Opinion: How to prepare for COVID-19's psychological tsunami

Seth D. Norrholm

As of today, more than 300,000 Americans have died as a result of COVID-19 with over 15 million cases reported across the country. Needless to say, there will be short- and long-term physical and medical consequences. However, the psychological toll this will take on the American people will be massive and we must be prepared. This is arguably the worst public health crisis and psychologically traumatic event that we have faced as a nation in decades.  

COVID-19, with its associated adverse psychological consequences, presents clinicians and the public with a unique set of challenges. Acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) are psychiatric conditions that emerge in the wake of one or more discrete traumatic events in one’s life.

COVID-19, with its associated adverse psychological consequences, presents clinicians and the public with a unique set of challenges, Norrholm writes.

COVID-19, however, is a more continuous, ongoing stressor made up of at least three key factors: fear of viral infection, persistent economic concerns (e.g., job loss, income insecurity) and the disruption of daily routines and prolonged periods of social isolation.

We need a coordinated, national plan to deal with “Psychological Long COVID.” Psychological long COVID will include, but not be limited to, increases in: depression, fear-, anxiety-, trauma-, and stressor-related disorders, substance (including alcohol) abuse, as well as an exacerbation of pre-existing domestic and social problems including interpersonal violence and racial discrimination.

There are several steps that the new administration can take to help head off the psychological “tsunami” that will soon arrive at our shores.

► Establish and annually hold a national day of remembrance starting in 2021 for all those who will have lost their lives or loved ones.

► Create a permanent memorial on the National Mall for those lost and affected by COVID-19 so that we never forget the lives lost and the sociopolitical factors that led to such a tragic loss of life — a loss that exceeds many of our wars, domestic and foreign terrorist attacks, and school shootings many times over.

► Create and staff task forces with multidisciplinary experts in medicine, mental health, social work and related fields to assess and treat COVID-related psychological distress and poor mental health outcomes at the international, national, regional and local levels.

► Our health care plans must be changed so that mental health is comprehensively covered for all from clinical care providers to lower income, underserved populations.

► Encourage federal agencies and private foundations to solicit clinical and research grant applications specifically targeting “short- and long-COVID” with an emphasis on racial disparities and discrimination, socioeconomic status, and well-being.

We need to confront this public health and psychological crisis head on in a way that honors those we lost, teaches us to correct the mistakes made, and coordinates across disciplines to heal our collective and individual wholes.

Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D. (Twitter: @SethN12) is the scientific director of the Neuroscience Center for Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Wayne State School of Medicine in Detroit.