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Collective Trauma From COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to collective trauma or long-term psychological effects that are shared by a large group of people.
  • Collective trauma can be caused by events such as war, natural disasters, mass shootings, genocides, and pandemics.
  • Such events can lead to heightened vigilance, increased fear, and challenges to individual and collective identity.

When dealing with something like COVID-19, much of the focus is on the prevention and treatment of the disease. The immediate effects are of the utmost concern, but it's also important to consider the longer-term collective trauma of the pandemic.

Collective trauma refers to the psychological upheaval that is shared by a group of people who all experience an event. This type of trauma can affect groups of people of any size, including entire nations or societies.

Causes

Major events that are witnessed or experienced by a large group can affect how people feel and act—and sometimes such events can result in cultural shifts and societal changes. There are a number of events that may cause collective trauma in a group.

Some examples include:

  • Wars/military conflict
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Natural disasters
  • Economic disasters
  • Mass shootings/violence
  • Genocide
  • Pandemics

There are different types of collective traumas. Some are immediate and relatively limited in duration. Examples include 9/11 and natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria. Others are less immediately dramatic, but much more prolonged, such as an extended pandemic, economic downturn, or military conflict.

Sometimes these events are witnessed first hand, but in some cases, they are observed through mass media. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are an example of an event that many people witnessed via live television broadcast and through media exposure following the event.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global event that will result in both individual and collective mental health effects. The social and economic impacts remain to be seen, but it is likely there will be long-term societal mental health consequences of the pandemic.

History of Collective Trauma

In order to get a better idea of the potential shared impact of the pandemic, it can be helpful to look at some of the long-term effects of past events. Some examples of real events that have led to collective trauma include:

The Great Depression 

The severe global economic depression of the 1930s left a deep and lasting impact on the American collective psyche. This economic contraction had a major impact on individual mental health at the time of the crisis—suicide rates rose by 22.8% during the years of the Depression. The depression also had a longer-lasting mark on the U.S. population, leaving many people with feelings of anxiety and vulnerability.

World War II

The psychological trauma of World War II and the Holocaust had a lasting impact on those who lived through those experiences as well as future generations. Research has found that while Holocaust survivors displayed remarkable resilience in the face of trauma, the psychological impact, including increased symptoms of PTSD and decreased mental well-being, continued for decades.

Lingering effects of the Holocaust also left a mark on parental mental health, family structure, stress levels, and perceived parenting quality, all of which played a role in affecting the children of Holocaust survivors.

September 11, 2001 Attacks

Over 100,000 people witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Towers directly while millions more watched the event unfold on live television or saw video clips replayed in the days, weeks, and months that followed.

Research suggests that the event led to some clear negative reactions including religious discrimination and political intolerance towards Muslims, or people who were perceived as being similar or affiliated with the attackers.

The Great Recession

The economic contraction that occurred in 2008 had a significant impact on physical and mental public health. Research suggests it led to declines in self-rated health and fertility as well as increases in psychological distress, suicide, and morbidity.

Impact of Collective Trauma

At the societal level, studies have shown that some of the potential lasting impacts on future generations include:

  • Increased individual and collective fear
  • Damaged national pride
  • Feelings of humiliation
  • Identity crisis
  • Increased feelings of vulnerability
  • Heightened vigilance for new threats

The beliefs that people previously held about their society are shaken or even shattered. People may question the future of their society and whether it's safe or wise to continue their affiliation with the group.

The nature of collective trauma can sometimes make it difficult to study the long-term effects on individuals and society. For example, while there have been numerous studies on the impact of 9/11, there is little research on the developmental impacts that the attacks may have had on children who went through the experience.

The reason for this is that because nearly every American child was exposed to the crisis making it difficult to find participants who didn’t share that experience to serve as controls.

While the impact is not always easy to study, some other trends that may result:

Mental Distress

Psychological distress is common following a trauma. In one study looking at the immediate and long-term effects of 9/11, researchers surveyed more than 3,400 people and found that media-based exposure was associated with increased psychological distress. This distress included acute stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and continued fears of subsequent terrorist attacks.

Transgenerational Effects

Collective trauma may be passed down to future generations. Researchers suggest that these traumatic historical events create a collective memory. This collective memory transcends individual memory and persists beyond the lives of those who lived through the experience, contributing to trans-generational effects on future descendants. 

Unequal Impacts

Collective trauma is not always equal. Even within groups, people may be affected and bear the burden of trauma differently. While we may all be weathering the same storm, that doesn’t mean that we are all the same boat.

While everyone may experience varying psychological effects, the greatest burdens tend to fall on the most vulnerable. Lack of access to resources and adequate supports serves to exacerbate this trauma.

Changed Beliefs

Collective trauma can influence attitudes and beliefs. People who lived through a trauma may form specific views as a result of the event. For example, researchers believed that the collective experience of the September 11 terror attacks played a role in increasing the perceived risk of outside threats in addition to fueling xenophobia, prejudice, and intolerance.

The Collective Trauma of COVID-19

Aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic can contribute to both individual and collective trauma. In a rapid review published in a 2020 issue of The Lancet, researchers found that isolation and quarantine contributed to a number of negative psychological effects including confusion, anger, and even PTSD.

Disruptions in daily life and extended periods of isolation can also have a negative impact on children. Experts suggest that communication with parents, supportive online resources, and online mental health services may help kids cope with some of these negative effects.

Research on past pandemics including earlier SARS and Ebola outbreaks provides some clues into the potential long-term collective impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Commonly observed reactions include panic, depression, hopelessness, anxiety, stress, grief, and PTSD.

How to Reduce Collective Trauma

In addition to being aware of the potential individual impacts of the pandemic, community and societal responses may help mitigate the long-term negative impacts. In order to minimize the negative psychological effects of isolation and quarantine, researchers recommend that officials should take steps to inform citizens, provide resources, and keep quarantine periods as short as possible.

Some steps that you can take that may help manage collective trauma include:

Limit Media Exposure

Research on the aftereffects of 9/11 found that people who reported watching more television coverage of the attack experienced greater negative psychological effects. People who watched four to seven hours a day of news coverage of the attack were four times as likely to report PTSD-like symptoms.

Stay Connected with Others

Even if social distancing requires limiting your face-to-face contact with other people, it is important to maintain your social connections. Thanks to technology, it’s possible to get creative and continue meeting friends, family, co-workers, and others virtually.

Rely on Trustworthy Information

People experience greater stress and panic if they are not able to accurately and realistically gauge the risk of a threat. While emotions can sometimes cloud judgment, particularly in stressful situations, research suggests that people are pretty good at making accurate assessments of the potential danger if they are provided with trustworthy, reliable information. Helping people make good choices by providing honest, transparent facts is imperative. 

Utilize Mental Health Resources

Even if you are not able to visit a mental health professional in person, there are online options that can help. Many therapists are offering services online as a result of the pandemic and there are also many online therapy sites that can offer assistance during this time.

What This Means For You

Collective trauma leaves its mark on each person as well as society as a whole. It disrupts our understanding of how the world works and our place within it—and it can change how we view ourselves and others.

This type of trauma can be damaging, but it also has the potential to transform. While we can only guess at what the ultimate psychological impact of the pandemic may be, we can hope that it helps strengthen the bonds that bind us together.

“Although the memory of trauma may foster a paranoid and paralyzing post-traumatic outlook, it may also spur growth through the meaning derived from the trauma,” suggests psychologist Gilad Hirschberger, an associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel in an article published in Frontiers in Psychology. That meaning, he suggests, ultimately may be one that “emphasizes the resilience of the group and its ability to rehabilitate and change in the aftermath of calamity.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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