Updated: Apr 16
Cultural Artifacts of the Pandemic[s]
Our nation's pre-COVID mental health plight had been barreling toward critical mass for decades; in 2016, the shortage of mental health professionals was described as"evolving into a major public health crisis". The June 2020 article, America’s Mental Health Crisis is Exploding ... (published by NAMI) failed to describe the enormity of it all, as"mental health tsunami", the metaphor of choice, had already begun trending . These were not bloggers mugging their readers with hyperbole, hardly. The former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists lamented a post lockdown scenario could result in a"tsunami of referrals". She was correct.
The optic of a crashing wave engulfing society with debris is certainly apt. But mutating strains, a stalled economy, and dire long-term projections beg a more detailed illustration. I chose the nuclear option. I chose the nuclear option. And certainly not to validate or foment the anxiety and fears of those who struggle. Such rhetorical terrorism took hostages from both sides and continues to polarize our culture. To feel overly anxious or impervious is oftentimes a direct result of ideological entrenchment. The goal is to charge this no-man's-land between hyperbole and suppression. Not to overrun ideological trenches, but to diffuse loaded rhetoric with sober and informed thinking.
Describing the Invisible
[The nuclear industry has the term, prompt critical: A runaway fission train where critical mass delivers deadly levels of radioactive fallout quickly, invisibly, and silently. This best describes the secondary mental health pandemic.]
Relational/Emotional Proximity = Toxicity or "Viral Load"
Density and duration of exposure to pathogens determine toxic load.
Remove physical proximity from the equation and there is zero exposure.
Simple...but this only applies to organic toxins.
Imagine a highly communicable, non-organic, and invisible toxin that is directly linked to a long list of physical diseases, including cancer.
Density & Duration: Psychological Fallout Presents Physically and Emotionally Over Time
(A parallel from the medical field: Oncology nurses who handle chemotherapy drugs have higher incidences of blood cancers and reproductive damage.)
While medical personnel often require close physical proximity to treat critical or injured patients, mental health professionals (MHP's) do not, yet both are sustaining psychological wounds. Empathy is a common motivating attribute for health providers cutting both ways: It motivates the healer to serve the hurting, but can injure the healer.
We can reasonably argue that empathic individuals exposed to high stress levels experience empathy as a comorbidity.
[This subculture of faceless heros who, through the nature of their character and profession, currently sacrifice parts of their psyche' in service to others.]
Secondary exposure to the psychological injuries of others lowers a health care provider's toxic threshold (the insulatory factor necessary for them to effectively treat those needing their help*). Frontline medical and mental health personnel - especially now, are at prompt critical status in regard to exposure. With a nationwide shortage of MHP's and RN's, their exposure will remain dense for years to come..
High stress levels teetering on toxic will predispose everyone to clinical presentations of anxiety/depression. With few exceptions, toxic stress is a comorbidity factor for all manner of diseases and even slows our body's ability to heal physical injuries.
(*Many MHPs must practice a consistent self-care protocol to include physical exercise. Without it, they sense their resistance weakening to the 'highly communicable, non-organic, and invisible toxin' I requested you merely 'imagine'.)
Those who begin to feel numb to the pain of others (and their own) have already crossed their toxic threshold. Each psychic injury is a blow that causes a microfracture to our person; eventually there is a break. This break can present as opposite sides of the same coin: Psychic numbing or hyperarousal. An invisible and amorphous toxin presenting infection with contrasting symptoms sounds like science fiction. True, but only if you remain uninitiated to the subculture of trauma.
Re-Prioritizing the Components of an Efficient Business Strategy in the New Paradigm
Salient questions for CEOs and senior management:
How many in your organization are silently bearing the weight of hidden stressors or disabilities caused or exacerbated by the pandemic? Have some reached a 'prompt critical' stage where they are silently melting down at their core?
Which of them are dealing with the anxiety of having ill or compromised family members: loved ones with addiction issues relapsing under the stress; spouses and/or adult children out of work; parents with special needs children falling farther behind as remote learning hinders their progress; family members presenting symptoms of depression for the first time; those who were denied the ability to comfort dying parents, relatives, or friends, and could not grieve in customary ways now suffer complicated or delayed bereavement; those whose elderly parent, once social and active, is now housebound and rapidly failing...etc.?
Can the emotional load of each employee be measured to assess the collective risk of your company?
This question is answered only in a perfect world where stigma and denial are nonexistent and people freely self-disclose... so, why ask it? Because it is possible to reflect on the statistics, multiply them accordingly, then arrive at a general assessment of your past and projected losses.
In 2006, the European Actuarial Consultative Group was invited by the European Commission "...to provide more insight...on how various parties should protect themselves against possible economic consequences of a pandemic...and how different areas of society could be affected."
When coming across the report, I expected these "...possible impacts..." to include the 'economic consequences' a secondary mental health crisis would have on the workforce. Nothing.
The armchair critic asks: How did a team of astute analytic experts fail to factor a post-pandemic mental health crisis into their equation?
The same way many senior management teams failed to respond to a decades old mental health crisis in any impactful way. Who can be blamed for an inability to hear a silent toxin? Especially one most are too ashamed to acknowledge, much less discuss? Shame, while imposing silence, hemorrhages profit as well.
Armed with knowledge, what will proactivity look like?
Firstly, acceptance. Without it, proaction is reduced to posturing. Senior management must presume their company's staff fall within the statistical mean. To confirm, Ask sincere questions face to face. You will better connect with the humanity of your resources. Perhaps you will receive back the highly coveted, self disclosure: This is the ultimate testimony to your ability to establish trust.
Secondly, humility. Ask informed questions and avoid cut and paste programs that may not serve your culture's needs:
How does one go about assessing and changing the organizational tone to serve your most valuable resources?
nor can one H.R. department, one group of consultants, or even one highly motivated CEO. For workplace culture to serve as an integral part of your employees’ support system, the only pre qualifier is believing others want the same. That subculture of disenfranchised individuals must be coalesced into a functional team. This proactive strategy counters-a-culture where stress tyrannically reigns over the mental health of your company, your business imperative, and our economy.
Edgar Schein (aka, the father of organizational development) observed,
"...an inherent paradox surrounding learning: Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all."
Schein knew that modulating "survival anxiety" would facilitate the "psychological safety" necessary for change and learning to occur.
Our post-pandemic climate is an opportunity to serve those whose levels of survival anxiety are toxic. Transforming the workplace into a refuge of psychological safety means revolutionizing the corporate milieu.
A concerted and thematic effort driven by the moral imperative of a sincere and committed few will birth that counter-culture.
These 'sincere few' are already embedded within your organization and layered within the stratum of every department. Each are inherently equipped to serve both imperatives. These precious resources merely need to be mined, charged, and released.
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Epilogue and Disclaimer: I had written the bulk of this article in May, 2020 and published a portion entitled, Understanding Emotional Fallout in June. On 3.6.2021 while researching Robert Jay Lifton, I came across Hiroshima And COVID-19, published Aug. 5th 2020 (by Robert Jay Lifton and Charles B. Strozier). While flattered such astute minds as Strozier's and Lifton's were influenced by my work, concurrently, I realized how it felt to have a delusion of grandeur. A. Barker