Confronting the collective trauma of the past year

Illustration of a person reading news about the COVID-19 pandemic, while people hold hands in unity in the background
Aarthi Muthukumar/File

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The past year has been uniquely painful in ways that no one could have accurately imagined at the beginning of 2020. It seems as though we are living through a time of overwhelming darkness and despair — largely owing to the destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but also exacerbated by violence against marginalized communities, constant political anxiety and the ever-looming threat of climate change.

We’re currently living through the chapters of future generations’ history books — the events of this era will probably be up there with the Great Depression and World War II as transformative moments in history. But even after the pandemic is eventually over and we have hopefully begun to implement systemic change, we’ll be feeling the emotional aftershocks of this era for a long time. How do we begin to address the collective trauma inflicted by the events of the past year?

While the events of the past year — COVID-19, police brutality, mass shootings and more — have caused countless instances of individual trauma, they have also accumulated into wide-ranging forms of collective trauma, as we are expected to make sense of these tragedies during a time when our conventional ways of coping and healing have been disrupted. When we are forced to reckon with overwhelming amounts of loss and devastation that threaten to upend the fabric of society, this elicits communitywide experiences of disorientation, powerlessness and anxiety.

The signs of collective trauma triggered by living through so many upsetting events at once are already beginning to become evident. On March 11, the American Psychological Association released its annual “Stress In America” report, which showed that the effects of COVID-19 — combined with “compounding stressors” such as economic instability and systemic racism — have led to “immense stress and trauma” for all Americans, many of whom have experienced declining mental and physical health as a result of this stress and uncertainty.

Our collective trauma has been compounded by the seemingly constant availability of distressing news stories in our digital world, combined with the isolation necessitated by the pandemic. Proof of how much we’re being affected by constant exposure to bad news: the Oxford English Dictionary chose “doomscrolling” — the act of compulsively and self-destructively scrolling through bad news on social media for hours — as one of its Words of the Year in 2020.

In 2019, one in 10 American adults reported that they experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression — that number rose to four in 10 adults in 2020. According to a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2020, the emotional toll of the pandemic has been significant, with many adults reporting difficulty sleeping and eating, as well as increased substance use and alcohol consumption.

The millions of deaths caused by the pandemic have led to immense amounts of grief and bereavement, and even people who do not directly know someone who has passed away from COVID-19 can feel helpless when contemplating the loss that has occurred in the past year. According to Dr. Molly Castelloe, a psychology professor interviewed by Rolling Stone close to the beginning of the pandemic, “The deaths of so many — the elderly, the infirm, local healthcare workers and first responders — is already everyday a shared trauma among us.”

And by massively disrupting our lives with no warning, the pandemic also invoked a more imperceptible, but still harmful, form of grief as people were forced to accept the indefinite cancellation of events they looked forward to. Especially for children and young adults, the loss of common rituals and experiences during their formative years might have long-lasting emotional impacts. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, McGill University professor Rob Whitley explained, “Older people have psychological and cognitive resources to deal with setbacks in life, whereas for people in their 20s accustomed to a rich and varied social life, it can be much more difficult.”

Adding on to the collective stress of this moment is the fact that we are expected to be completely acclimated to our “new normal” — our daily routines for more than a year now have largely consisted of one thing: staring at a screen for hours of Zoom meetings as it seems as if the world is falling apart around us. Daily life can be incredibly draining for a generation of young adults who feel compelled to keep up with online classes and work while being overwhelmed by the constant, never-ending flow of stress-inducing news and social media posts.

Living through history isn’t always exciting; sometimes, the weight of mass global suffering and of knowing that we can’t really do anything about it on an individual level is too much to bear.

What’s more, the collective trauma caused by the events of the past year will likely not manifest equally along racial, gender, or socioeconomic lines. During the summer of 2020, it was nearly impossible to watch the news or log onto social media without seeing yet another, often graphic, account of the violence and brutality caused by systemic racism in the United States. According to a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, repeated instances of police violence against Black people have contributed to paranoia, anxiety and the deterioration of mental health within the Black community.

The pain of losing more than half a million Americans, as well as countless milestones both big and small, will permanently impact the nation’s collective consciousness for years to come.

Aside from the occasional flying of flags at half-staff, moment of silence or socially distanced candlelight vigil, the 550,000+ deaths caused by COVID-19 have not necessarily invoked the same kind of massive public expressions of grief prompted by previous disasters such as Pearl Harbor, Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. This is understandable — the crisis is ongoing and slow-moving, and it’s still unwise to gather in large groups to mourn and reflect. But the lack of outlets for collective acknowledgement and mourning have further entrenched the trauma caused by the pandemic in the first place.

Today, as vaccines become widely available and states begin to ease pandemic-related restrictions, there seems to be a nationwide feeling of optimism and relief that would have been unthinkable a year ago. However, this does not diminish the emotional impact of the pandemic, which will continue to linger long after things are back to “normal.”

The pain of losing more than half a million Americans, as well as countless milestones both big and small, will permanently impact the nation’s collective consciousness for years to come. While we’re all eager to put the events of the past year behind us, it could also provide a sense of shared healing and closure if we took a moment to grieve for all the missed hugs and graduations and birthdays and weddings, and for all the people who did not live to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The writer and historian Rebecca Solnit has written extensively about the collective trauma generated by disasters and tragedies, observing that people have a remarkable capacity for solidarity and generosity during times of immense suffering. Solnit writes that this capacity provides us with “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of ordinary people took it upon themselves to provide food and water, rescue people from flooded homes and streets and raise billions of dollars in relief efforts when faced with the government’s lack of preparedness.

Today, we see similar examples of people channeling their fear and anxiety into direct action and mutual aid. From stocking community fridges to combat food insecurity and crowdsourcing funds to bail out Black Lives Matter protesters, to volunteering to escort elderly Asian Americans around cities and helping senior citizens navigate confusing vaccine sign-up websites, Americans have demonstrated an extraordinary inclination towards kindness in the face of the simultaneous crises we are experiencing. And the events of the past year have also given rise to sweeping change on a national level that would previously never have seemed possible, including nationwide eviction moratoriums, the reduction of prison populations and provision of free housing to the unhoused population.

If there’s any silver lining to the turmoil and pain of the past year, it’s that memories of our collective trauma might help us on our journey to become a more compassionate and equitable society.

Contact Sanjana Manjeshwar at [email protected]>.