Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Self-isolate if you are experiencing symptoms. Right now, our health-care system is — very appropriately — in emergency triage mode in the battle against COVID-19. But there is a looming crisis on the horizon if we only pay attention to the physical and ignore the emotional dimensions of this pandemic.
A landmark 1997 study found that Adverse Childhood Experiences, including things like physical, sexual and emotional trauma, can have lasting impacts on physical and emotional health. Right now, our society is going through a lot of trauma. The wall-to-wall news coverage is causing widespread anxiety, and all of us have had our daily routines disrupted. There are grim economic realities too, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, and entire industries completely upended. Many of us will get the virus and have frightening symptoms, or even lose loved ones to COVID-19.
For behavioral health professionals, all this presents a unique set of problems. It is important that we heed the advice of public health professionals who are encouraging us to maintain physical distance. But we need to recognize that the nature of how we defeat this virus will make it more difficult to deal with the emotional challenges caused by this pandemic.
People who have just lost a loved one are being forced to grieve in self-isolation. Workers who have been laid off are sitting at home, not sure how they’ll put food on the table and unable to look for new work. And we’re all sorely missing the face-to-face daily interactions with family, friends and co-workers that we had previously taken for granted. When anyone is hurting, the first instinct is to hug them.
For people who have experienced significant trauma throughout their lives and are already struggling with mental health issues, the impact of the coronavirus is even more profound. The trauma they experience as a result of the pandemic can be triggering. For the most vulnerable, the concept of “social distancing” can be hard. They rely on appointments with mental health professionals, and group activities to manage the stress of their day-to-day lives.
After tragic events that cause lasting trauma, we congregated to grieve and cope. New Yorkers who lived through 9/11 remember how important public memorials were to the coping process. Gatherings at Trinity Church in the shadows of Ground Zero and other public spaces, such as sporting events, allowed us to feel connected to one another. There were also public service announcements encouraging New Yorkers to reach out and seek help dealing with mental health issues.
Right now, it is crucial that we flatten the curve and break this virus. But to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot ignore the psychological toll the past few months have had. We can’t ignore that physical and mental health, in fact, cannot be separated.
Here is some advice to help minimize the damage.
- Ask yourself and others how they are doing, what feelings you and they might be struggling with right now. Ask people how they are coping.
- “Strive for Five” by contacting at least five friends or family a day.
- We also encourage the government to sponsor broad-based public service announcements highlighting mental health.
As we address those once the crisis has receded, we need to acknowledge that we will not be able to help fully recover from the devastation this pandemic has caused without addressing physical and behavioral health needs.
– David Woodloack