Much attention on COVID-19 has focused on slowing down the progression of the spread of the virus. The importance of “flattening the curve” to support the medical system has justifiably taken the center stage in the media. However, as a psychologist and psychotherapist, I see a pandemic of another kind fermenting as well. The social, mental, and cultural impact of going through a global pandemic has the potential to leave not only psychological scars behind, but also spiritual and existential wounds as well.
The prompt shift people had to make from a normal life to thrilling uncertainty in a matter of days and weeks has given little time to face and adjust to the changes that were coming. Those who had experienced extreme shock after coming out of denial, and had to overdraw their own coping endurance to juggle their jobs, families and loved ones. This new lifestyle offers little room for autonomy; only collective efforts can endure this adversity. “We are all in this together.”
This is a formula for trauma. When the emotional experiences overwhelm people, the likelihood of long-term mental health consequences and social consequences increases. As a psychotherapist, I have seen people dealing with relationship, social, and physical issues among others related to earlier unresolved traumas. The current symptom might not even seem related to the original traumatic event. The confusion and helplessness caused by trauma are often expressed in passivity, patterns of fear, hypervigilance, and dissociative experiences.
The difficulty in answering the question how COVID-19 will affect people’s mental health condition is that most of the studies evaluating its social, emotional and even economic impact will be cross-sectional. They will only look at one point rather than its effects over time. It is entirely likely that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and frequently co-occurring psychological conditions as a response to the pandemic may become serious public health problems soon. We need to increase our knowledge with more research to find better treatments for our patients. The clinical challenges will be great; however, the aftermath of a traumatic event is profoundly personal. The course and outcome of anxiety symptoms are highly variable and largely depend on post-trauma support and care. Patients cannot do it alone.
Although we cannot forecast the magnitude of the pandemic at the time of this writing, I can confidently say that we may be feeling its long-term effects sooner rather than later. For that fight, I look to the front-line emergency physician Dr. Frank Gabrin – who died from Coronavirus – who is reported to have said in his last post on Facebook about “the most powerful medications we have in the pandemic—tolerance, kindness, empathy, compassion, and patience.”
Simon Abou Jaoude, PhD
Assistant Professor, Clinical Psychology, Department of Psychology, Education and Physical Education, Faculty of Humanities