By Maria Lebron, May 2020
A collective trauma is defined as a traumatic psychological experience shared by a group of people or an entire society. Some examples of collective traumatic events are bombings, gun violence, natural disasters, terrorism, war, genocide, political oppression, and pandemics. Collective traumas can alter the way a society functions and can create an existential crisis and search for meaning.
A collective trauma can impact people who did not directly experience the traumatic event. People can internalize the trauma experienced by others in what is known as secondary or vicarious trauma. A collective trauma can be also be intergenerational, whereby the psychological trauma is passed from one generation to the other. Intergenerational trauma has been experienced by the descendants of slaves, Native Americans, Holocaust survivors, and war and refugee survivors. The trauma can also be passed unconsciously and picked up through the anxiety or psychological messages given to the next generation. For example, parents who lived under political oppression may instill in their children the belief that they cannot trust or confide in others, even when the family is no longer living under the dictatorship.
Collective Traumas and New York
A pandemic like Covid-19 is a collective trauma which is affecting us on an individual basis and as a society. I live in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. New York experienced another collective trauma on 9/11. Every New Yorker was affected by 9/11, either directly or indirectly, and it forever changed our lives As a community, New Yorkers were left feeling traumatized and vulnerable. We experienced the fear, the grief, and the feeling of forever being vulnerable.
During this pandemic, New Yorkers have come together and made sacrifices in order to save as much lives as possible and in order to not overwhelm our health care systems. New Yorkers have once again come together in a a different kind of attack on our city. What is different is that unlike 9/11, in this Covid-19 crisis, we are experiencing our collective trauma mostly in isolation. After 9/11, part of the healing from the collective trauma was coming together to grieve, to remember, to honor, and to adjust to a new way of life where we would never feel totally safe. During this pandemic, there hasn’t been an opportunity to grieve as a community. People are dying alone and family members and friends are not able to be with their loved ones during their last moments or to grieve together.
One of the memories I have after 9/11 is the many funerals and masses which lasted for a year or more after the tragedy. It was a reminder of the magnitude of people we had lost. In early April, New Yorkers were informed that we had lost more people to Covid-19 than had died in 9/11. As I write this now, we have lost almost 19,000 people in New York State. It’s a huge number and it’s still going up, which makes grieving and healing difficult.
The Effect of Covid-19 on a Community
During the time of 9/11, every New Yorker had either experienced a loss or knew of someone who had lost someone. Think about the impact of the trauma on New Yorkers when the death toll is more than six times the one of 9/11. What we need to be careful of is not to become desensitized to the growing death toll and the magnitude of the numbers. We need to remember that each person has loved ones and friends that have been impacted by the loss. Each person’s life was cut short by this pandemic. Because of the isolation and because of the magnitude of the loss, we will probably not fully know what our city and country has gone through until long after the pandemic ends.
Covid-19 has not only kept us apart during the tragedies and hardships, but it has kept us apart during times which should be filled with joy. Babies will be born without family members present. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, baptisms, bar and bat mitzvahs and many other celebrations will either be canceled or postponed. Many plans have been put on hold or cancelled.
We will need to find a way as a community to grieve and heal after the pandemic ends. Many times, a group or community is not able or given the opportunity to acknowledge and process the trauma. In some cases, it may be believed that it would be better to forget and move on. However, in many cases unresolved trauma can negatively impact the person’s psychological well being.
On top of the concerns regarding health, we are all dealing with the financial fallout from Covid-19. In the need to socially isolate and stop the spread of the virus, businesses have closed or reduced activity. As I write this, 30 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. Some people were let go temporarily and told they would be rehired when the pandemic was over and others were laid off unexpectedly. Eighty percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have adequate savings to deal with a situation where they can’t look for other employment. Many people’s health insurance was tied to their employment, therefore many lost their health insurance during a pandemic.
The negative impact on the economy during this pandemic is something that has never been experienced before. The financial instability, along with political influences, have caused some people to choose the economy over the risk to themselves and to others. During this type of global emergency, we need to know that our government is doing what they can to protect us. This pandemic has highlighted the inequalities which exist in our health care system and in our society.
How Does a Community Heal
In order for people to put their health first, the government needs to value American lives and ensure that people are subsidized by the government until the economy is in full force. Businesses need to open slowly and take all measures needed to protect their workers. This will only happen if this is the message and directive from the government.
A collective trauma needs collective support and interventions. Governments, agencies, organizations, and mental health providers are needed to help people and communities. All communities must have access to the support, care, and resources they need during and after this collective trauma. The full psychological impact from this pandemic will not surface for many months or years after it ends. If people are not helped and the social programs not put in place to address the needs and inequities highlighted by this pandemic, this collective trauma will not only affect us but also the next generation.