By Mary Kate McGrath - November 25, 2020
The COVID-19 crisis, which has uprooted daily life, overwhelmed healthcare systems, worsened existing mental health crises and caused economic pain, will have a permanent impact on society in the United States. The massive loss of life and hardship caused by the pandemic is an example of “collective trauma,” in which the crisis impacts the essential fabric of communities across the country. To address the fallout of a disaster on this scale, state and local governments should learn how to identify collective trauma and work to provide resources to communities that are struggling.
While psychologists typically use the term “trauma” to describe the effect a traumatic incident has had on an individual, collective trauma is the impact of a traumatic experience on groups of people, communities, and societies, as per Psychology Today. Collective trauma is unique in that it distresses the lives of individual people, but also changes the entire fabric of the community, impacting relationships, changing government policies, and altering social norms or behavior. Common disasters that solicit collective trauma include, but are not limited to, pandemics, wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, severe poverty or food scarcity, oppression, and economic recessions.
The “collective” nature of trauma can be difficult to identify in communities, as major traumatic events can result in a variety of individual reactions in community members including physical, psychological, relational, or spiritual crises. While the trauma of a devastating event might be dealt with in a public setting, any holistic approach must make space for the individual experiences or responses to stressors. Following a major disaster of any kind, there is likely to be a wide range of reactions that include, grief, sorrow, distress, anger, confusion, or residual stress.
Trauma impacts all people, regardless of demographics; factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, or geographical location do not preclude people from experiencing collective trauma, according to SAMHSA. The effects of traumatic events can harm individuals, families, and communities, creating additional challenges for public institutions or services. Therefore, government officials have a duty of care responsibility in the wake of disaster to ensure that appropriate behavioral and mental health services are deliverable following a major traumatic event.
In order for state and local governments to address collective trauma, it will require a multi-faceted, multi-agency public health approach that includes public education and awareness campaigns, early identification by community leaders, and trauma-specific plans to assess and treat the issue, as per SAMHSA. While a collective traumatic event threatens the health or safety of entire communities, the communal nature of these experiences paves the way for emergency managers to coordinate a communal response effort.
The COVID-19 crisis fits the profile of a collective trauma event, and administrators can use lessons from the disaster to boost future resiliency. Even for those who have not suffered a personal loss, the pandemic has had many people watch friends or family lose jobs and witness a harrowing reality of the illness either on the news. In addition, the lockdown orders and social-distancing mandates are likely to exacerbate the effects of the pandemic as it isolates people from their social support, according to Social Science Space. When many community members are feeling helpless, depressed, or anxious, and rates of substance abuse-related crises are continuing to rise, it’s important for leaders across government agencies to consider how best to support communities for long-term recovery.
One legislative example comes out of New York City - in anticipation of the mental health needs of frontline and health workers, organizations are looking toward the executive and state legislature to support proactive and trauma-informed interventions to continue to manage the health, well-being, and recovery of essential healthcare workers, as per MHANYS. The organization presented several action-items to legislators, including workplace surveys to track the impact of COVID‐19 associated collective trauma, workplace wellness resources or training opportunities for organizations looking to support impacted employees, a COVID-19 related mental health hotline specifically for frontline workers, and public service announcements about designed to broadcast wellness resources.
The distribution of mental health resources, healthcare options for those struggling with substance abuse, social safety net services such as EBT or unemployment, and other relevant government resources will be essential to helping communities heal from the collective trauma of COVID-19. If state and local governments invest in the infrastructure to provide and distribute information about mental health resources, ongoing emergency response, and enrollment periods for the social safety net, these efforts will ensure that communities are more prepared and resilient in the face of future disasters.
For those looking to proactively address collective trauma, whether in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or as part of a larger mental health awareness effort, a comprehensive communication plan is essential. A coronavirus response solution can help implement a multi-pronged effort, making mental health resources more accessible, facilitating community wellness checks, issuing targeted alerts to those who are most vulnerable. The vulnerable needs registry can also help state and local leaders identify at-risk communities - such as individuals who are unhoused - and reach out proactively with resources.
The ability to conduct routine health or wellness checks can help emergency managers better understand residents’ needs amid COVID-19 recovery. Residents can opt-in to self-report any information they feel comfortable with and be assured of strong privacy protections. This can include pandemic-related health information as well as ongoing mental health struggles. Additionally, government officials can send targeted notifications to individuals who might be struggling with concerns related to the pandemic. This can include mental health support or local hotline numbers for healthcare workers or application portals for those who need to renew their social safety net services.
Officials can also leverage a mass notification system to further address economic concerns. The ability to distribute relevant information about EBT, unemployment offices, or other agencies related to the social safety net can facilitate residents accessing resources necessary to weather this difficult period. Administrators can also reassure the community amid the ongoing changes, providing timely updates on recovery plans, and any changes to lockdown orders, mask mandates, or ongoing protocol.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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