Dr Robert Wack: Pay attention to mental health in times of global upheaval
Just when we can enjoy a warm spring and a momentary respite, world events conspire to prevent everyone from fully relaxing. At first glance, Russia’s devastation of Ukraine may seem completely separate from COVID. He actually shares some deep connections that make us all nervous and anxious.
First, the data: The American Psychological Association teamed up with The Harris Poll in early February to measure stress levels in the United States. When the Russians attacked Ukraine, they made an additional investigation from March 1 to March 3. The results are striking.
Depending on the question, large majorities (70% to 80%) of Americans say they are overwhelmed, anxious and fearful. These stress levels are associated with real health consequences, with 58% reporting unwanted weight changes and nearly a quarter reporting increased alcohol consumption to cope. Woven throughout are worries about nuclear war, inflation and the economy, the ongoing mourning for those lost in the pandemic, and the hidden fear that it will never end.
Besides being bad news, what is the connection between the war in Ukraine and COVID? Both have caused enormous damage through misinformation. Russian disinformation about the reasons for and scale of the assault on Ukraine is separating families who have connections in both countries. People in Russia don’t believe anything bad is happening in Ukraine, and Russian disinformation is so effective that they deny firsthand accounts of parents in Ukrainian towns calling as bombs fall around them .
At the height of the pandemic, the same kind of misinformation severed relationships, shattered families, and caused unnecessary deaths for those who didn’t take COVID seriously or refused vaccinations. Misinformation from social media or other biased sources has had deadly consequences. In Carroll County, COVID vaccination became widely available after the spring of 2021 and since then we have had over 70 unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated deaths. How many could have been saved if they had not been misled?
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is typically associated with sudden, severe trauma, but similar mental health symptoms can also result from exposure to chronic, low-grade trauma. The cumulative effect can lead to depression, anger, isolation and cognitive impairment.
The longer-term consequences of the pandemic have yet to be felt. In addition to the medical impact of the long COVID and the mourning of deceased friends and family, we all also mourn the continued harm to our civil society and the uncertainty of what it means for our country when so many people can believe any crazy thing they read on social media. In the future, some may gradually realize that they have been lied to; some will try to rewrite history and deny that they ever believed in madness. Those beginning the long process of reconnecting with reality will need help and support.
As the survey shows, everyone experiences the recurring depression, confusion and negative feelings these traumatic experiences generate, especially as global unrest reactivates them again and again.
No matter how the next few months unfold, pay attention to your mental health and that of those around you. Give people space; be patient; Listen more than you talk; reach out to those in your life who are struggling, either with loss or with the challenge of rebuilding their world.
The Carroll County Health Department webpage (https://cchd.maryland.gov/behavioral-health/) has detailed information about mental health resources for those seeking help, or call 410-876-4449 for advice or a referral.
We have only just begun the long healing process: physically, emotionally and spiritually. Let’s try to help each other as much as possible.
Dr. Robert Wack is the Deputy Administrator of Health at the Carroll County Health Department. He can be reached at [email protected].