For so many people, the past year hasn’t just been tough. It’s been deeply traumatic.
We lost our jobs, our loved ones. Working parents have had to cope with kids attending virtual school from home. Racial disparities became more pronounced. Drug and alcohol addiction soared. On top of all that, we’ve struggled with way too many months of social isolation.
Nearly a third of Americans have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in the past year, a 200% jump from what was reported before the pandemic. Sejal Hathi, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and board member of the mental health advocacy nonprofit Inseparable, said this growing mental health crisis can be traced back to both the direct viral effects of COVID-19 and the mass trauma the pandemic has inflicted on our psyches.
Eventually, with the help of the vaccines, we’ll get a handle on COVID-19. The restrictions will lift, and we’ll be encouraged to go out and live our lives normally again. But it might take some time for us to bounce back from everything that’s happened since March 2020. Mentally healing from an event like a pandemic doesn’t happen overnight. Recovery takes time, patience and compassion.
The first step is recognizing that what we’ve endured during the pandemic can be classified as trauma, said Amy Cirbus, a New York licensed mental health counselor and the director of clinical content at Talkspace.
From our work lives being upended to losing financial security, good health and family connection, so much of what we typically rely on has been disrupted. “This is a trauma, we are impacted, and we have to acknowledge that,” Cirbus said.
In order to start to heal, we need to first acknowledge our feelings (without comparing them to other people’s), and accept how challenging the past year has been.
How long will it take to heal from what we’ve endured?
Hathi said we shouldn’t expect to bounce back immediately. There’s “no black and white timeline” for how long it’s going to take to recover mentally from the pandemic.
Cirbus said everyone’s processes will look different, and will vary depending on “how much they were affected just by circumstances and their own history with mental health [and] trauma.” The greater the trauma, the more time it could take to heal.
We shouldn’t try to speed up the process, nor should we expect that we’re going to revert to exactly how things were before the pandemic. “That would ignore everything we’ve been through,” Cirbus said.
Evidence collected after other crises, like the Ebola epidemic and 9/11, tells us that emotional pain can persist long after the traumatic events subside. The persistent activation of our stress response that occurs during crises can trigger depression, decreased immune functioning and physical health issues that can linger for months, sometimes years.
For some people, improvements can take place within six months, but for others, symptoms may persist for much longer. Science suggests that healing from traumatic events largely depends on how resilient a person is.
“I think we’re going to be struggling with the mental repercussions of this pandemic for a very long time, [but] that isn’t to say this will yield permanent stressors or be a permanent damage for people,” Hathi said.
What it’s going to take to improve our mental health
Hathi said the most crucial step is for the country to invest in and expand access to mental health care. Too many people with treatable mental health issues have difficulty finding affordable, high-quality care. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent opportunity we have to reimagine what mental health care looks like.
On an individual level, it’ll be important for each of us to re-establish meaning and purpose in our lives, since the pandemic has stripped away so much of what may have previously defined us.
Research shows that people who’ve endured traumatic experiences typically have smoother recoveries if they’re in therapy. Social support can also act as an amazing buffer against psychological problems and PTSD-like symptoms, as can medication, exercise and meditation.
The key takeaway here is that when post-traumatic symptoms are addressed, they typically improve. If those proven interventions are not utilized, mental health issues can stick around and get a lot worse.
“I think it’s critical to nip this in the bud as soon as we can, to get help when we need it, and then also on a more structural level to ensure that we’re investing in integrated mental and physical health services,” Hathi said.
Cirbus’ best piece of advice is to give yourself time. Some days may be harder than others, and that’s OK. Instead of focusing on how you’re feeling on a given day, look at how you’re improving every month, three months or six months.
“We don’t have a time stamp [for this],” Cirbus said. “Give yourself longer periods of time to mark that healing process.”
It’s probably going to take a while for most of us to make sense of the pandemic and work through the aftershocks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the emotional effects will last a lifetime.