How to support survivors during the pandemic
Q&A with Clinical Psychologist Shoshana Wortman, Psy. D.
How is the pandemic impacting mental health?
The pandemic is leading to an increase in anxiety, sadness, and emotional fatigue. People are finding themselves mentally exhausted and having lower coping capacities then in pre-pandemic times. This is because we have lived in a state of stress and uncertainty for almost 2 years without a break. The pandemic is sadly acting as a blanket that overlays any other life stressors and major events that occur otherwise. This leads to decreased ability to cope.
Can you elaborate?
First, we had the race to the vaccine, and now we have the rise of new variants. People feel that we are taking one step forward and two steps back. Additionally, differing views on level of caution and beliefs about the pandemic have caused new strain in family and friendship circles who may have been previous support people in one’s life.
For parents or other caregivers, there is an added level of exhaustion in managing something that one must cope with oneself as well as helping to support or manage someone else’s feelings and experience.
What's the best way to help support survivors of sexual assault and other crime during the pandemic?
Trauma is very much rooted in the concept that one loses a sense of power and control, whether it is a crime, natural disaster, or in this case, health crisis. Because there is so much overlap in the basic effects from trauma and the pandemic, they are likely to be amplifying each other. For example, the feeling of anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, and sadness can be parts of both being a survivor of a crime and living in the pandemic.
If you are a survivor or are a support person of one, it is important to be aware of this overlap and seek/give extra support. This can take the form of self-care, therapeutic support, or identifying supportive friends and family. One idea for self-care is to create a wellness kit that is handy at home. This should have small tools in it to help calm or connect (e.g. stress reduction toys, journals, drawing materials, pictures of people or places that help you feel calm/soothed, etc.). Another helpful strategy may be to create a routine that helps you feel grounded. Perhaps most importantly is to have self-compassion when you are struggling.
What about people who work in "helping" fields like victim services, education, clergy, or counseling? How can they preserve their own mental health?
This is the first time when everyone in the helping profession is going through a collective societal trauma along with our clients. It is important to have a few colleagues with whom you can be vulnerable and discuss your feelings. You may also find that your work/life balance needs to shift to achieve the same level of refreshment that you may have had pre-pandemic with a higher workload.
Identify what coping skills work for you and your health and attempt to work them into your routine. Be sure to identify ones that can be accomplished easily.
Set limits with boundaries and be mindful of how you want to spend your energy and time.
Is there anything that surprises you about mental health and the pandemic?
The way in which we are collectively going through the stages of emotional shift as the pandemic wears on. There have been times of anxiety, hopelessness, relief, re-emergence of anxiety, depression, etc. However, the way in which one can see the macro-level shifts struck me.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in our society to help with mental health during the pandemic, what would it be?
As a clinician, I wish that that our field could keep up with the significant increase in demand that has come from the many emotional consequences of the pandemic. My hope for the future is that we all find a way to channel our resilience that keeps us going and can heal from this time period.
Shoshana Wortman, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who practices in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and serves as a clinical consultant for VSC. If you need to speak with a crisis counselor, VSC’s 24-hour hotline is available at 888.521.0983.