Survivor's Guilt 2021
The Post-Pandemic Mental Health Crisis
The pandemic is slowly fading away. The number of Covid-19 infections reported each day in the US is dropping steadily.
Almost 40% of Americans have been vaccinated, and we are all hopeful that we'll see a return to normal later this year.
But how can we ever feel "normal" again?
Even as the tangible signs of the pandemic lessen, with "closed" signs finally coming down from restaurant doors, kids going back to in-person learning in the fall, and hospital ICU bed occupancy nationwide at less than 68%, one invisible aftereffect of the pandemic is steadily emerging.
Our collective mental health is on the decline, after all that we've seen and suffered in the past fifteen months.
"Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that one in four adults reported experiencing symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in February 2021 - a significant increase from the prior year." - President Joseph Biden, White House Briefing, A Proclamation on National Mental Health Awareness Month, April 30, 2021
Survivor's guilt is one of the growing problems we'll face in 2021, according to Dr. David S. Chesire, Ph.D.
"Survivor's guilt can affect up to 90% of survivors of traumatic events. COVID-19 survivors in Bergamo, Italy, one of the world's hardest-hit towns, have experienced this on a widespread basis. …we expect to see more of this." - Dr. David S. Chesire, Ph.D.
Survivor's guilt can occur when people lose loved ones due to a catastrophe or traumatic event, and wonder why they, themselves, were spared.
- In the case of coronavirus, this feeling is compounded by the guilt that many people carry, wondering if they may have unknowingly infected others.
Due to conflicting messages in the early days of the pandemic, the general public was unaware of the importance of wearing masks, and scientists had not fully realized the potential of asymptomatic spread until mid-2020.
It is estimated now that an additional 130,000 American lives may have been spared, had we only masked up and practiced social distancing immediately.
- Some people also carry guilt over being unable to visit infected loved ones who ultimately lost their lives to Covid-19, dying alone in nursing homes and ICU beds, holding a stranger's hand.
- Others may feel guilty that their own case of Covid-19 was mild, enabling them to recover quickly, while seeing the death toll climb globally.
- Still more feel survivor's guilt because they were not impacted adversely at all during the pandemic, either physically (remaining uninfected), or financially (their employment status did not change).
- Health-care workers have been found to carry their own form of survivor's guilt, as well (despite their courageous and tireless efforts), due to the sheer number of patients they witnessed succumbing to death from Covid-19, day after day.
According to Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., the following symptoms are characteristic of survivor's guilt:
- Stomach pain, headaches, and joint pain
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep and restless sleep
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event or near-death experience
- Irritability and anger
- Substance abuse to suppress uncomfortable emotions
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness
- Suicidal ideation
- Anxiety disorders, including PTSD
- A chronically overactive nervous system
- Social isolation
- Low motivation
How to Cope
One of the first steps to coping with survivor's guilt is to acknowledge the underlying reasons for it, says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.
"If you've lost something or someone to the pandemic, grieve that loss. Because if we don't, it leaks out in other ways."
Recognize that certain things are out of your control. Science still doesn't understand all the reasons why some people were more susceptible to the virus. Realizing the pandemic itself is still somewhat of an enigma may free you of misplaced guilt.
Be OK with the fact that you survived. Your body should be celebrated; it kept you safe in the middle of a devastating pandemic. Reward your body by taking care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Live with purpose, and accept your good fortune. Make your survival count, as a way to honor those we've lost.
- Reach Out
You are not alone. There are so many who are stuck in this quagmire of guilt and grief. Reach out and tell your story. Listen to others. try to help someone else get "unstuck". People often feel a boost to their mood and self-esteem when they are able to help those less fortunate. If you feel strong enough emotionally, volunteer for a local cause. It may make you feel better if you lend a hand and lead by example.
- Get Help
If you can't pull yourself out of a dark place in your head, realize that it's OK to seek help. The one benefit we may see from the "Pandemic Year", is that mental health issues have been brought more out in the open. There's no shame in asking for help. Talk to your doctor or your faith leader, or a trusted friend.
Seek help if you feel like things aren't improving.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers help at 800–273–8255
- Go Outside
Just being out in nature can be therapy. When we walk in the woods, we naturally feel more connected to the earth. We can also benefit from being surrounded by nature's cycle of life and death as exhibited by plant life, lending structure and reason to our own experiences. And don't forget, exercise itself has mental health benefits.
"Regular exercise can positively impact serotonin levels in your brain. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by depression."- Dr. Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D.
One thing we all have in common in 2021…we're still alive. The year of isolation has prompted many of us to re-think the way we spend our time, and re-evaluate what's really important in life.
Don't get left behind, as we finally emerge from seclusion, limping, but still on our feet.
Find a way to begin to live your life again, and seek the happiness you deserve!
Your life is truly worth the effort.
If you enjoyed this article regarding the pandemic's effect on our mental health, please consider reading the following by this author:
About the author
Shell St. James is a New England author living in an 1895 farmhouse with her musician soulmate, feline muse, and a benevolent ghost. Her novel, "The Mermaid of Agawam Bay", is available on Amazon. Find out more at www.shellstjames.com