Is society prepared for the psychological aftermath of a global crisis?
The experts may dispute when it will happen, but there is a light at the end of our pandemic tunnel.
It could be the end of Summer, Thanksgiving, or even 2022. One thing history teaches us — we will see the other side of the crisis.
The question remains, however, how will we handle it? Will we experience post-traumatic euphoria or PTSD? Will we explode like confetti canons into socializing or double-down on our agoraphobia?
Our post-tunnel vision is yet to be seen, but there are some clues.
Rip-Roaring and Raring to Go
Considering the constant barrage of doom and gloom over the past year, it is only natural for us to cling to the hope of reliving the fabled Roaring 20s. Bursting from the constraints of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the 1920s is often held as the icon for post adversity exuberance.
Even prohibition couldn’t dampen the spirit of the generation. The “danger” only made it more exciting. Quite simply, they were happy and having fun.
Or were they?
It was a decade of prosperity and dissipation, and of jazz bands, bootleggers, raccoon coats, bathtub gin, flappers, flagpole sitters, bootleggers, and marathon dancers. It was, in the popular view, the Roaring 20s, when the younger generation rebelled against traditional taboos while their elders engaged in an orgy of speculation. But the 1920s was also a decade of bitter cultural conflicts, pitting religious liberals against fundamentalists, nativists against immigrants, and rural provincials against urban cosmopolitans.*
Then again, maybe we aren’t so far off.
Give me shelter
When reporting the results of its 2020 survey, The American Psychological Association (APA) declared: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
The BBC recently reported on who is most likely to experience lasting mental health problems in a post-pandemic world. Like with the virus, itself, those who have preexisting conditions are the most vulnerable.
- OCD — Particularly those with contamination or cleaning compulsions.
- General anxiety disorders — Threats (such as those of variant strains, etc.) whether real or imagined can heighten the condition.
- Chronic loneliness — Those who deliberately detached from the outside world to feel a sense of safety may find it difficult to reenter it.
- Past trauma — The stress of living in a COVID-19 environment — even after things are opened up — can retrigger PTSD-type worries.
- Fear of the unknown — This is especially challenging for those who face an ongoing drop in income or unemployment in industries hit hard by the pandemic, such as travel and entertainment.
Noting the numbers rising of those experiencing mental health difficulties as a direct result of the pandemic, researchers on now focusing on how existing disorders may exasperate the situation and how long the effects will last.
Joshua C Morganstein, MD, from Centre for the Study of Traumatic Stress in Maryland, explains that understanding the risks is essential to provide interventions and prepare for future public health emergencies:
Stress is like a toxin, such as lead or radon. In order to understand it and how it is affecting a society, we need to know who is exposed, when, how much and what effects were caused by the exposure.
How do we go about decontaminating an entire population?
With an infection rate already passing 113 million worldwide, one has to wonder if life can ever get back to normal. Why would anyone take a chance of contracting a disease or even death just to hit a happy hour or go dancing?
Yascha Mounk of the Atlantic compares our current (or soon to be current) attitudes to those of the 1920s:
…the devastation of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic was quickly followed by a manic flight into sociability. The Roaring Twenties saw a flowering of parties and concerts. The 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize.
This eagerness to get out and congregate has already been made evident. Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, held a water-park music festival last August. No social distancing or masks were required of the thousands of attendees. New Zealand began hosting sold-out concerts in October and the three-day Electric Daisy Carnival scheduled for May 2021 in Las Vegas sold out in a single day.
People are fed up with being pent up. They are tired of being alone.
Hope springs eternal
Despite the negative impacts of the pandemic, the aforementioned report by the APA states that 71% of those surveyed feel hopeful about their future.
Since the Roaring 20s, the U.S. has had numerous cataclysmic events: The Great Depression, WWII, and 9/11, to name just a few. Not to mention the plethora of natural disasters including the Dust Bowl, the Northridge Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina. Boom to bust, war to peace, destruction to rebirth and back again: it’s the natural ebb and flow of history.
If these events have taught us anything, it’s that the human race is highly resilient.
Researchers are taking note of this rebound phenomenon in their investigations. In Sweden, the Centre for Psychiatric Research in Stockholm is studying the impact of the pandemic on individuals with already diagnosed mental health conditions. The hows and whys the majority of people are able to overcome their anxieties is a big part of the project.
Nitya Jayaram-Lindström, operations manager for the Stockholm project, explains:
We also want to understand factors that contribute to resilience, which is as important to understand as the risk factors.
Gaining insight into how a population is able to bounce back after a catastrophe is essential to create interventions for those who don’t.
Return to the land of the living
From Wall Street to Madison Avenue to academia, the nuevo Roaring 20s is the hot topic.
Jean-Paul Agon, chief executive of L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics group, predicts the following:
People will be happy to go out again, to socialise (sic). This will be like the Roaring 20s, there will be a fiesta in makeup and in fragrances. Putting on lipstick again will be a symbol of returning to life.
Social epidemiologist, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, takes it a step further in his book: Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of the Coronavirus on the Way We Live. Once we are relatively back to normal, he expects to see mass rejoicing and a carpe diem spirit:
What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.
It seems no matter what the risk, the basic human need to whoop it up (and make a little whoopie) is irrepressible.
Here’s to staying positive and testing negative
This tongue-in-cheek toast traditionally has referred to STDs. However, it takes on a whole new meaning in a modern post-pandemic world.
The custom of toasting to one’s health dates back to prehistory. Nearly every common language has a traditional word or phrase uttered when clinking glasses with family and friends. The majority of these translate to wishes for good health or a happy life.
From the Czech Na zdraví! (To health!) to the Portuguese Viva! (Life!), all are social talismans reminding us to eat drink and be merry while we still have the ability to do so.
I’m ready to raise my glass. Are you?
*Mintz, S., & McNeil, S. (2018). Overview of the 1920s. Digital History. Retrieved 2/28/2021 from https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraid=13&smtid=1
This post originally appeared in Change Becomes You – A Publication of The Good Men Project @Medium.com