A neuroscientist explains how to vaccinate against the long-term psychological effects of COVID-19
Exhausted medical staff. (Shutterstock.com)

America is in crisis right now. We have been enduring a pandemic turned national tragedy for 9 months now. As of this writing, 284,000 Americans have lost their lives to this novel virus and it is becoming increasingly clear each day that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved with better management. It’s time to acknowledge and validate those who are in pain and distress. For every person lost to COVID, there are several more who will continue to experience psychological problems after their friends and loved ones are lost.

The election of a new President sends a signal of hope to millions of Americans who are suffering and will continue to suffer through what is expected to be a harsh winter.

Let’s pull no punches: The American people have been traumatized and chronically stressed for over 4 years now with the past year being arguably one of the worst in our history.

We are seeking closure.

We are looking to soothe unresolved grief.

We are searching for a sense of morality, justice, and ethics that has been lost.

We are hoping to return to a way of life in which truth matters, problems get solved, and help is provided to those who require it.

One of the underlying features of trauma- and stressor-related mental health problems is a loss of what it means to “be human.”

We are desperate for a return to humanity.

COVID-10 and its related psychological effects represent a new kind of traumatic experience. Unlike posttraumatic stress disorder which is commonly linked to one or more distinct, episodic traumatic events, COVID represents a continuous, ongoing stressor that includes at least three principal elements: (1) fear of current and/or future viral infection, (2) long-lasting adverse economic impacts, and (3) disturbed daily routines and prolonged isolation. To borrow a term from the epidemiologists working on this pandemic crisis, we are likely to see a psychological “long COVID” that will affect this generation and those to come as a kind of transgenerational trauma.

We need a national plan to deal with “Psychological Long COVID.” The national tragedy of this pandemic will have far reaching and long lasting medical and psychological impacts on the lives of our people and the rest of the world. Clinically, we are looking at years of additional treatments for anxiety, depression, acute and posttraumatic stress disorders, interpersonal violence and its aftermath, and substance use to name just a few.

Let’s treat this tragedy with the magnitude that it requires. Let’s start the healing process.

The events of 9/11 led to the creation of an entire new federal agency.

One attempted shoe bombing on an airplane led to millions removing their shoes at airports.

This crisis is real and requires all of us to act accordingly.

Psychological “vaccination and mitigation” plans for the American people and the new Administration should include the following:

  1. Hold a national day of remembrance soon after Inauguration Day for all those who were lost and will be lost.
  2. Consider fundraising and constructing a memorial on the National Mall for those lost and affected by COVID-19 so that we never forget lives lost on the same order as wars, domestic and foreign terrorist attacks, school shootings many times over.
  3. Establish national, regional, and local task forces to develop the infrastructure needed to assess and treat COVID-related psychological distress and poor mental health outcomes.
  4. Use the President-elect’s bipartisan experience to ensure that legislative action is taken to assist our small businesses, our students, our frontline healthcare workers, our mental health providers, and many, many more.
  5. The President-elect should follow the majority of his predecessors and remain independent from the Department of Justice and allow any legal consequences stemming from the previous Administration to resolve themselves as our Constitution and laws require. The abused American people need resolution in the form of consequences for repeated crimes against humanity.
  6. Our healthcare plans must be changed so that mental health is more completely covered.
  7. Encourage the National Institutes of Health and its member institutes, along with other federal agencies and private foundations, to solicit grant applications specifically targeting “short- and long-COVID” with an emphasis on racial disparities and discrimination, socioeconomic status, and well-being.

Mental health professionals worldwide have spent decades exploring, understanding, and seeking to treat people in the wake of the worst days of their lives whether they be military servicemembers, children of abuse, victims of crime or terrorism, or those who have experienced crushing personal losses.

It’s time to accept the magnitude of this moment, honor the lives of those lost, and then initiate a coordinated plan to heal one another.

About the Author: Seth D. Norrholm, PhD (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. Dr. Norrholm has spent 20 years studying trauma-, stressor-, anxiety-, depressive-, and substance use-related disorders and has published over 110 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. The primary objective of his work is to develop “bench-to-bedside” clinical research methods to inform therapeutic interventions for fear and anxiety-related disorders and how they relate to human factors such as personality, genetics, and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured on NBC, ABC, PBS, CNN.com, Politico.com, The Atlantic, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, Yahoo.com, USA Today, WebMD, The History Channel, and Scientific American. In 2019, Dr. Norrholm was recognized as an Expertscape world expert in Fear and Posttraumatic Stress Disorders.