COVID-19 and Trauma: How a Pandemic Affects Our Mental Health

The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted individuals across the world. While the infection rate and death toll of COVID-19 are clear indications of the gravity of the situation, what remains to be seen are the long-term effects this pandemic will have on the mental health of those affected.

Epidemics have been shown to create general stress across the populations they affect. They can also contribute to new cases of mental illness and substance use. The implications of COVID-19’s impact on mental health has begun to appear in current research – studies of Chinese healthcare workers who initially responded to the pandemic have seen an increase in anxiety, depression, and fear of workplace violence among this population. Healthy individuals are also experiencing negative mental health outcomes due to the pandemic. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from April 2020 found that nearly half of U.S. adults reported their mental health had been negatively affected by stress over coronavirus.

These findings lead many mental health professionals and advocates to warn that a pandemic of mental illness will be the next large public health crisis in America. Given this, it is critical that organizations across the healthcare spectrum, but especially in behavioral health and human services, are aware of the impact of mass trauma due to COVID-19 and are prepared to address it.

Who is at Risk of Experiencing Trauma During COVID-19?

Anyone who is directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19 can experience symptoms of mass trauma. However, there are a few groups of individuals who are especially at risk of experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress due to the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Healthcare workers, especially those who are directly caring for COVID-19 patients, are at a high risk of developing traumatic stress disorders due to unprecedented levels of burnout, moral injury, and compassion fatigue.
  • ICU survivors, or those who become critically ill with COVID-19 and require treatment in an intensive care unit, are more likely to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after being discharged.
  • Families of ICU survivors are also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress symptoms following the discharge of their loved one.
  • People of color are experiencing significant health disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Latinx individuals are more likely to contract and die of COVID-19 than white Americans, negatively impacting the wellbeing of these communities.
  • Individuals with disabilities are also disproportionally experiencing the effects of the pandemic. For example, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 than the general population. Additionally, with hospitals beginning to implement strict triage policies due to a lack of COVID-19 treatment resources, many people with disabilities fear they will be denied life-saving care.

How Can a Trauma-Informed Approach Help?

The widespread impact of trauma due to the coronavirus pandemic can be mitigated when organizations implement a trauma-informed approach. Trauma-informed care allows organizations to reframe their services to ensure that they are not perpetuating symptoms of trauma, but are instead acknowledging the physical and cognitive consequences of trauma, building resilience, and focusing on strengths.

The trauma-informed care paradigm sees trauma reactions and symptoms not as pathological, but as adaptations to a difficult situation. It also acknowledges that trauma can have a deep impact on the body and mind. Traumatic stress can lead to physical symptoms like body aches, headaches, nausea, and sleep disturbances (among other symptoms). Cognitively, trauma can provoke a wide array of reactions, including confusion, exhaustion, dissociation, or hyperarousal. These symptoms, if left untreated, can impact an individual’s immune response and result in a wide array of physical health complications. In a time when physical health is of utmost importance, it is critical that service providers understand why they should address trauma symptoms during the pandemic.

Given these potential physical and cognitive detriments of trauma, trauma-informed care focuses on building strengths and creating resilience. Being strengths-based allows providers to help individuals focus on where they can build upon their positive assets and address areas where they may be lacking the resources to cope with trauma. This helps individuals build resilience – the capacity to adapt to adversity and “bounce back” from difficult events. Increasing resilience is something everyone needs at this time – the pandemic shows no signs of going away anytime soon, but building resilience with positive coping mechanisms can help individuals get through this difficult time.

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Nellie Galindo

Content Marketing Manager, Relias

Nellie Galindo, MSW, MSPH, received her Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked with individuals with disabilities in several different settings, including working as a direct service provider for individuals with mental illness and leading a youth program for young adults with disabilities. She has facilitated and created trainings for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy, healthy relationships, sexual health education, and violence and abuse prevention. Mrs. Galindo has worked in state government helping individuals with disabilities obtain accessible health information in their communities, as well as utilizing the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure equal access to healthcare services.

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