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Upheaval Is a Powerful Opportunity for Change

The coronavirus challenges many of the assumptions on which our lives are built.

The challenges we are all facing because of the coronavirus have the potential to cause serious and sometimes lasting problems for individuals and societies. But can they also spur us to reconsider who we are, what we value, and how we live our lives?

The coronavirus context has challenged many of the assumptions on which our day-to-day lives are based — the way we engage with others, our capacity to travel, how we go about our schooling and work, and indeed for many, the loss of work. This has all been mixed with changing and fluid levels of threat of infection, an unseen threat, carried by those who usually represent safety and support during stressful events and disasters — other people. In some ways, this extended period of threat from the coronavirus has similarities to traumatic events and natural disasters, such as the bushfires and drought during the summer. All of these events challenge our perceptions of the world in which we live as predictable and controllable. This similarity is also reflected in the fact that it is not only the fears and exposure to the threat itself that pose a risk to our physical and mental health, it is also the risks posed by the consequent flow-on effects of additional stressors, in this case, self-isolation and the significant impact on employment and financial stability.

We in Australia appear to be making terrific headway in terms of containing the impact and spread of the virus. The benefit of the restrictions and social distancing implemented across the country can be seen around Australia, except for in Melbourne, where the coronavirus has re-emerged in the community. This confirms there is no room for complacency from this unseen threat, and once again, we are challenged in our day-to-day lives and the threat of infection. The stresses of isolation and employment instability, however, carry their own risks for further difficulties. Self-isolation is associated with social disconnection, loneliness, depression, and the risk of increased alcohol and drug use. The impacts of unemployment and financial stress include anxiety and depression. The combination of mental health vulnerability, alcohol and drug misuse, anger and financial stress also create a heightened risk of family violence. These are all risks we saw earlier during the pandemic and need to once again be highly alert to mitigating.

In Australia, considerable federal and state government initiatives, supported by our National Mental Health Commission, recognising and targeting these issues continue to provide vital support for many in the community. However, as research into the effects of trauma and disaster shows us, the coronavirus environment also offers us the opportunity for development, change, and transformation at individual, familial, community, and societal levels. What happens when we are forced to slow down, when our assumptions about how we live our lives across all these dimensions — familial, social, occupational, and material — are challenged?

Over the past 20 years, there has been increasing interest and attention to the issue of posttraumatic growth — how we find ways to discover ourselves anew following these seismic moments. Potentially, we develop a deeper understanding of ourselves, come to see the world around us differently, experience an enhanced awareness and appreciation of others around us, and have more time to notice the moments of life rather than seeing and experiencing life in a blur of weeks, months and years. Research shows trauma and disaster survivors often describe positive changes that can sit alongside the pain and distress of the trauma, often referred to as posttraumatic growth or posttraumatic transformation.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we saw changes in our community reactions. Initially confusion, and to some degree, social fragmentation as we saw in the hoarding of toilet paper and other goods, averted gazes when passing in the street and occasional overt acts of racism. Yet, as individuals and as a community, we have recognized that inherently we are all connected. We have seen people reaching out to neighbours, safeguarding our elders, identifying and helping those in need, and supporting our friends and work colleagues, and, perhaps fundamentally, taking the opportunity to deepen the quality of our time with our families.

This time that we are living in gives us a powerful opportunity. When our assumptions of how life unfolds are challenged, we are in a position to consider anew what we value, how we live, and of course, who we are.

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About the Author

David Forbes, Ph.D., is the Director of Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne. He specializes in treating military, veteran, and emergency services mental health.