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New Study Sees Unprecedented Trauma from the Pandemic

But there's good news: You can grow from the crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic could inflict long-lasting psychological trauma on an unprecedented scale, according to a study being done by researchers from Case Western Reserve University. They are looking at how the crisis is affecting Americans’ mental health and coping strategies. So far they have compiled data from more than 800 respondents and they plan to follow up six months after the survey.

The leader of the study is Megan Holmes, an associate professor of social work and the founding director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at the university. I spoke with her about the findings so far. The interview has been edited and condensed.

How widespread is trauma from Covid?

When we ran the pilot data in April, we found that nearly 90 percent of respondents had one or more traumatic stress symptoms. We’re seeing that 27 percent of respondents are meeting the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis. To put this in perspective: The national estimate is normally 5.3 percent. It’s 7.6 percent for servicemen who were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why is it so high?

Covid is affecting everyone. It’s not localized in one area like it was for wars, or other infectious diseases like SARS and Ebola. This is on a much larger scale. There are so many kinds of loss—not seeing friends and family, loss of jobs, kids not in schools. There is grieving on many layers. Social relationships and healthy connections with people are the number one way to mitigate the effects of trauma. That’s complicated by the social distancing and isolating.

What's your data pool?

So far 808 subjects, 18 and older, from 27 states. We have a heavier representation of females and whites.

What are the challenges of delivering care?

We’re going to have a ton of adults and kids with limited possibilities of face-to-face interactions. Tele-health allows people to gain access to mental health services in the comfort of home without stigma. However, that’s a challenge here in Cleveland where 20 to 25 percent of our community doesn’t have Internet access. Schools especially need to be made aware of what trauma looks like in kids and be prepared to respond.

How can we build resilience?

Biological research shows that positive relationships are the best way to reduce trauma symptoms. It's important to have contact with people who are safe and supportive, even via screens and phone calls. It’s not the number of people but the quality of these relationships. They make it much easier to bounce back.

What about post-traumatic growth?

This occurs when you can turn a traumatic event into something positive so that you grow out of the struggle. Trauma can bring a different appreciation of life and personal strength. For instance, you could see a number of people who end up changing careers to something more impactful to them.

Some people have the ability to bounce back. While they may be experiencing trauma now, they will be able to pivot easily and return to their routines. That depends on what their baseline of stress is. If they’ve had several stresses before it would be harder.