort zones, and we found unique solutions for unforeseen problems. We realized that while in-person interactions are irreplaceable, enabling effective virtual communication is the need of the hour. Sci-ROI’s “by the scholars, for the scholars” event represented a model of such an emerging community, critical for global brain circulation. Alongside the annual event, a virtual recruitment week in October and a central STEM job portal will hopefully enable the growth of stronger collaborations between scientific communities within and outside India.

(Sayan Dutta coordinates collaborations at Sci-ROI, a U.S. based volunteer-run organisation, helping diaspora Indian scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs access professional opportunities in India. He can be reached at sayanm06@gmail.com.)

Five inspiring women

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), was an English mathematician and is regarded as the first person to recognise the potential of computing power and programming. Since 2009, the second Tuesday of October has been commemorated as Ada Lovelace day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Here we celebrate the stories of five pioneering physicists.

 Caroline (Lili) Bleeker1,2 (1897-1985) 

University Museum Utrecht / Public domain

Caroline Bleeker was a Dutch physicist and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in 1928 from the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Her thesis was on spectral measurements of alkali metals. After her PhD, she started a consultancy to advise companies on scientific instruments. This project then evolved into opening her own factory to produce equipment, particularly focussing on optical components.

During the German occupation of the Netherlands in the second world war, Bleeker hid Jewish people in her factory. In 1944, the factory was raided by German troops, but Bleeker, who spoke fluent German, was able to distract the soldiers while those who were hiding escaped through the garden. After this, the factory was closed down by the Germans and Bleeker herself had to go into hiding for the remainder of the war.

After the war, the factory reopened and Bleeker worked with her long-term friend Fritz Zernike to produce the world’s first complete phase contrast microscopes. They filed the patent on this together, and in 1953, Zernike won the Nobel prize for this invention.

Elizaveta Karamihailova3  (1897-1968)

Physmuseum / Public domain

Elizaveta Karamihailova was a nuclear physicist and the first woman to become a professor in Bulgaria. She earned her PhD in 1922 from the University of Vienna in Austria. After this, she worked at the Institute of Radium Studies in Vienna with Marietta Blau. Together, they observed a previously unknown radiation from polonium in 1931. Later, this was confirmed by James Chadwick as neutron radiation, which led to him winning the Nobel prize in 1935.

After further postdoctoral work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, UK, Karamihailova returned to Bulgaria in 1939, where she set up the first atomic physics course at the University of Sofia. She no longer had the equipment to continue her previous work on ionisation, and so she turned to studying cosmic rays using photographic plates. In 1944, a left-wing uprising took place in Bulgaria and the authorities labelled Karamihailova “unreliable” due to her anti-communist views. She could no longer travel abroad and spent the rest of her career in Bulgaria.

湯浅年子, Toshiko Yuasa4 (1909 –1980) 

朝日新聞社 / Public domain

Toshiko Yuasa earned a degree from Tokyo Bunrika University in 1934 to become the first female physics graduate in Japan. She started teaching there and began her research career in molecular spectroscopy. In 1940, Yuasa moved to France to continue her research, despite the beginning of the second world war. She worked with Frederic Joliot-Curie (son-in-law of Marie Curie) on radioactivity, earning her PhD in 1943.

After the Allied liberation of France in 1944, Yuasa had to leave for Berlin, where she built a double-focussing beta spectrometer. In 1945, Soviet troops ordered Yuasa to return to Japan. She made her way back through Siberia, carrying the spectrometer on her back, arriving in Japan just before it surrendered. However, the US occupying forces in Japan would not allow her to continue her research in nuclear physics, so she could only teach. In 1949, she returned to France as a researcher for the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), where she remained for the rest of her career.

سميرة موسى‎, Sameera Moussa5,6,7 (1917–1952) 

Al Ahram Daily news Paper / Public domain

Sameera Moussa was an Egyptian nuclear physicist who worked on atomic energy and was the first women to be a lecturer at the University of Cairo. In the 1940s, Moussa discovered a way to split up atoms of cheap metals, such as copper, which would make the medical applications of nuclear technology much more affordable. However, against the backdrop of the second world war and the detonation of the first nuclear bombs, Moussa was keen to advocate for the regulation of nuclear technology. In 1952, she organised a conference on “Atomic Energy for Peace” which inspired the US program “Atoms for Peace”.

Moussa received a Fulbright scholarship and travelled to the University of California for further research. She was the first non-US citizen to be given access to the top-secret US atomic facilities, which caused some controversy. In 1952, she died when her car was driven off a cliff. Moussa is believed to have been assassinated as the driver was not found, and it is thought that he jumped out of the car. Raqia Ibrahim, an Egyptian-Israeli actress, was accused of murdering Moussa on behalf of the Israeli Mossad who were concerned at the idea of Egypt acquiring a cheap atomic bomb.

পূর্ণিমা সিনহা, Purnima Sinha8,9 (1927–2015) 

https://www.livehistoryindia.com/herstory/2019/05/26/dr-purnima-sinha-pioneering-physicist / CC BY-SA

Purnima Sinha studied physics at the University of Calcutta in the late 1940s. During her time as an undergraduate, she was taught by Satyendra Nath Bose, who encouraged her to join his research group and undertake a PhD in X-ray spectroscopy. Sinha became the first Bengali women to receive a doctorate in physics in 1956. The PhD students worked together to collect scrap army surplus equipment which was readily available after the second world war to build equipment for their research. Sinha studied the structure of clay; later, she joined a biophysics department at Stanford University and found structural similarities between the geometries of clay and of DNA.

In addition, to her scientific pursuits, Sinha was an accomplished musician, painter and translated many science books into Bengali. In 1970, she published an anthropology book on Indian folk music. Sinha was actively involved in Bengali Science Association, which had been set up by Bose. After retirement, she also created an informal school for children of ethnic minorities.

 

References

  1. Dr. Caroline Emilie Bleeker, physicist and businesswoman. Accessed 12.10.2020
  2. Lili Bleeker, Wikipedia Accessed 12.10.2020
  3. Elizaveta Karamihailova, Wikipedia Accessed 12.10.2020
  4. Toshiko Yuasa, Wikipedia Accessed 12.10.2020
  5. Sameera Moussa, Wikipedia Accessed 12.10.2020
  6. Abdulaal, M. The Story of Sameera: World-Renowned Egyptian Nuclear Scientist, Egyptian Streets (2018) Accessed 12.10.2020
  7. Al-Youm, A. Raqia Ibrahim: Egyptian Jewish actress recruited by Israel to prevent Egypt owning nuclear bomb. Egypt Independent (2014) Accessed 12.10.2020
  8. Purnima Sinha, Wikipedia  Accessed 12.10.2020
  9. Katti, M. Dr Purnima Sinha: Pioneering Physicist. Live History India (2014) Accessed 12.10.2020

Achieving a Bose–Einstein Condensate from my living room during lockdown

During the COVID-19 lockdown which led to the closure of many labs around the world, Dr. Amruta Gadge, a postdoctoral researcher in the Quantum Systems and Devices group at the University of Sussex*, made headlines for remotely setting up a Bose–Einstein condensate from her living room. Here, she tells us her story.

When the UK government announced the national lockdown on 23rd March due to the pandemic, my lab at the University of Sussex was forced to temporarily close its doors.  We of course had a strong inkling this was coming, and rushed to get ourselves in order before it happened. In my laboratory, we were determined to keep our experiments going as best we could although we had never run them remotely before. Without being able to set foot in the labs, bar a few essential maintenance visits, the only way to continue working on our experiments was to use dedicated remote control and monitoring technology.

Dr Amruta Gadge adjusting a laser pre lockdown

Rebecca Bond

Pre-lockdown, I was part of a team building an apparatus to produce Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs).  A BEC consists of a cloud of hundreds of thousands of rubidium atoms, which have been cooled down to nanokelvin temperatures using lasers and magnetic fields.  At such temperatures the cloud suddenly takes on different characteristics, with all atoms behaving together as a single quantum object. This object has such low energy that it can be used to sense very low magnetic fields, a property we are making use of to probe   novel materials such as silver nanowires , silicon nitride nano membranes or to probe ion channels in biological cells.

We had started assembling this system just a few months before, and were looking forward to reaching a big milestone in the lab – producing our first BEC.  Time was short!  To run such an experiment from home was no easy feat, with large and complex laser and optics set-ups in state-of-the-art labs – which couldn’t just be transported.  In the days leading up to lockdown, equipment, chairs, and computers were being ferried to various homes, deliveries of equipment were diverted and protocols for remote access and online control were put in place.

Ultra-cold atom experiments are very complex. Obtaining a BEC involves a large amount of debugging and optimising of the experimental sequence. When not in the lab, at times it felt almost impossible to debug. We set up software control for the equipment, such as oscilloscopes, vacuum pumps, and others. However, the tool that played the most important role was our environmental monitoring system. Trapped cold atoms are extremely sensitive to any variations in the environmental conditions. Changes in the ambient temperature of the lab, humidity, residual magnetic fields, vacuum pressure, and so on, result in laser instability, polarisation fluctuations or changes in the trapping fields. All of these effects lead to fluctuations of the number of trapped atoms, as well as their position and temperature.

Debugging the system is a long process, but this can be greatly helped by monitoring the environmental conditions at all times. This may sound elaborate, however with the rising popularity of time series databases and data visualisation software, it is possible to develop a convenient monitoring system. We made use of cheap and easily programmable microcontrollers for data collection, and two popular open source platforms, InfluxDB and Grafana, for storing and visualising the data, respectively. We set up a large network of sensors throughout the labs, aimed at monitoring all the parameters relevant to the operation of the experiments. If atom numbers fluctuated, or something wasn’t performing well, we could quickly narrow down the problem by looking at our Grafana dashboards. This meant that our experimental control sequence could be quickly tweaked from home for compensating the environmental fluctuations, and the monitoring system proved to be an extremely useful tool in achieving BECs remotely.

Dr Amruta Gadge working from home with an image of her BEC on screen

Amruta Gadge

We were installing a new 2D magneto-optical trap atom source in the lab, and managed to see a signal from it just the day before the lockdown. I remember clearly that I was very worried that lockdown was going to delay the progress of our experiment significantly.  .  However, thankfully we could keep operating remotely, and managed to achieve our long-awaited first BEC from my home.

I was very excited when I saw the image of our first BEC. I had spent the whole day optimising the evaporation cooling stage. It was past 10pm, and I was about to stop for the day and suddenly the numbers started looking promising. I continued tweaking the parameters and in just few attempts, I saw the bimodal distribution of the atoms — a signature of a BEC. It was strange to have no one there to celebrate with in person, but we instead got together to hold celebrations virtually — something we are all getting used to now. I was really hoping to get the first BEC of our experiment before moving to my next post-doc, and having it obtained remotely turned out to be even more gratifying.

 

*Dr. Amruta Gadge is now a post-doctoral researcher in the cold atoms and laser physics group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.

 

 

 

Return to the lab

As coronavirus restrictions have been easing over the past few months, increasing numbers of researchers are starting to return to labs and begin experimental work again. Nature Reviews Physics organised a photo competition, inviting submissions of photos which depict lab-life in the era of COVID-19.

Here are some of our favourite entries:

 

Safety first – particles from outer space second! In this picture you see Claire Antel (left) and Lydia Brenner (right) in the lab of the FASER Experiment at CERN. This new dark matter detector will be installed 100 meters underground before the end of this year. This picture was taken on the 10th of July when we for the first time managed to test the detector by measuring cosmic ray particles. You can see the normal protective gear we always have to wear, such as steel-reinforced work boots and helmets, as well the face-masks that are now mandatory in all indoor work areas at CERN. You can also see that we have to maintain distance at all times, which makes working on the same small machine, between us in the picture, slightly more complicated, but we managed. Submitted by Lydia Brenner

 

Luca Naticchioni (INFN) and Maurizo Perciballi (INFN) working on the installation of a new underground seismic station at the candidate site for the Einstein Telescope in Sardinia, Italy (Sos Enattos – Lula, August 2020). Submitted by Maurizio Perciballi.

 

Marco La Cognata is mounting experimental set-up for a Nuclear Astrophysics experiment at INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Sud (in Catania, Italy). The 27Al beam for this experiment was the first delivered in Italian laboratories after the lock-down. Taken in May 2020. Submitted by Sara Palmerini.

 

Part of the SMOG2 group installing, in front of the LHCb detector, the first gas fixed target at the LHC. LHC will have not only beam-beam but also beam-gas interactions. A new frontier for quantum chromodynamics and astroparticle physics, LHCb cavern, CERN 6th of August 2020. Submitted by Pasquale di Nezza.

And finally, our winning photo is:

 

Optical alignment of microscopy setup at IIT GENOVA. Immediately after Italy announces a little relaxation (mid of May 2020) for the researcher to continue their research activities following the strict norms and regulation advisory. Submitted by Rajeev Ranjan

Congratulations Rajeev! Rajeev will be receiving a one-year personal subscription to Nature Reviews Physics. Stay tuned for our next photo competition which will announced soon via Twitter – follow us @NatRevPhys for more information!

Why mental health discourse must transcend the pandemic

Mental health of societies is justifiably under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, psychiatrist Debanjan Banerjee of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) Bengaluru is sceptical that the important issue may be pushed back into obscurity once the crisis ends.

Debanjan Banerjee

Being a psychiatrist, I have been overwhelmed with the explosion of data, discussion and debate on mental health from even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO in March 2020. Surprisingly, a virus has suddenly helped peak interest in an aspect of public health that has long been overshadowed in our societies by stigma and neglect.

In the last six months, there hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t been invited for webinars or media appearances on mental health or read a research paper or article around this. Various online fora discuss the ‘pertinent matter’ daily. I have discussed, debated and advised on topics ranging from psychiatric disorders to psychological effects  of COVID-19 on populations or special groups (based on age, gender or social status), as well as the future implications of the pandemic. Mental health journals are publishing special supplements related to psychiatry or psychological problems of COVID-19. Like many of my peers, the fertile ground created by the virus has resulted in several publications to my credit in these journals.

The rising curve of ‘COVID-19 related mental health’ provides a tough challenge to the slope of the COVID-19 case curve itself. But has it helped our service delivery and in estimating the mental health problem in this crisis? Perhaps not. Mental and psychosexual health has always been important. Did we need a pandemic to open our eyes to that?

“To worry or not to worry”

That is the most common question I face in public online discussions and media interviews. Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted psychological health, or are we overestimating the threat? –people seem to be quite confused about that.

So here’s a rational approach to unpack this question – unlike other natural or human-made disasters, pandemics are not ‘a one-shot’ events. The mortality and morbidity continue to rise for months to years, and the rippling effects span the socio-economic, political, psychological and psychosocial dimensions.

COVID-19 related fear, health, anxiety, stigma, stress and sleep disturbances have affected the world’s population. Added to that are financial constraints, disruption of social structure, the effects of physical distancing, lockdowns and the ‘misinfodemic’ (misinformation epidemic).

Population-based research in India, China, UK, USA, Brazil and Italy has established the worsening of psychological status due to the pandemic. Though limited data exists on people already suffering from mental disorders before COVID-19, hypothetically they might be more vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress and trauma. Besides, many of them might lack access to mental healthcare and medications due to travel restrictions. The other vulnerable groups are the frontline workers, the students, the children, elderly and socio-economically impoverished groups, including the migrants.

Interestingly, even though generic measures of ‘stress’ and ‘quality of life’ get reflected in classical quantitative research, the needs for mental wellbeing are mostly similar across the world.

One size does not fit all

I read somewhere that “COVID-19 is a great equalizer”. Of course, it is not.

The needs of a migrant labourer stranded in an overcrowded railway platform are far different from a rural healthcare worker with no access to personal protective equipment (PPE). The factors governing resilience vary widely between someone trapped with an abusive partner and suffering violence during the lockdown and an adolescent deprived of intimacy with his/her partner for months together. In short, COVID-19 has ironically highlighted the crevices in our understanding of what mental health constitutes, the same understanding that has surreptitiously governed the attitudes of the general population and physicians alike for a long time. Beyond the rigid diagnostic criteria of psychiatric disorders and the ‘medicalization’ of mental health, the pandemic displays that psychological wellbeing is as abstract as the ‘mind’ itself and also highly individualized.

It is natural to be worried or anxious during a pandemic. Anxiety is the natural defence to deal with the crisis, and being ‘perfectly composed’ is a myth. The grey but vital line of what constitutes ‘acceptable stress’ and what needs professional help can be markedly polymorphic, again depending on personal and social circumstances.

Contrary to common advocacy recommendations, no one suit fits all. When the socially unprivileged are deprived of basic amenities like food, water, shelter and security, these needs seek much urgent attention than anything else. Mental health is intricately linked with physical, sexual and social health. Divorcing these contexts and giving it a purely ‘psychological’ shape is an injustice to the human mind itself.

Mental health: A piece of the pie

Feeding off the confusion and anxiety around COVID-19 is an alarming new brigade of life-coaches, happiness experts, faith-healers, counsellors, motivators, speakers and theorists – each claiming that they are the best ‘distress-relievers’. This is of grave concern.

Some of these healing methods and their purveyors have been controversial and merit scientific scrutiny. Psychological health, seen as an accommodative arena, has traditionally been an attractive breeding ground for numerous such ‘professional experts’ in mental health. Improvement in any medical disorder (including psychiatric disorders) depends largely on the patient’s trust in the therapist or the doctor-patient relationship, and this factor is exploited many times in advertisements and endorsements about such professions.

Faulty advice can harm patients of psychological distress and disorders. The underlying societal stigma and marginalization against the mentally ill have only helped putting them “away from the society” for ages. The same stigma is prevalent against those testing COVID-19 positive or those working on the frontline exposed to viral risk. Stigma and prejudice are an integral part of the ‘collective mental health’ and are often under-detected, as they cannot be categorized as ‘disorders’.

Social problems that affect mental health – poverty, homelessness, gender-based discrimination, ageism, domestic violence, deprivation of human rights and social injustice – are often politicized or discussed for academic obligations but rarely addressed with sincerity, either at an individual or administrative level. These lacunae get unmasked during a biopsychosocial threat like COVID-19, further re-enforced by the socially-dissociated storm of sudden mental health promotion and awareness.

It is important to realise that mental health can only be conceptualized as holistic psychosocial and psychosexual health. A number of factors are involved in the genesis of stress and trauma during a crisis. That necessitates an assumption and bias-free approach, sensitivity, empathy towards the underprivileged, administrative enthusiasm and collective understanding of the importance of mental health irrespective of the pandemic.

Will it fizzle out?

Mental health, unlike many other disciplines, is quickly capitalised and politicised for short-term gains. My scepticism is that, like any other piece of popular news, the relevance of this ‘hot and in-demand topic’ will fizzle out soon after it has served its purpose.

The most recent example of such event-driven concern is that of a Bollywood film star’s death by suicide, which gave way to the usual conspiracy theories alongside online awareness drives around depression and suicide prevention. I received numerous calls with inquiries on the ‘psychological premise’ of suicide and how it can be prevented.

What we fail to understand is that like diabetes, hypertension, strokes or heart attack, psychiatric problems are also better prevented. The approach of prevention starts right when a child is born, or a family is started. Environmental influences, parenting, education, upbringing and social interactions have as much a role to play in the genesis of mental health problems as genetics. But unlike genetic influence, the other factors can be modified, which gives us a wider angle of interventions. It is rather pointless discussing and criticising suicides with hypotheses about how they could have occurred, as one can’t second guess or retrospectively prevent the premature ending of a life.

The debate around psychological wellbeing during the pandemic will continue enriching our academic and professional lives.  However, whether the numerous webinars, articles, guidelines, Ted talks and public lectures will penetrate the concrete social shell to destigmatize mental health is doubtful.

When the pandemic ebbs, this heightened sensitivity about psychological concerns should not. That might help global mental health and sharpen our preparedness for such crises in future.

Nature India’s latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.