Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) is, arguably, one of the greatest orators in the history of the nation—but this wasn’t his only gift. Dr. King had a unique ability to establish a call to action and mobilize the people of this great nation. At 11:00 am on August 28, 1963, approximately 250,000 average citizens descended on the nation’s capital where Dr. King delivered his historical message, “I have a dream,” forever changing the future of America.
While I may not be a brilliant orator and I spend most mornings twisting myself into a pretzel trying to coax my Goldendoodle into eating her breakfast before it’s time to leave the house, I do believe in the power of the American people to rally together, and create both powerful and meaningful change. I, too, have a dream—and it’s a dream that requires collective change in a post-COVID world.
As I sit in my home office, working on this article as I shelter-in-place, I’m acutely aware that the COVID-19 crisis is still very much alive and active—and, as a trauma expert, I believe the full depth and breadth of the crisis has yet to be revealed. This pandemic has the capacity to inflict long-lasting trauma on an unprecedented global scale. As our world continues to experience overwhelming uncertainty, it can be difficult to step back and dream about a bright future beyond the current COVID crisis—but it’s imperative that we all do! While I am seeing the world experience immeasurable pain, both in my practice and on a global level, I also hold a space with my clients to dream about the future. When I think about the future, I anticipate seeing the following positive changes in our world:
- We are expanding our definition and understanding of the impact of trauma: Historically, the American people have struggled to define trauma in a way that truly honors the intensity and devastating impact life-defining experiences can have on a person. Professionals within the field of psychology routinely debate how to best define trauma. In fact, the clinical criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a highly debated issue; trauma experts have openly and extensively criticized the diagnostic criteria, lobbying for a more expansive definition of what constitutes trauma—and some clinicians question the validity of the PTSD diagnosis altogether. Although progress has been seen since its first introduction into the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III (DSM-III) in 1980, our definition of PTSD is still grossly inadequate—and so is our definition of trauma. One of the greatest challenges in defining trauma is that it simply cannot be discretely quantified. Individual differences in coping, social support, and resilience are just a few of the factors that influence the severity of the impact of an event on an individual. There is simply no one-size-fits-all definition of trauma.
Psychology is not a precision science—nor is it intended to be practiced as such. The difficulty in classifying non-traditional forms of trauma, such as exposure to xenophobia, moral injury, medical trauma, and a chronic feeling of being unsafe, leave many untreated, under-resourced, and suffering in ways that impact their individual well-being, physical health, and ability to effectively cope with life’s challenges. Experts in the field anticipate that the mental health toll of COVID-19 has the potential to exceed the consequences of the virus itself—particularly for those on the frontlines. The impact of COVID-19 is forcing both the field of psychology and the average citizen to re-examine their understanding of what constitutes trauma. With the rapid expansion of our definition of trauma, we increase our ability to respond to the growing need in our community.
- A greater value will be placed on social connection: With the absence of frequent social interactions, we are becoming more aware of just how important close relationships are for our mental wellness. We are social beings by nature, and we are hardwired to crave the attention and affection from those we love most. COVID-19 is reminding us, not only of the fragility of life, but also of the importance in being more present in our relationships. We are shifting away from the pressure to constantly be moving, and embracing family first. We are learning to hug more, hug tighter, hug just a little bit longer, and not to leave important things left unsaid.
- Flexibility in the workplace will become the norm, instead of a reflection of privilege: Our pre-COVID world was one wherein virtually all attention was placed on production and productivity—and the mentality was one of produce or perish—which came at the cost of not only businesses, but also employee mental health. While exclusively telecommuting can pose its own challenges, the current crisis has demonstrated in a concrete way something research has consistently shown over time—that flexible work schedules benefit everyone! More specifically, empirical research has consistently shown that a healthy work/life balance not only results in positive mental health outcomes, but also increases productivity, motivation, employee loyalty, and job satisfaction. Further, it reduces burnout, absenteeism, and career inequality related to gender differences in the workforce. Long working hours, stressful commutes, and a forced choice between family and career don’t yield better results or increased productivity. The truth is, the best way to maximize the resources of your employees is to authentically and consistently demonstrate, in both your words and actions, just how much you value their contribution. (Maurya et al., 2015; Demerouti et al., 2004; Eikhof et al., 2007; Harrison et al., 2006)
- Collective resilience will be greater than ever before: As a trauma expert active in my community, I have been very vocal about my concern regarding the emergence of a new form of collective trauma and the mental health crisis we are witnessing unfold—and I will continue to work tirelessly to support all those impacted by this event. At the same time, I feel it important to recognize that, both on a personal and community level, we are seeing every day that we have the capacity to do hard things—and on a level that none of us could have ever anticipated before. As much despair as there is in the world right now, I am overwhelmed with appreciation for the countless ways that people have found to reduce feelings of helplessness, support their communities, and make personal sacrifices to ease the stress of others. Americans across the nation have dedicated their personal resources and unique skills, and have tapped into their own creativity to help address some of the unique COVID-specific challenges. For example, the overwhelming shortage of masks has people everywhere dusting off their sewing machines and making masks in mass quantities. People with 3-D printers have created and provided headbands to medical personnel to reduce injury behind their ears, caused by the continual wear of surgical masks. RVs for MDs is assisting first responders with temporary shelter, giving them a place to sleep and protect their families. American citizens have recognized the needs in their communities, they have organized, and they have responded—and that’s one of the qualities that truly makes America great!
When Dr. King dreamed about the future, he didn’t have access to the many modern technological luxuries that we have today. He had a simple message of hope, the word-of-mouth of the people, and an incredible ability to motivate others to act and move toward positive change. With all the resources at our disposal, imagine what we can do, both collectively and within our inner sphere to inspire others, improve our quality of life and quality of the lives of those around us, while always practicing grace. I know we are standing in the darkness right now; I also trust there will be light again. When we step into the light again, what does your post-COVID world look like?
American Psychiatric Association. (1980). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-III. Arlington, VA: Author.
Demerouti E., Bakker, A. B., & Bulters, A. J. (2004). The loss spiral of work pressure, work-home interference and exhaustion: Reciprocal relations in a three-wave study. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(1), 131-149. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0001-8791(03)00030-7
Eikhof, D. R., Warhurtst, C., & Haunschild, A. (2007). Introduction: what work? What life? What balance? Journal of Employee Relations, 29(4), 325-333. doi: 10.1108/er.2007.01929daa.001
Harrison, D. A., Newman, D. A., & Roth, P. L. (2006). How important are job attitudes? Meta-analytic comparisons of integrative behavioral outcomes and time sequences. Academy of Management Journal, 49(2), 305-325. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMJ.2006.20786077
King, M. L. (1963, August 28). I have a dream. Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom
Maurya, V. N., Jaggi, C. K., Singh, C. K., Singh, B., Arneja, C. S., Maurya, A. K., Arora, D. K. (2015). Empirical analysis of work life balance policies and its impact on employee’s job satisfaction and performance: Descriptive statistical approach. American Journal of Theoretical and Applied Statistics, 4(2-1), 33-43. doi: 10.11648/j.ajtas.s.2015040201.15