A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the findings of a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll showing that nearly 9 in 10 of 1,000 registered voters surveyed believe that our nation is in the thick of a mental health crisis. Now, a new poll released by the analytics and advisory company Gallup shows Americans’ fears about COVID-19 are mounting once again with a steep rise in the percentage of Americans who said the pandemic is “getting worse,” as compared with fall 2021.
While Megan Brenan, the lead author of the report, told USA TODAY that she’d “never seen” anything close to the level of political polarization shown in the recent data, she is waiting to see if Americans will “look over their shoulder” in fear of the next possible variant or whether they’ll “let themselves feel more optimistic.” The poll sampling of 1,569 U.S. adults was conducted online Jan. 3 through Jan. 14.
The bell has been rung throughout the past two years of the growing domino effect of a pandemic that has taken millions of American lives and, as reported by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, infected more than 35 million Americans. The results of stress and a constant sense of uncertainty and isolation have become commonplace experiences of the pandemic. While mental health suffers, the semantics of what health care professionals call the toll is up for debate. Does what people are now experiencing qualify as “trauma”?
The question was recently posed to a group of top mental health professionals by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. “Viewing the world as unsafe is often a symptom of trauma,” she reasoned. “The past two years have felt traumatic,” yet people are “conflicted” calling it such.
“I have no difficulty calling (it) a trauma,” responds Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine who has been studying collective trauma since the 1980s.
“We absolutely are experiencing a mental health tsunami,” says Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association. “And we expect that it will grow even more next year, so we haven’t even crested this tsunami yet … I think for a lot of people, the idea of having a mental health challenge is ‘there’s something wrong with me.’ And I think what the idea of trauma helps people to understand is that, no, this is something that is happening to me, and how I’m responding is a natural response.”
Tamar Rodney is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. She explains to listeners that “right now, especially as the pandemic drags on, we need to be paying attention to the warning signs — irritability, trouble sleeping, drinking more than usual, fatigue, loss of joy.” These are signs she is already seeing in some patients. Even if it “didn’t hit clinical significance,” it does not mean that mental health professionals should not be paying attention to it. “Address the symptoms as they come,” she adds. “We do not need to get to full-blown depression or anxiety or PTSD before we deal with it.”
Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist, neurologist and author of the bestselling book “The Body Keeps The Score,” which explores the brain and the healing of trauma. He says that the pandemic is “deeply affecting all of us on a very important level.”
“What do we miss? We miss understanding what the future will bring to us. A very important part of mental functioning … what I’m encouraging us to do — to really identify what is making us all feel like we’re barely hanging on. Maybe the threat of COVID, maybe the isolation, not being able to feel safe with other people … But a very core issue of recovery or dealing with trauma is moving together, dancing together, some sort of rhythmical engagement (with) the people around you.”
In the roll call of preexisting conditions worsened by the pandemic environment in which we all now live, obsessive-compulsive disorder rarely gets a mention. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.3% of American adults have OCD.
Says Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, OCD is caused principally by excessive activity in an area of the brain that processes fear, danger and the fight-or-flight response. “It can manifest as compulsive, repetitive behaviors; an anxiety about getting ill or spreading germs; or an excessive sense of responsibility, and an intense fear of causing risk to others.” OCD has been called a disorder of doubt, and a global pandemic is a perfect breeding ground for it. “Even people without an official diagnosis are affected,” says Kluger.
A 2008 study published in the journal Nature found that 25% of Americans will exhibit at least some obsessive-compulsive behavior at some point in their lives. “The pandemic has made life much worse for people with OCD symptoms. New research shows that OCD symptoms have gotten more severe for many people during the pandemic, and new diagnoses have increased,” he writes.
Andrew Guzick, a clinical psychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, states, “OCD thrives on intolerance of uncertainty … it is no surprise that it has been a difficult time for people struggling with the disorder.” A June 2021 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders shows that 72% of people with OCD had worse symptoms since the onset of the pandemic.
Kluger believes it is also important that we recognize that people without OCD respond to pandemic-era guidelines very differently than people with the disorder. “Washing your hands once for 20 seconds after entering the house may have become common practice for most people in the age of COVID-19; washing your hands multiple times for 20 minutes at a time is too often the response of people with OCD. It’s that kind of overreaction that clinicians are worried is becoming too prevalent.”