After COVID wanes, mental and emotional effects still linger

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Michell Eloy

The worst days of the pandemic appear to be over in the U.S., and a lot of us are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. But the sum total of these past 14 months is astonishing: Nearly 600,000 Americans died, more than 33 million were infected, and our way of life was totally upended. 

Now with the constant fear of infection melting away, we should feel relief, excitement and joy. But that’s just not happening for some people, or maybe for most of us.  

The Atlantic’s Ed Yong recently wrote about the long mental and emotional tail of this disease.

“Often when disasters strike and people are constantly stressed or fearful or anxious, the adrenaline helps you to get through the worst of it. And it's only later when you get a chance to exhale, when you get a moment of calm and reflection, that you realize how bad you feel. That you were able to actually grapple with the grief and the stress and the hurt of everything that has gone before,” Yong tells KCRW. 

He adds, “A lot of people crumble. They find those moments unexpectedly difficult. And all the more so if they weren't expecting it. … A lot of us are expecting to get out into the world now that things are a little bit better and feel joy. But it turns out that when things start feeling better, people don't necessarily immediately feel better themselves.”

Yong says it might now prove difficult to unlearn many of the behaviors developed through the past year, such as wearing masks or going into crowded public spaces. 

“As things become a bit safer and calmer, it's not that people are just going to snap back to how they lived in 2019. A lot of what they'll have to do now involves once again re-establishing their sense of what is dangerous, what is safe, what is the right way to live in the world. And doing that wholesale reimagining of the world and the way you live in it is already challenging enough, let alone having to do it for the second time in as many years after 14 months of stress and pain and hurt.”

As the CDC relaxes mask guidelines, some hesitate to ditch the face covering. Yong says that sentiment is completely understandable after a year of unreliability from institutions that were supposed to protect the general public and sometimes got things wrong. 

“As one psychologist said to me, no one was protecting us all year. We had masks. That's how we protected ourselves. So no wonder people are anxious about taking them off.”

The grief that Americans shoulder

With such a high COVID-19 death toll, Yong says a legion of people experiencing grief follows.

“There are 600,000 recorded deaths from the pandemic in this country, roughly nine bereaved people will be grieving each of those deaths. So that's almost 6 million people,” he points out. “And we know that about one in 10 people, under normal circumstances, still experience really intense, prolonged grief for more than a year after it begins, they just can't seem to get over that grief, they can't get past that loss of a loved one.” 

Frontline workers, including those in health care and in caregiving, are also feeling the aftermath of a traumatic year. Yong says that even if the vaccinations rise and ICUs empty, workers won’t have the freedom to go on a vacation. 

He cites SARS as an example of how workers developed PTSD in the aftermath of a crisis. “Their traumas are nowhere even near over. And we know from past outbreaks, like from the original SARS, that health care workers, many of them develop PTSD sometime after their experiences. And that was an epidemic that was reasonably small and was over in a few months. So imagine what something on the scale of COVID is going to do for this workforce of people who we rely upon to look after us.”

The road to recovery in a post-COVID world 

Yong says that now is the time to start conversations around mental health, loss, and grief. And it might prove difficult in a country like the U.S. 

“Some of the people I spoke to were a little pessimistic about it, because mental health care in the U.S. was already essentially a broken system. There weren't enough people providing that care and support, and it was really very hard for people, even with resources to access help. And now the demand is going to be much higher, that the system is going to be stressed even further. And regrettably, this is not a country that I think does very well at dealing with and talking about loss and grief.” 

Yong points out that it will take everyone a different amount of time to work through how they’re feeling. 

“Some people won't go through any of what we've just talked about. Some people will be fine. You'll get vaccinated, you'll go back into the world, you live your lives. And if that's you, then fantastic. .. I think that we need to think about the people who we left behind.”

He adds, “If any of our listeners right now feel like they're still struggling, even though they expect it to be better, I can only say that, firstly, this is completely normal. And also you're not alone. And I'm hoping that that is the first step to having some sort of resolution to at least communally acknowledge the shared traumas that we actually have gone through, and that will continue lingering even as vaccination rates rise.”