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The Collective Trauma of COVID-19

It’s time to call it what it is.

I have been alarmed as of late at the lack of recognition of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am seeing it widely painted as America’s time to “Netflix and chill.” I myself have the privilege of being able to wrap my children in the cocoon of their home and not worry about them staying housed and fed. It could be easy for me to nestle in and brush off the panic with an eye roll or the naïve assumption that the rest of my community was just as safely and comfortably nestled.

I have already had the opportunity to work with numerous nonprofit leaders through the COVID-19 pandemic-from early preventative planning in Oklahoma to scrambling crisis mode in Seattle and stages and places in between. I have felt (yes, even through Zoom) the monumental weight of fear, witnessed the tears of devastation by the sheer magnitude of the situation, and have seen the desperation of leaders who feel helpless and overwhelmed.

It is time to call this what it is: Trauma.   

For many in our community, this is trauma experienced individually. And for most, we are also experiencing or will experience this trauma collectively.  

Individual trauma is defined as resulting from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Collective trauma is trauma that happens to large groups of individuals and can be transmitted across communities and transgenerationally.

Erikson distinguished individual trauma from collective trauma this way: “…by individual trauma I mean a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively…by collective trauma, on the other hand, I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality…”

In the time of the coronavirus outbreak, our world is experiencing compounding layers of trauma.

For our friends who were already the most vulnerable and underserved, this is trauma.

For those whose mental health cannot withstand this level of anxiety, isolation, and depression, this is trauma.

For the kids whose only safe place each day was school, this is trauma.

For the those dealing with a sudden loss of income, childcare, or access to vital services, this is trauma.

For those who are getting sick, have loved ones who are sick, or who are serving the sick, this is trauma.

I could go on and on.

Let’s talk about why it matters what we call it. The impacts of trauma- both individual and collective-can be devastating. Trauma can have long-lasting (even lifelong), harmful effects on an individual’s physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. It can produce destructive coping mechanisms, cause disease, shorten one’s lifespan, and the list goes on. Collectively, trauma can reinforce and exacerbate systemic inequity, unravel safety nets, and undermine a community’s or society’s sense of identity and security-for generations to come.

However, there are interventions and treatment modalities for trauma that are effective. Mental health providers employ an array of strategies to promote healing in clinical settings. If we name it as trauma, then it can be properly treated as trauma.

There are also things that we, as leaders, can do to mitigate the effects of this collective COVID-19 trauma-for ourselves, our employees, our organizations, and our communities. It is time to sound the alarm for all leaders-from every sector-to adopt trauma-informed leadership practices.

The jargoned tone of the term “trauma-informed” can be intimidating. It sounds clinical, pathologizing, and scary. A trauma-informed approach is simply one that is based on the knowledge and understanding of trauma and its impacts. Let me further simplify. A trauma-informed approach is one in which you see someone as a whole person and take into account their experiences and identity when trying to understand, treat, support, lead, or serve them. You don’t have to be in the mental health field to grasp the experiences and effects of trauma. You just have to be intentional, caring and compassionate.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share about how we as leaders can lead with a trauma-informed approach to build connection, cultivate resilience and foster an environment where healing can unfold.

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