We Can’t Dismiss How Traumatic 2020 Was for Everyone
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The first few weeks of 2021 has already taught us a particularly important lesson: if you do not deal with stuff in the past, it will spill over into the present in a very ugly and dramatic way. We are living in traumatic times, some much longer than others. You are under no obligation to “stay positive” or “choose” to be happy right now. We must recognize the enormous number of traumatic events in our lives, how it has an effect on our bodies and minds, and how we can work together to fix it. And remember, you are not losing it, you may just be experiencing what I’m calling “multiple disaster disorder.”
Last year was a dumpster fire. We had to deal with an incompetent federal government (I think that is the nicest things I have ever said about them) that completely abandoned us (second nicest things I have said) during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. This set in motion a series of events that further pushed us into uncertainty: unemployment, eviction, isolation and social distancing, the further divide of inequalities and more. As a result, instances of mental health conditions began to rise, and some people’s use of drugs began to increase.
We also had to confront the long-standing social and racial injustices that are inherent to the United States. On May 25, 2020, four police officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. In his final moments, George called out for his mother and repeated what many Black Americans’ last words are during deadly encounters with police: “I can’t breathe.” Coupled with the heartache and anger of what had recently happened to Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and compounded by the weight of a 500-year history of brutality, this proved to be a breaking point for many people. The summer of 2020 was marked by protests and uprisings that were fueled by in-person and online organizing, led largely by young and brilliant people of color and individuals of the LGBTQIA+ community.
When we rounded the corner into fall, I was ready to fight any “murder hornet” that tried to pull up. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) and was treated with a cocktail of medications. Election Day 2020 lasted a week and I dry-heaved several times per day. In winter, public health experts and people with common sense begged the public to forgo gathering for Thanksgiving and winter holidays to stop the spread of the COVID-19. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines and we saw some conspiracy theories that rivaled Flat Earth conspiracy theorists’ logic. And then, almost like a Christmas miracle, Congressional House and Senate leaders agreed that the American people should get a $2000 stimulus check. But, lol JK. Mitch McConnell said $600.
And although most people probably wanted to leave 2020 in the past, day six of the new year shows us that that’s not going to be an option.
But, let’s back up a bit. In early April 2020, mental health professionals (yours truly, emphatically included) began sounding the alarm about how all this was going to chokeslam people’s mental health if we didn’t act quickly to address the magnitude of these situations. There was trauma and potential for trauma everywhere. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) branch of the government describes trauma as, “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being … Trauma has no boundaries with regard to age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” And much of what we are going through is traumatic in nature, but we have been told to pretend like everything is “normal” and we should just go about business as usual while weathering a storm of extreme uncertainty, credible threats to our safety and repeated catastrophic events. Things were scary enough on their own, but adding the unnecessary conditions of 2020 make it much worse. The trauma of 2020 needs to be addressed.
To begin to heal, we are going to have to address all forms of trauma that is now in our face more than ever before. There are multiple forms of trauma that we are going to see: individual trauma, racial trauma, community trauma, historical trauma, disaster trauma, medical trauma, systemic trauma, the trauma from police brutality and more. Last year has brought to light just how deep these problems run. In my educated and experienced opinion, I would say that a majority of frontline individuals — either on the frontlines at health care facilities, the frontlines of grocery stores or the frontlines of protests — have or will have trauma-related symptoms and need mental health services. We must deal with this constant trauma because if we don’t, there are going to be long-standing consequences that will interfere with us going successfully forward. This is not a time for us to ignore our feeling saying we are doing “OK” or “getting by.”
Chronic stress takes a toll on our bodies and minds. We were built with what is called a fight or flight response, which means when we encounter danger, we instinctively “GTFO” of there or we prepare to brawl. This was awesome… when we had to fend off woolly mammoths so we could forage for food for our prehistoric family. But the same stress responses that were needed when we were gladiators about to battle a saber-toothed tiger are now being released when all the toilet paper has been raided, again. Or when you get another breaking news alert. Or when you hear a person start coughing. Our stress response just has not evolved enough to allocate the proper dosage of chemicals for when we are big-stressed or little-stressed.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.” Sound familiar? Yeah, beef up on your coping skills, but don’t stop there because we are going to need something more.
At this time, a lot of my thoughts are not about change on a personal level because my mental health was not good before 2020 happened. The indignities of common living conditions such as teetering on the edge of homelessness or going hungry every paycheck is traumatic. Constantly scanning your environment to be aware of threats to your life is traumatic. Spending hours or days or weeks going back and forth between your doctor and your insurance company (if you are even insured) and your pharmacy to see what life-saving medications will be covered is traumatic. Carrying around tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt is traumatic. Experiencing multiple natural disasters per year because the climate crisis is being ignored is traumatic. And, I can now add, witnessing an insurrection at government buildings by individuals who have had their extremism validated by top governmental officials for several years is traumatic. I could go on, but I think we could agree: shit has not been fabulous for a while.
There is no quick fix for any of this. But we can hit ‘em with the collective, “this is bogus!” The most recent stimulus bill has $4.25 billion for psychiatric treatment, which is 10 times the cash as the first stimulus bill. Definitely call/text/tweet/slide into the DMs of your representatives at all levels because they are essential workers until they fix this mess. Bother them. I have been doing it for years and it is satisfying and undeniably a coping skill for me. Or you can just straight up conjure up your inner Karen and start demanding refunds and managers, etc.
Also, a lot of people would benefit from a large-scale paradigm shift when it comes to mental health and although that seems like a big undertaking, it can start with one person. We can begin the work today by doing something small like holding space for a person who is struggling with past and present events. This can be done by sitting with a person while they process a situation without offering advice or telling them what course of action we would take. We could also help someone by validating their feelings and emotions surrounding events in the past. For example, a feeling of panic is a valid response to having to deal with customers who are yelling at you because they don’t want to wear a mask during a global pandemic, while you yourself are not being provided proper PPE by the company you work for. Or a feeling of terror is a valid response to law enforcement when you have been brutalized and there is a historic pattern of mistreatment toward people of your same race. And bawling your eyes out after a year(s) of complete uncertainty and terror is an extremely valid response. While we work toward ending these things, we can help people by normalizing the fact that they are having a “normal” reaction to ridiculously hard situations. And, as always, there is no shame in reaching out for professional help, if needed.
But yeah, did we learn anything, at least? I learned that the NBA knows how to control COVID-19 better than the United States government and that you can have daytime pajamas and nighttime pajamas. For some reason, people have beef with science and toilet paper anxiety is rampant in this society. Additionally, there is a bizarre underworld of private, big cat zoos (and trafficking rings) in this country and from that dark abyss, an American hero emerged to solve the mystery of who killed Carol Baskin’s husband. And I also learned that your credit score goes up one point per year if you are diligent about paying your bills, but 25 points down per day when you are slightly less diligent.
Going into this year, let’s not hide from conversations about mental health on the personal and the societal level because we should not be quick to dismiss how traumatic last year was. In fact, we cannot afford to dismiss it if we truly want to move forward. Consider this your formal invitation to help yourself and others get the care we deserve.
So, welcome newcomers to mental health care! Come on in. Hold up your arm a bit and I will scan your new vaccine microchip and get you all checked in. Take a seat and we will be right with you.
Photo by Fábio Lucas on Unsplash