As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, how can we deepen our understanding of the new realities that inform our lives? What insights can guide our focus and our resources to make things better?

More than a virus

Beyond the immediate physical effects of COVID-19, there are additional, severe repercussions that are equally pervasive—most notably, the mental health impact that has become a global pandemic in its own right. 

The connection between the plague, death, loss, and a global mental health crisis is straightforward. The world has changed. It’s depressing and anxiety-provoking.  But how did this happen? What were the precursors of what some describe as “the perfect storm” for PTSD, anxiety, depression and a surge in suicides? To what extent do cultural changes and the way we have evolved as human beings account for the post COVID-19 mental health pandemic? 

Before COVID: the loneliness epidemic 

More and more people, of all ages, are experiencing loneliness—and not just loneliness when alone, but loneliness in the presence of others. Less than two years ago, in 2019 BC (Before COVID), the World Health Organization declared loneliness an epidemic. While this sounds like a “nice to have,” quality of life issue, it is actually a serious and enduring danger: Loneliness might be the silent killer of more Americans than heart attacks and cancer combined: it may in fact induce and facilitate the worsening of any underlying medical condition.

Modernization: thinking alike while growing apart

Regardless of how one believes we came to be, it is clear that we have evolved and changed, through epochs, in many ways. From primitive times to the present, the trajectory has been a narrowing of focus from the many to the few to the one: the self. From the tribe to the I, from community to individuality, modernization has progressively turned our attention inwards. At the same time, technology has evolved at a dizzying pace, giving us convenience, access, and opportunities with one hand while taking our attention spans, survival skills, and sense of belonging away with the other. 

The ultimate expression of this trend is the Internet: an ingenious human achievement that creates the illusion of community, connection, and intimacy while dulling our incentive to seek out relationships beyond our computers. With all the attractions vying for our attention online, our tendency toward social distancing began long before COVID… though there is no doubt that the pandemic exacerbated our isolation while making us acutely aware of how far apart we really are. 

From we to me

Modern psychology focuses mainly on the individual and the individual’s life span, emotions, and inner conflicts. Human existence is aimed at the actualization and success of the individual. The pursuit of happiness has turned from a constitutional right into a voracious imperative of the human condition: a mandate that is continually reinforced by consumer culture, fueled by the seemingly unquestionable axiom that buying this or that will make us happy…at least for the next few minutes. 

In our time, the family is perceived as a springboard to the success of its children. Success is equal to the acquisition of education, a well-paying job, a home in the suburbs (or midtown). Yes, it usually comes with a family, a few cars in the driveway and a Goldendoodle: the American dream. But how is it that—in a society focused on the gratification of the individual, supported and promoted by family education and acquisition—so many of us feel so lonely, behind the walls of accomplishments and possessions we have compiled for ourselves? 

With the digital revolution, the pendulum has accelerated at dizzying speed. It is all about me. People increasingly ignore the call of clubs, congregations, and community centers, trading friends for followers. We are trained to search for affinity, community and even love online rather than in person. Lockdown brought families together but stripped us of the everyday encounters that form the fabric of our professional lives. Though many revelled in the freedom from commutes, offices, and in-person meetings, others found remote work to be just that: a condition that made human connection more remote and impossible to imagine despite the daily round of Zoom calls.  

The perfect storm: the mental health pandemic, before and after COVID

As vaccinations succeed and we begin to see the light at the end of this long tunnel, it becomes clear that there is no obvious cure for the damage the pandemic has wrought on our mental health…which was already at risk from the pervasive loneliness of the Information Age. What is it about this plague that intensifies our anxiety and undermines our ability to cope?

How catastrophic events influence the collective human psyche

Large-scale catastrophic events inevitably take a toll on the global psyche. When we first heard about the COVID-19 virus and its (then theoretical and distant) consequences, spirits were high. People applauded medical teams from locked-down balconies. There was a sense of camaraderie and communal feeling: the galvanizing hope that comes from having each others’ backs and shouldering a shared burden. But as months passed and deaths mounted, this optimism and resiliency gave way to a deep, long and depressing period of disillusionment. Besieged by bad news and new variants, we faced long days of not knowing when things would get better, if ever. We asked ourselves what the new normal would be like, and wondered, “Will we be able to pay our bills?”

The emotional lows of this disillusionment made people not just sad, but also angry. Very angry. Imagine a pressure cooker on a small flame, the pressure building inside it. Quarantined, locked down or just caught in the limbo of not knowing what happens next, it was inevitable that this pressure would quickly build to untenable levels.  

Potential energy seeks to go kinetic. Anxiety turns into anger. Anger turns into rage. It’s the laws of physics, but also what we have learned about basic human psychology.

The pendulum movement from the we to the I described above, along with pandemic-induced, collectively experienced anger and angst, have transformed the loneliness epidemic into a global post-COVID mental health pandemic. 

Those in the trenches endure the most

Frontline healthcare workers, the heroes operating in the trenches of COVID-19, are hit badly by the post-pandemic pandemic. One recent survey found that 13.9%, 15.6%, 22.8%, and 42.8% of healthcare workers had probable major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and alcohol use disorder, respectively. Some take their own lives. Most EAP programs are overwhelmed. Peer support programs for healthcare workers are scarce, CISM is not effective, and resilience training is absent during an ongoing disaster such as COVID-19.   

In search of lost compassion: getting back to basics

The more we shy away from meaningful, deep, and emotionally open real talk conversations, the more we turn solely inward in times of crisis, the less likely we are to actually listen. Compassion, as an inherent human behavior, is lost. This is both the cause and the effect of loneliness.

Compassion, the show of empathy, is present only when one honestly shares and really listens. Listening from the heart, without judgement, while putting yourself in another person’s shoes—identifying the speaker’s emotions and communicating them back to the speaker—this is what enables compassion.

Compassion does not mean to identify, to agree, or to surrender one’s values. It means that, for a moment, one acknowledges the pain of another and their story as their own, valid, truth.

Counter to what many people think, compassion is not just about being good to another person. Empathetic listening is a great measure in helping someone unburden him or herself, but brain science and neurological research have identified compassion circuits in the brain that, when activated, have a calming effect on the listener as well. Listening with your heart makes your heart—as well as your psyche—healthier.

Healthcare workers can make good use of this innate, robust resilience building mechanism. Sharing personal and professional burdens and compassionately listening to peers are important tools in the pursuit of better wellness and higher professional functioning. It takes courage to do this—especially in a cultural moment when everything is telling us to avoid risk. But no one is better positioned than caregivers to realize that caring for others makes it easier to connect with ourselves.