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Collective Care Following Collective Trauma

As a society, it is no small feat what we have had to contend with over recent years. We have experienced many forms of collective trauma; from the COVID-19 global pandemic and its associated spike in premature deaths and xenophobia, ever worsening climate disasters, spikes in violence against people of colour, police brutality, ever prominent gender-based violence, inflation, to the cost-of-living crisis. Stress and grief are only normal reactions to these confronting and unprecedented situations and it’s only natural for us to be impacted by these compounding, collective and, for some, life-threatening traumas. 


However, research has shown that, for some of us, these traumas have caused longer-term effects, exacerbating the “mental health crisis” we are currently experiencing. Police brutality is seen to be associated with heightened vigilance, depressed mood, increased levels of generalised anxiety, and overall negative mental health outcomes (Alang et al., 2022). Research has found that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been associated with rises in rates of xenophobia, racism (Anjum et al., 2020), and gender-based violence (Mittal & Singh, 2020), has resulted in increases in many psychiatric difficulties; including increases in symptoms of anxiety - such as, nervousness, fear, and panic attacks, alongside increasing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, symptoms of depression, and symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive disorder present in the general population. Transitioning into adulthood is a difficult time even without considering the pandemic. For most young people, the transition into adulthood, and the independence that comes with it, is a largely meaning-making period of time where young people go from being held and taken care of by a number of systems to, at times, feeling quite isolated or abandoned. Reviews looking into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young adults has found increases in symptoms of anxiety, which are more prevalent amongst young adults in the Global North– in comparison to young adults in the Global South, specifically Asia and South America. We are currently facing a mental health pandemic resulting in an all-time high waitlist for mental healthcare that our NHS is struggling to cope with. 


There are several social determinants of mental health, some of which include: job insecurity/job loss, poverty, education inequality, experiences of discrimination, adverse childhood experiences, interaction with crime, poor diet, exposure to air pollution, and income inequality. Many of these social determinants have been very present in our social climate for a number of years and have been perpetuated by our leaders. As said by Audre Lorde, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives”. The cost-of-living crisis that we are currently experiencing has been maintained by the economic, social, and political impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and years of our pays not increasing in line with inflation; showing us that the social security system we have in place is unfit for purpose (Patrick & Pybus, 2022). Reflecting on this brings to mind the title of an essay by feminist Carol Hanisch, “The personal is always political”. There is an emerging link between the lack of social security systems, which have faced consistent economical cuts, and mental ill health (Patrick & Pybus, 2022). Research has shown time and time again that disasters that affect large chunks of the population typically need governmental, and at times global, efforts in order to maintain and restore resilience within society (Lifton, 1999). 

The basic principle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that for us to achieve self-actualisation, where we can experience purpose, desire, and inner potential; we first need to address and achieve lower-level deficit needs. We need to climb the ladder of our deficit needs starting at our physiological needs – such as, food, shelter, water, before we can address our safety and security needs – such as, employment, health, property. Once we have our physiological needs and safety met, we can begin to meet our love and belonging needs for friendship, connection, and intimacy, and our self-esteem needs – such as, status and recognition. If we just begin to look at the levels of our physiological needs including food, water, shelter and our safety and security needs including health, employment, and property we can start to see how our current housing and health climate, polluted by corporate greed, inhibit our ability to climb the ladder past our basic needs to start addressing our growth needs. 


In a climate where our basic physiological needs and safety and security needs are threatened by governments who have perpetuated a housing crisis, whilst maintaining scarcity in our incomes and rising food costs, how do we protect our basic needs? Liberation psychology is a radical approach challenging western models and it aims to understand the psychological effects of social injustice, oppression, and poverty on both communities and the individual. Liberation psychology champions the shift of moving from the individual to people coming together in collective action (Afupe & Hughes, 2016). Collective trauma could be better addressed with collective healing. Once we start addressing the systems perpetuating our difficulties rather than viewing them as a problem within ourselves in isolation, we can start to externalise the difficulties some of us experience. When we are living in a state where we do feel consistently at threat and where we are continuing to experience collective traumatic events, how irrational is an increase in low mood or anxiety? 


So, how have we been told to cope? We go to our GP and are advised to make lifestyle changes, try a course of antidepressants or get a referral for a short course behaviour-change focused therapy in attempts to better our low mood or anxiety. Whilst antidepressants can be a good implement to improve our mood or to get us to engage better in therapy, antidepressants cannot cure poverty and therapy, whilst a very good tool, doesn’t solve being underpaid and overworked. Furthermore, lifestyle changes such as going to the gym or eating healthier may not be financially accessible to all in our current economic climate. Working in care professions, it is disheartening and challenging to see how larger governing systems perpetuate challenges for people to meet their basic needs, which results in us having to treat symptoms and not the root cause of problems. 


We should not have to live in a state of constant anxiety over our basic needs being threatened, we should not have to work longer and harder to be able to have basic nice things. Malcolm X spoke about “a society that will crush people and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight”. We should be able to afford casual “luxuries”, even if that is just avocado toast or a barista made coffee without guilt over the fundamental inaccessibility of the housing market; on a base level, we should not need multiple streams of income just to stay afloat. When we shine a light on the material reality of people’s lives, we see how our governments perpetuate scarcity and fear within us by intensifying the inequalities we face. 


A notable difference in the way we cope is that western societies and cultures place one’s difficulties within the individual. When we feel low, we ask ourselves what we can do to change how we feel rather than addressing systemic difficulties. Reflecting on this has brought a question to mind, “what does collective healing look like for us?”, especially after we have faced such collective trauma.


So, how do we go about recruiting collective care? Our communities could be our families, our chosen families, or the people that surround us, and within those communities we need to begin to try reconnecting to our values and points of strength. On a macro level, community care could look like speaking up against injustice and oppression, forming support groups, boycotting organisations funding oppressive movements, advocating for change when conflict or discrimination is present, voting, or donating – whether that be time or money. However, we may not always feel empowered to participate in all levels of community care on a macro scale. On a micro level, community care could look like calling to check in on your loved one, cooking for someone, offering to run an errand for someone, picking up your friend’s favourite chocolate bar, just because you know it’s their favourite. We need to rebuild communities of care, which emphasise connection, to pay healing forward and protect ourselves against the larger systems we often come up against. 


We are sustained by our resistance and activism and what this is looks different for everyone. The questions I would ask you to take away, especially as we draw into darker months, would be: what recharges you and gives you strength? What connects you to your identity? What connects you to others? What do you do to nourish your basic needs? How can you engage in community care whether that be on a macro or micro level?


References: 

Afuape, T., & Hughes, G. (2015). Historical development of liberation practices. In Liberation Practices (pp. 27-36). Routledge.

Alang, S., VanHook, C., Judson, J., Ikiroma, A., & Adkins-Jackson, P. B. (2022). Police brutality, heightened vigilance, and the mental health of Black adults. Psychology of violence, 12(4), 211.

Anjum, S., Ullah, R., Rana, M. S., Ali Khan, H., Memon, F. S., Ahmed, Y., ... & Faryal, R. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic: A serious threat for public mental health globally. Psychiatria Danubina, 32(2), 245-250.

Hanisch, C. (1970). The personal is political. In S. Firestone & A. Koedt (Eds.), Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation (pp. 76–78). Radical Feminism.

Lifton, R. J. (1999). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. University of Chicago Press.

Lorde, A. (2012). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press.

Maslow, A., & Lewis, K. J. (1987). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Salenger Incorporated, 14(17), 987-990.

Mittal, S., & Singh, T. (2020). Gender-based violence during COVID-19 pandemic: a mini-review. Frontiers in global women's health, 4.

Patrick, R., & Pybus, K. (2022). Cost of living crisis: we cannot ignore the human cost of living in poverty. bmj, 377.

X, M. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House.


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Urvashi Panchal is trainee clinical psychologist currently in the first year of doctorate training. She’s born and raised in London with a BSc in Psychology with Clinical Psychology and a MSc in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. She currently explores sexual violence and systemic inequalities in her academic research. Her published research focuses on trauma, specifically the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown on young people’s mental health. Published academic musings can be found here: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?as_q=&num=10&btnG=Search+Scholar&as_epq=&as_oq=&as_eq=&as_occt=any&as_sauthors=%22Urvashi%20Panchal%22&as_publication=&as_ylo=&as_yhi=&as_allsubj=all&hl=en

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