It’s strange how fast perceptions change.
A couple of years ago I was writing about all sorts of mental health issues that I thought the world’s governments needed to address. I think all those things still need to be addressed. It’s just that back then I didn’t think they could possibly get any worse.
Turned out I was spectacularly wrong about that. F***ed up beyond all recognition, or FUBAR, to give it its wonderful military acronym, barely covers the abyss-like depths into which the pandemic plunged our collective mental health in 2020.
Of all the things that were worrying me at the back end of 2019, rising diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) represented one of the biggest problems facing the UK and world healthcare systems.
It’s hardly breaking news to say that PTSD could not have wished for a better petri dish in which to flourish than the post-pandemic reality of greater uncertainty, increased isolation, months-long enforced abandonment of friends and family (many of whom subsequently died alone in hospital wards and care homes), the pervasive spread of financial insecurity and the suspension of routine health care.
And if the pre-pandemic world was one of an obvious imbalance between the emotional and financial Have Nots and the super-wealthy, super-protected and super-insulated Haves, then the new Covid dawn is one in which the Have Nots generally have even less, and the Haves generally have even more.
If you were to set out on a mission to widen the mental health and poverty gap in our society, it’s difficult to conjure a more effective instrument than a global pandemic to achieve that goal.
That should have been bad enough, yet amid all that economic and health uncertainty, the Government chose the pandemic as a backdrop to turn the PTSD screw.
It reduced its already fatally flawed Universal Credit payment by £20 a week.
358 Tory MPs voted against a Labour motion to extend the free school meals scheme for vulnerable children into the summer holidays (it would have been 363 had 5 Conservative MPs not chosen to follow their own consciences rather than the party whip).
It shut schools, forcing children – who were largely asymptomatic and at little risk either to themselves or, as it quickly became apparent, to others – to miss the social and learning environments in which they and their mental health thrive.
It wasted millions of pounds funnelling the public purse to party cronies for PPE that wasn’t fit for purpose and a Track & Trace system that simply didn’t work.
The suffering of ordinary people over the last year has been of a biblical scale, whether that’s been through tangible impacts like illness (virus-related or otherwise), bereavement, job loss, mounting debt and repossession, or those less visible such as declining mental health, increased anxiety through lockdown and the relentless drip-drip-drip of fear messaging or the ‘simple’ depression of isolation and an unchanging panorama of bricks and mortar.
The virus may pose less of a threat now – but we now face another crisis, this time of powerlessness.
The absence of emotional and physical control is a challenge for the most resilient of adults, but it is felt more acutely by children, and it is for them and their future wellbeing that I fear most.
PTSD grows slowly and manifests much later in life. The conditions or problems that lead a great many of my clients to my door usually have their origins in childhood through some sort of traumatic and damaging event that they have successfully managed to repress over the years.
But as I’ve always emphasised, PTSD is a mental pressure cooker and you can only keep a lid on it for so long before it finds an angry and menacing existence in the present day.
But the night is always darkest before the dawn, and as we emerge from the restrictions we’ve all faced perhaps we’ve been presented with an opportunity to make our own choice about how we deal with tomorrow.
It’s called post traumatic growth, and we are all capable of it.
Post-traumatic growth occurs is the psychological change that happens when we use the impact of our experiences to live and behave more positively, supported by a different mindset that’s informed by what has happened to us.
Studies have shown that around half of all trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth.
Though some post traumatic growth can be of the ‘Eureka!’ variety – finding God or dedicating yourself to philanthropy – most is quiet realisation and a recognition that small changes need to happen.
Post-pandemic, these may well be obvious things like a better and more conscious appreciation of friends and family that is recognised through closer contact or improved relationships, or taking a carpe diem approach to life.
But whilst post traumatic growth may not always feel like a supernova explosion of hitherto unformed realisation, it is always deeply personal and deeply meaningful.
Amid the emotional rubble it may feel like achieving this growth is impossible. It isn’t, but post traumatic growth does take courage and fortitude, because the calm seas can only be reached when we own what is happening to us.
I’ve talked in the past about the Four Fs – fight, flight, freeze and fawn – and you can find out more about these in one of my blogs from last year, What’s Your Apocalypse Style?
In summary, though, these are the states into which we all variously fall in times of crisis. They are designed to protect us – either to stand up to what threatens us, to run from it, to ‘play dead’ and hope it passes by, or to resolve it by trying to please everyone.
Short periods spent in any one of these states can be healthy and effective, but when we face significant and ongoing trauma or threat we can become ‘stuck’ in one of these trauma states, and that can impact hugely on our mental health.
By owning what is happening with us, we empower ourselves to take rational and effective action – emotionally or otherwise – to find solutions and answers. If we don’t take ownership all we end up doing is projecting our anxiety onto others.
This conscious positive action can then become a driver to find the solutions and to design control into your own future.
Many of my clients have emerged from the kind of trauma most of us would think impossible to survive, never mind recover from, and gone on to thrive, becoming in the process some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met
In this harsh world it is easy to shut down your heart in order to cope, but true strength comes from allowing yourself to feel and stay open hearted and to project that compassion and kindness onto others – albeit with good boundaries and an effective bullshit detector.
Finding the right balance can be hard, but once you do you’ll find it’s a potent blend.
Whatever trauma the pandemic has thrown in your path, trust yourself to somehow find a way through this (even though you have no idea what that will look like) and, where possible, let it be a motivating trigger for change that leads to personal growth and / or positive growth in this World.
There is nothing more powerful or resilient than human spirit and purpose. Never underestimate the difference you make.