“I think that this pandemic has spread to the everyday life and the livelihood of every person on the planet and that every human being is going to come out of this pandemic with some sort of [post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)].” That is a quote from a recent interview I had with Ty Smith, Founder and CEO of Vigilance Risk Solutions (VRS). And as a retired Navy Seal who has dealt with PTSD, he should know.
There have always been myriad traumas afflicting everyday employees. The pandemic has now been added to that list, as well as exacerbated items that were already there. Those include fears about the safety and well-being of employees and their loved ones, who are wondering if they will really be brought back to work if they have been furloughed or how long their organization can continue to operate before shutting its doors for good. There have been shortages of necessities, increases in domestic violence, a loss of access to psychologists and psychiatrists, and a boatload of uncertainty. And that list is hardly exhaustive.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been adversely impacted by the coronavirus in very real terms. The impact of these challenges and traumas will, according to Smith, be widespread. To better understand how the majority of workers might end up with some form of PTSD, we have to better understand it.
Not Just a Military Thing
Contrary to popular mythology, PTSD does not only affect those who served in the military. Indeed, the potentially traumatic situations servicemembers face do create circumstances that engender PTSD. But, trauma is trauma, whether it’s exploding enemy artillery or a spouse taking out aggression on a loved one. The Mayo Clinic lists the most common events that lead to PTSD, which include:
- Combat exposure
- Childhood physical abuse
- Sexual violence
- Physical assault
- Being threatened with a weapon
- An accident
But PTSD can be caused by any kind of trauma, including:
- Natural disaster
- Plane crash
- Life-threatening medical diagnosis
- Terrorist attack
Essentially, any extreme or life-threatening event can lead to PTSD. That includes pandemics.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will get PTSD. It’s not well understood what causes some who experience trauma to develop PTSD but not others. However, risk factors have been identified that increase the likelihood that PTSD will develop when an individual experiences a traumatic event.
Let’s take a look at some of the risk factors, taken from the Mayo Clinic page linked above, which include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
- Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as childhood abuse
- Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
- Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
- Having problems with substance misuse, such as excess drinking or drug use
- Lacking a good support system of family and friends
- Having blood relatives with mental health problems, including anxiety or depression
Virtually every one of those risk factors has been amplified by the pandemic. Consider essential workers with regard to risk factors 1 and 3, especially medical personnel, who have spent 3 months combating the coronavirus. Their jobs were already a risk factor for PTSD. Now they have seen the horrific results of the pandemic firsthand, day in and day out, for months.
Consider risk factor 2; many everyday people who have experienced past trauma but have not developed PTSD are experiencing new COVID-related traumas. Their risk factors are now higher. The same goes for people who are already managing existing PTSD; they will be taking on new traumas that might make their methods for dealing with old traumas less effective. And this will have been a particularly challenging time for those who were already in the throes of severe unmanaged PTSD.
We must also consider those with other known risk factors, such as mental health issues like depression or anxiety, or those who have family members with such issues, those who have problems with substance misuse like drugs and alcohol, or those who were already isolated without a good support system from friends and family.
When you combine these known risk factors with the known sources of trauma due to the coronavirus, Smith’s claim that we might all come out of this with some form of PTSD seems a lot more realistic.
Know the Signs
Employers need to refresh themselves on some of the outward symptoms of PTSD—there are too many to list here—and brush up on what resources they are able to leverage to assist employees who might now or later begin exhibiting such signs.
Your assistance now could help ward off a serious situation for many of your employees, and your ongoing assistance will also be critical in helping your employees navigate this particularly challenging mental health issue.