Over the last year and a half, people around the world have experienced collective trauma inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost everyone has some relation to COVID-19, directly and indirectly, from contracting the virus or losing a loved one, to wearing masks and experiencing social distancing restrictions. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) latest announcement about fully vaccinated individuals no longer needing to wear masks in most circumstances is a step in the right direction, many might feel anxious about returning to normalcy after this unprecedented era. With feelings of isolation and many lacking in-person interactions, our society will need to place higher emphasis on mental health to resume normalcy in a post-pandemic world.
During times of crisis, important societal issues and trends become more apparent. After September 11, Americans suffered a deep and public trauma that lingered months and years after the attacks, even for those indirectly affected by this event. The mental trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in a similarly public and universally felt way while the profound isolation and loneliness we have experienced brings us into a new kind of shared experience.
Although social distancing measures and lockdown measures were necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus, these actions came at a cost. As we look to the future, there is a growing concern about the long-term impact of social distancing restrictions as connection is necessary for humans; if it is removed, it can take a severe toll on the mental state of individuals.
The next wave of the mental health crisis
The pandemic had a pronounced impact on mental health. There are two key issues to watch for in the future: possible post-traumatic stress disorder (or other trauma-related symptoms) and the impact of isolation and feelings of loneliness over a long period of time. It is important to prepare for the potential mental and emotional transition for people directly impacted by COVID-19 as they may struggle to come to terms with this new normal. According to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had a prevalence of 30.2% among acute COVID-19 infection survivors. This is not surprising, and we will likely see more PTSD cases especially in those who experienced severe symptoms resulting in hospitalizations or those considered “long haulers.” It is a normal response for patients with life-threatening diseases to experience trauma-related disorders during a serious hospitalization, and the same seems to be true for severe COVID-19 case, as well.
Mental health is also a top concern for those who were indirectly affected by the virus. There has been an increase in substance abuse across the country since the onset of the pandemic as well as a concern that suicide rates may also increase. And, while there is no published research yet, it would not be surprising to see that depression rates have also increased in response to quarantine isolation.
Feelings of loss, grief, and isolation are more common than before, due to a lack of physical human connection and socialization. Other emotionally significant moments like saying goodbye to loved ones through traditional funerals or memorialization ceremonies were frequently not possible due to state restrictions. As we look towards healing as a society from this collective trauma, mental health will need to remain a top priority for all individuals during this time of transition.
Anxiety in social situations after a pandemic is a normal response. Rest assured, you are not alone. Questions about workplace safety, indoor meetings, social distancing protocols, office layout, as well as the vaccination status of friends and coworkers are all top of mind when slowly reintegrating to normal life.
For many employees, it is impossible to flip a switch and come back to the office as if nothing happened. Employers must transparently communicate with employees to ensure all feel informed and valued with the return to office plan that puts the mental health of employees first. This includes outlining physical safety protocols and access to benefits that can help with mental health, including counseling and emotional support services. This should also be an ongoing dialogue where employees should feel comfortable voicing their concerns, asking for information and assistance, and both parties can work together to address accommodations that may be needed based on individual situations.
On a personal level, self-awareness and self-care will be important to maintaining positive mental health in a post-pandemic world. Turn off your screens two hours before bed to reduce mental stimulation and promote better sleep, set a limit on how much time you spend consuming news and social media each day (use a tracking app to help with sticking to allotted times), monitor your substance and alcohol use, and reach out to loved ones to reconnect and check in. Shifting some of your focus towards other people and providing assistance helps build stronger connections with them.
There are many ways to carve out time to relax, and this will look different for everyone. If you are looking for resources, there are free apps for meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness techniques, all which can help calm your mind and promote stress relief. Above all, being kind to both yourself and others will help you feel more connected and mentally prepared to return to work and everyday life.
Virtual therapy and the future of mental health care
The teletherapy genie is now out of the bottle, and there are no signs of telemedicine returning to pre-pandemic levels soon. While the industry was already moving in this direction, the pandemic accelerated the boom of teletherapy by years.
Previous fears that psychotherapy might not be as effective through a computer screen are gone, and individuals are more likely to seek treatment in today’s environment given the flexibility and ease of access to mental health professionals. Now that the stress of scheduling appointments while factoring in a work schedule and commuting time are gone, individuals are less likely to cancel appointments and are able to speak with professionals anywhere, any time. Additionally, if someone is looking for a provider but struggling to find one within commuting distance, as long as they are within the same state, it is possible to start virtual therapy, which has not often been the case before the pandemic.
As we move forward into this next chapter, now is the time to prioritize mental health and identify supportive resources so we can be prepared for the adjustment struggles in the coming months. Taking a step back and finding comfort in situations that have not been experienced in a long time, such as not wearing a mask in public, will be important steps while readjusting to a post-pandemic world. Being kind to one another and understanding individual boundaries will create a smoother transition to this new normal where mental health awareness needs to be at the center of social activity to heal from this collective trauma, together.
Mark Debus is the behavioral health team lead at Sedgwick.