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COVID-19 Traumatic Stress Disorder

A definition of a new disease: CVTSD.

 Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Andrew Spratley, Conrad Kuiper, Nathan Barry / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Source: Flickr: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Andrew Spratley, Conrad Kuiper, Nathan Barry / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many of us are familiar with the once uncommon term PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—a mental health condition that develops after a person has experienced a traumatic, life-threatening event.

People mostly associate PTSD with military personnel, as certain traumas such as combat and sexual assault make people more likely to develop the disorder. But the condition can actually affect anyone and its symptomsdepression, anxiety, domestic abuse, drug misuse, and suicide—can linger for years.

Few have associated PTSD with COVID-19, but there is good evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can also be a cause of traumatic stress disorder. In this case, the symptoms would apply to individuals as well as to society as a whole. The way we look at this is not by focusing on the data for individual patients, but for societal trends.

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental disorders in the U.S. During late June of this year, 31 percent of adults reported suffering from anxiety and depression symptoms. A recent study published on JAMA Network explores the factors that led to an increase in the prevalence of depression symptoms more than three-fold since the beginning of the pandemic. A person’s likelihood of developing symptoms of depression depends on other stressors, such as job loss, death of loved ones, or increased financial responsibility; which are all direct consequences of COVID-19.

There are, however, other factors that influence a person’s mental well-being. Humans are naturally social beings: they thrive on building relationships with one another. This is no longer as easy as it once was with the social distancing measures that are currently in place in many locations. These effects can be felt amongst all age groups; from kids not being able to make friends, young adults not being able to meet a partner, workplace relationships not being formed due to working from home, to not being able to see certain family members. This puts a strain on people’s everyday lives, making them more likely to suffer from severe stress or anxiety.

Hyperarousal, a very common symptom of PTSD, can lead to angry outbursts and can make the person abusive. Many have been feeling on edge ever since the pandemic began due to drastic changes in their lives. This can lead to them feeling anxious all the time or unable to relax, which can lead to angry outbursts.

Living with someone who has abusive tendencies can also be traumatic. When lockdowns were announced in the U.S., an increase in demand for services of domestic-violence hotlines was expected. Yet some regions experienced a 50 percent drop in the number of calls. Victims could simply not connect to services safely, as their abusers were always home. The same applies to child abuse. When schools were still open, teachers and childcare providers could get a sense of what the child’s life was like at home but now, very few of the usual mandated reporters have enough opportunities to recognize signs of abuse.

PTSD also comes with self-harming tendencies, such as drug abuse. A study conducted in Kentucky shows that the number of nonfatal opioid overdoses went up from 102 between March and June 2019 to 227 during the same timeline in 2020. Quarantine measures, unemployment, and economic recession, in addition to a pandemic, all affect drug use patterns. Past economic crises in the U.S. have been associated with an increase in cannabis and illicit drug consumption among adolescents.

People who are struggling with addiction rely on social interactions even more. The economic and social stressors COVID-19 has created contribute to feelings of loneliness, which can cause people in recovery to relapse. Students and young adults are most at risk when it comes to developing an addiction, as they often live alone and need to form social bonds in order to move forward in both their private and professional lives. Uncertainty of the future is stressful under normal circumstances, and COVID-19 is making it worse.

Another self-harming tendency which can be caused by PTSD is suicide. One person dies of suicide every 40 seconds. In the earlier stages of the pandemic, there was a surge in suicide rates among medical staff in New York, who could not take the pressure COVID-19 was putting on them. While it is too early to make a statement about overall COVID-related suicide trends, we can be certain that the current health crisis will be followed by an economic recession which may very well cause rates to rise. What we do know is that suicidal thoughts are related to feelings of isolation—which the pandemic is aggravating.

Another term that is also used in the military is moral trauma. A moral injury occurs when someone transgresses their moral conscience and values. In the military, this could be killing another person. For U.S. citizens and many others, it may be triggered by seeing our governments fail us. The U.S. government has mishandled the crisis from beginning to end, which can cause moral trauma as people watch the economic, social, and health-related damage the government has inflicted upon the nation. We likely could have avoided so much disruption had the government seen the virus for what it is.

As U.S. citizens, many of us were taught to trust and believe in our leaders. Now, many feel as if we're watching them let us down over and over again, and sometimes even on purpose. We see the anti-mask movement and feel so powerless as we watch people enter stores in groups, claiming that they cannot breathe with a mask. The most basic of precautionary measures are not being respected, which is dividing the U.S. during a time when we should protect one another.

COVID-19 has affected so many stressors that its effects will be felt long after we have diminished the virus itself. This composite data proves that symptoms often affecting military personnel are affecting us as a whole. Military personnel suffer psychologically after battle, and our society will suffer for many years because of COVID-19. To highlight the severity of its effects, we should capture the latter under one name: COVID-19-related Traumatic Stress Disorder (CVTSD).

More from William A. Haseltine Ph.D.
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