Pandemic will leave PTSD in its wake. I should know.
The war against COVID will continue for some even after we're all vaccinated
THE END OF the COVID war came into sight this week. The sight of vaccines going into arms signals the final push is underway. But the echo of this war will sound long after the threat of illness has passed, and we need to be ready for the challenges that are ahead.
As we draw closer to the light ahead, the shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder will grow longer. We’ve all lived through the trauma of a year-long fight against an invisible enemy that has claimed hundreds of thousands of our friends, family, and neighbors. And like soldiers who come home seeming healthy and whole, many of us now carry invisible wounds from the battle. PTSD doesn’t hit just the people who have been through the worst stuff. It doesn’t work like that.
It won’t touch everyone, or even most people. But for those who do go through it, military veterans have been where you’re about to go. I was treated for PTSD and so were a lot of the other veterans you know, even if they’ve never talked about it.
For many, it will appear as fear. It will appear as panic. It will make you want to hide or isolate yourself. You’ll wonder why, since there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. You’ve already hidden away for a year, masked up, avoided gatherings, and stayed home more than you ever thought you could. Why can’t your mind recognize safety anymore?
These reactions kept you alive while the pandemic was raging around you. They were your body’s very appropriate defense mechanisms warning you of danger and keeping you alive. For months, you were right to be afraid. But the thing about PTSD is that for many, their brain won’t just turn off its reaction to these inputs just because the conscious mind knows the danger is over.
When your defense mechanisms go off after the threat has passed, it makes everyday life harder. It’s hard because you’re safe and around others who are calm, but your heart is racing and you can feel yourself starting to sweat. It can be embarrassing (though it shouldn’t be). It can make you abrasive and hard to be around.
PTSD can also come with guilt and unanswerable questions. Why did you survive when your brother, neighbor, or aunt died instead? Did you do everything you could to keep your friends and family safe? Did you work hard enough at your job (if you had one)? Did you teach your kids well enough? Was it all worth it? The combination can lead to drinking, substance abuse, depression, and other problems, which can easily compound on one another.
You may start by wondering why you can’t seem to just “get over it.” You know how you are feeling and reacting doesn’t make sense. But PTSD is not a rational response which can be defeated with better reasoning or just telling yourself to be stronger.
If what I’m describing starts to feel familiar to you, that’s where I, as a veteran, can draw on my own experience to tell you don’t wait and don’t despair. Instead, take action. Talk to your doctor. Talk to a friend. Look up the national center for PTSD website or other online sources for ideas and places to turn. Most of all, don’t wait and don’t be embarrassed.
Policymakers have a role to play in ensuring help is available to those who need it. One thing we absolutely cannot do is reserve mental health services only for those who can afford them. The difference between treated PTSD and untreated PTSD is the difference between a person who is healthy and functional and a person who is neither. This will cost money. There is no way around that.In addition to official response, dealing with PTSD also requires a community response. You all have a role to play. Monitor yourself and be aware of how you are reacting. Understand that PTSD is not a sign of weakness. Reach out to those around you who seem to be struggling. We veterans have gotten used to checking in with each other, particularly those who seem to have disappeared into themselves. This is now your job too.
Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group and a veteran of the war in Iraq.