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Post-COVID-19 Trauma and How MHFA Can Help

COVID-19 continues to take its toll on a global scale, affecting everything from jobs to schooling and to our mental wellbeing. With so much uncertainty as we near our third year of the pandemic, it’s unsurprising that our collective mental health has been worse than years prior. As the number of deaths due to the virus grows every day, some are finding it difficult to cope – people have lost family members, friends, and community members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 40% of U.S. adults are struggling with their mental health, with 31% reporting symptoms of anxiety. Another study found that 57% of individuals from eight English-speaking countries have experienced some COVID-19-related adversity or trauma.

Trauma is defined by the Mental Health First Aid (MFHA) curriculum as, “a shocking and dangerous event that someone sees or that happens to them and is associated with levels of stress that can harm physical or mental health.” On larger scales, a traumatic event or experience is called mass trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic is considered a mass trauma event, and in fact, just this year the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General stated that the pandemic has caused more mass trauma than World War II.

The physical and mental impact of the pandemic will be felt by many for years to come, ergo it’s crucial that we have the skills, information, and resources to support one another as we cope with this global tragedy.

The Impact of Trauma

Reactions to traumatic events can vary from person to person, but generally include intense and enduring emotional distress, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with self-regulation, nightmares, substance use and even difficulty eating and sleeping. Traumatic stress occurs when a response to an event is both persistent and affects a person’s daily life.

A person who is experiencing this stress may also show symptoms of acute stress disorder within the first month after exposure to trauma. This can include significant distress and inability to engage in social activities, relationships and employment. The person may also react to triggers of the trauma in everyday life with avoidance or withdrawal. Luckily, for most people who experience acute stress disorder, support from family, friends and professional intervention will resolve their symptoms within a month.

While researchers are still studying the long-term effects of traumatic experiences, we do know that repeated exposure to traumatic events during childhood and adolescence can negatively affect the brain and nervous system. Long-term reactions to a traumatic event may even be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and these symptoms may persist for months or even years. PTSD is marked by many symptoms, but may include: flashbacks, recurrent dreams, intrusive memories, withdrawal from those around them, irritability and outbursts of rage. Not all symptoms of PTSD are mental – The American Psychiatric Association states that PTSD can also present physical symptoms, including chronic musculoskeletal pain, high blood pressure, nausea and in some extreme cases, cardiovascular disease.

How You Can Help

Support from family, friends, and mental health professionals can be vital in supporting someone’s journey to recovery after a traumatic event. As a First Aider, there are a number of ways you can support yourself and your loved ones using the MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE):

  1. Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm: Reactions to trauma will vary from person to person, and the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. It’s important to consider the best way to approach the person; choosing a non-intrusive and calm environment are crucial but be alert for any warning signs of suicide. If the person is in a crisis situation, call 911.
  2. Listen Nonjudgmentally: If the person is not in a crisis situation, you can engage them in conversation. Remember that trauma can lead to higher-than-usual levels of anxiety, so be mindful of how you approach the situation and encourage them to talk about their feelings and symptoms. Reactions to trauma can be overwhelming for the person, so it’s important to take time to listen to them before you discuss possible courses of action.
  3. Give Support and Information: Helping a person understand they are not alone is reassuring. A person who is experiencing a trauma response may not have the experience or support in the past, so being honest in your interactions and communications is important. It also helps to have resources handy to share with them.
  4. Encourage Appropriate Professional Help: There are many local and national resources to help treat trauma, and you can support someone by helping them research the treatment options and professional resources available to them. Let them know that they do not have to do this alone.
  5. Encourage Self-help and Other Support Strategies: A person with trauma can benefit from self-help and other support strategies such as 12-step groups and their support network made up of family and friends. Wellness Recovery Action Planning for trauma provided by peer supporters has shown to be beneficial.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented time, affecting all of us in different ways. And while experiencing a mass trauma isn’t easy, we can all do our part to support one another through the challenges and changes to come. You can #BeTheDifference for yourself, your family members, friends, and neighbors by using MHFA.

 

References

Czeisler M. É. , Lane, R. I., Petrosky, E., et al. (2020). Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69, 1049 – 1057. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm?s_cid=mm6932a1_w

Eth, S. (2020, October). Expert Q&A: PTSD. American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/expert-q-and-a

Feuer, W. (2021, March 5). WHO says pandemic has caused more ‘mass-trauma’ than WWII. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/05/who-says-pandemic-has-caused-more-mass-trauma-than-wwii-and-will-last-for-years.html

McFarlane, A. (2010). The long-term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences. World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association, 9(1), 3 – 10. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2051-5545.2010.tb00254.x

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.