The past year has been...a lot. COVID-19 — plus police brutality, a racial justice reckoning, a tense presidential election, record unemployment, and mass shootings — has led to a mental health crisis and high levels of psychological distress nationwide. This is especially true for Black Americans who have witnessed police killing after police killing of Black men and women. As well as daily injustices that are the result of systemic racism in the US. It's also the case for Asian Americans who've faced an increase in racial attacks since the start of the pandemic.
We’re just starting to understand the long-term impact of 2020 — and COVID-19 — on the nation’s mental health. Pew found that more than one year into the pandemic, about a fifth of US adults are experiencing high levels of psychological distress, and another study shows about 13% of participants experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
PTSD may occur after a person experiences a traumatic event like a natural disaster, combat, sexual assault, a health crisis, mass shootings, prolonged bereavement, and more. Almost 8% of adult Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and Black adults are most likely to have PTSD than people any other race. Women are twice as likely to experience it as men, and those identifying as LGBTQ+ are at a higher risk of developing PTSD than heterosexuals — nearly four times as much in some cases.
Whether you experienced trauma firsthand, are supporting someone who has, or are constantly taking in traumatic news events, your mental health is likely feeling the side effects.
Here’s what all this could mean for your health.
If you've experienced trauma firsthand...
Perhaps you tested positive for COVID-19, lost a loved one to the virus, or were at the scene of a crime or traumatic event. You could also be a person of color experiencing repeated race-based traumatic stress (“RBTS” for short) — especially in the last year — because of encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, racism, and hate crimes.
You may be feeling…
Chronic pain. Stress causes wear and tear on the body. Someone who has experienced trauma may have pain more often than someone who hasn’t had the same history. That’s because anxiety can be a lingering effect of trauma. And anxiety and stress can make muscles more tense, which can lead to chronic pain over time.
Isolated and socially avoidant. Talking about these traumatic events can be triggering — and it’s likely that you’ll want to avoid people and places that remind you of what happened. Cue isolation.
Like those intrusive thoughts just won't quit. These may include flashbacks to the traumatic event(s).
Reckless. PTSD can set off urges to escape into harmful behaviors like excessive drinking, smoking, drug use, overeating, or abuse.
Here are some ways you can cope...
Find a support system. Support groups made up of people who have been through a similar traumatic event can help with the healing process.
Maintain a daily routine. Consistency is key toward building back some semblance of normalcy.
Seek professional care. PTSD can usually be treated with different types of talk therapy, medicine, or both. Therapy with a professional counselor can help you work through your feelings, learn healthy ways to cope, and figure out whether medication is right for you (we Skimm’d how to find a pro and pay for care here and here). Therapy isn’t always covered by insurance, so contact your provider before making an appointment. And know that some therapists offer sessions on a sliding scale to make it more affordable.
If you're supporting someone who has experienced trauma...
Are you a caregiver, frontline worker, medical provider, or professional who’s constantly exposed to someone else’s distress? Trauma doesn't stop at the people who experience it directly — you’re also in the line of fire. That’s called “secondary” or "acquired" trauma.
You may be feeling...
Stressed. Obviously. Plus, exhausted, vulnerable, isolated, and helpless.
“Compassion fatigue” — that's the term for stress after prolonged exposure to a traumatized individual. Translation: when you always put others first, your own health can fall by the wayside.
Here are some ways you can cope...
Get physical. Endorphins are your friend — and exercise can also give you some much-needed “me time” in between caring for someone experiencing trauma.
Reduce exposure and set boundaries. That'll give yourself space to recuperate, process, and heal.
If you’ve been emotionally impacted by the turmoil of the past year...
This may include distress from news consumption, changes in your routine, or the loss of your old life.
You may be feeling...
“Disenfranchised grief” — aka grief that goes unrecognized because others don’t validate it.
Anxiety. Plus, depression and survivor’s guilt. Know that your feelings are legitimate.
Here are some ways you can cope…
ID your feelings. Recognize that grief is grief, no matter the magnitude. This will help validate the losses of the past year, instead of burying it all.
Seek connection. This might mean phoning a friend or seeing a therapist. Just because people aren’t asking whether you’re okay, doesn’t mean you should be suffering in silence. Or try volunteering. Taking action in your everyday life can make you feel invigorated instead of isolated.
Log off. Taking a break from the news or social media may help calm your mental landscape.
Create a new ritual. Symbols and ceremonies can be helpful when you’re trying to move on.
Traumatic events create a domino effect of pain and distress. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to return to baseline. While we’ve outlined some coping tactics, you should always consult with a mental health pro to discuss a path to healing that’s best for you.
For more coping resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255)