Data shows pandemic as ‘collective traumatic experience’

By Janice Wood
April 12th, 2021
Luana Marques, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School
Luana Marques, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

A year’s worth of data on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that 40 to 50 percent of the general population is showing clinical levels of depression. “Which is what we’d expect,” said clinical psychologist Luana Marques, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

Marques is also the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Massachusetts General Hospital Research Scholar 2020-2025.

“Think about COVID-19 as a collective traumatic experience with a real threat,” she says. “And that threat is intensified by the economic turndown and other factors, such as systemic racism that were uncovered by the pandemic.”

In past national traumatic events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, studies demonstrated that after the physical threat is over, the emotional outcomes begin, she explained.

“For instance, 10 years out from 9/11, 10 percent of first responders still had posttraumatic stress disorder,” she said.

“If we think about 10 years out from the end of the pandemic — and we’re not there yet — we could have 1.8 million people suffering from very serious emotional problems, such as PTSD.” --Luana Marques, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology, Harvard Medical School

“If we think about 10 years out from the end of the pandemic — and we’re not there yet — we could have 1.8 million people suffering from very serious emotional problems, such as PTSD,” she continued. “It’s important for us to think about how we are going to address that before it becomes a tsunami.”

The first step in understanding it is to quantify the problem. That means tracking data about emotional health. Marques’ team does that in a variety of ways.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we launched a course called ‘Mental Health for All,’ where we teach the principles of cognitive behavior therapy,” she said.

And while Marques’ research is focused on first responders and paraprofessionals, the free online course is designed for everyone, she noted. You can find the course on her website, DrLuana.com.

As part of the course, people are asked several questions related to emotional health, which helps in the data collection.

Another initiative, a series of webinars with Harvard Medical School to help people manage the emotional toll of the pandemic, asks attendees to fill out the GAD-7, the General Anxiety Disorder-7 questionnaire, as a way to collect even more data.

“We’re getting similar data as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” she said. “We’re seeing these numbers no matter which survey is used.”

She said, “We’re also seeing studies in impressive journals that show anxiety and depression is increasing, especially in first responders. We have the data that suggests the gravity of problem.”

Marques noted that the research that is most important now — and what her team is focusing on — is what it takes to build resilience to minimize the effects of the collective trauma of COVID-19, particularly in students.
“We know that students and teachers are already struggling and the longer this goes on, the higher the probability that it’s going to get worse,” she said.

That’s why her team is focusing on training first responders and paraprofessionals — especially in the inner cities — “to build a front-line workforce that can start to deliver resilience building skills,” she said. “That is really timely as we come out of this.”

Concentrating on paraprofessionals — who provide education and other services, but are not licensed — will help expand the scope of mental health services across the nation, she noted.

“If you look at the world before the pandemic, 20 percent of the U.S. population needed mental health services, but only .17 percent were getting help. There is a huge supply and demand gap, with a large sector of the population having no access to mental health care.”

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

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