COVID-19 coronavirus infections and deaths worldwide have left serious and lasting damage in their wake. But one aspect of that damage may far outlast the pandemic. Millions around the globe are suffering debilitating psychological disorders that may last for many years to come.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has caused worldwide infection, pain, suffering and death. Those afflicted by it have endured the brunt of a tidal wave of physical torment unlike anything since the Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1968-1970.
The economic toll may not be fully known for years, long after we’ve accounted for all the cases and deaths. But the longest-lasting impact may be one that can’t be readily seen or measured in dollars and sense.
Health, like fitness, has four key pillars: physical, mental, emotional (also called the psycho-social) and spiritual. When a public health emergency occurs, like the COVID-19 pandemic, resources naturally get focused heavily on the physical, specifically on preventing death and the overwhelm of the medical services system.
In the case of this pandemic, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, along with the general shuttering of the economy, completely upended the daily lives of billions across the globe. Lives were put on hold in order to save lives. Or so we were told.
We had to “follow the science” to “flatten the curve.” But in many ways, we may also be crushing the mental and emotional health of millions of people. For many of them, they will be told it is the sacrifice they had to make to “save their neighbors.” But what will the long-term mental and emotional health impact of these decisions really look like?
According to an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University, the outlook might be pretty bleak. In some ways, the cure really might cause more pain than the disease.
“There are some valid concerns that this coronavirus pandemic could cause emotional trauma and PTSD at a level we’ve never seen before,” said Megan Holmes, an associate professor of social work and the founding director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.
The US is in the midst of the largest COVID-19 case load and death count of any nation in the world. Testing is underway and research continues at a frenetic pace to find both treatments and vaccines to fight the virus. What remains unknown is how hard the pandemic will hit the mental and emotional health of Americans.
In a period of only two weeks, the team, made up of scientists from the School of Medicine, the Center on Trauma and Adversity and the Francis Payne Bolton School of Nursing put in serious work. They rounded up almost 600 participants for the pilot study.
They began collecting and analyzing responses to a survey about how the COVID-19 coronavirus might have hit the emotional well-being of the participants. They also asked about what coping mechanisms, if any, they may have been leaning on to reduce emotional distress.
“Our pilot data showed that nearly 90% of the sample reported experiencing one or more post-traumatic stress symptom, a rate that is much higher than reported for other traumatic events,” Holmes said.
Their results were shocking. 86 percent of those responding reported experiencing at least one symptom of trauma and 94 percent reported at least some level of grief.
This pandemic is unique in it’s ubiquitous nature. While other major traumatic events, such as massive earthquakes, hurricanes and events like 9/11 or even World War II can cause massive psychological trauma, the effects tend to be limited by the fact that those events are more geographically limited in size and impact.
“They also did not involve mandatory quarantines or isolation and did not have ongoing stressors of physical-health threats—all which independently have been documented by research to increase anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms,” she said.
The team continues to update their COVID-19 Coping Strategies webpage based with coping strategies reported by their participants which seem to be effective at reducing COVID-19-related mental and emotional distress.
“Given the quarantine circumstances, individuals are forced to adapt their coping strategies to manage the stress of COVID-19,” Holmes said.
Next up is to produce state and national estimates of the mental health symptoms. More data collection across an even wider cohort will be required. It will require massive levels of participation and data collection and correlation.
If you’d like to be part of the study, you can participate here.
The response to this virus pandemic has created more problems than anyone could have anticipated. At least that’s what the authorities want you to believe. In truth, the mental and emotional health impact of the response could have been measured ahead of time, and should have.
In some cases, the response to the virus has been ham-handed and seems to show a need to control on the part of authorities. Other authorities have been inept and seemingly caught flat-footed. What’s clear is that we need to be better prepared for this type of emergency.
That preparedness needs to include a plan to address all the pillars of health before they become damaged.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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