The Washington State Department of Health started posting Behavioral Health Monthly Forecasts in April 2020. Two disaster psychologists, along with other staff, compile and share useful information such as the anticipated course of psychiatric symptoms across the population, how different populations might manifest their distress (e.g., children), and data related to changes in substance use and firearm purchases. It makes for interesting reading, though it’s frequently a bummer.
One chart that appears every month is “Reactions and Behavioral Health Symptoms in Disasters”. In the inaugural issue in April 2020, the forecast oriented readers to general model from SAMHSA[1. SAMHSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What a shame that it is a distinct department from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The mind remains split from the body in our administrative and health care systems, which is why there is no formal framework for public health psychiatry.] of reactions in disasters:
Note that there is no indicator here about where Washingtonians were at that time. The Y axis uses color to depict emotional states and the X axis, so optimistic, has only a notation to mark one year.
In May 2020, the forecast made a proclamation about where Washingtonians were. It was a warning: We were on the precipice of disillusionment:
We braced ourselves for this. Yes, we had witnessed heroism from so many, whether health care workers or first responders or neighbors dropping off food for those who were medically vulnerable or distilleries producing hand sanitizer or seamsters and seamstresses joining brigades to make cloth masks. Of course this level of concern and anxiety was unsustainable. How bad could it get?
By December 2020, we were in a trough of disillusionment and it felt like it:
Thousands of people were dying a day in the US and other countries around the world. Hospitals were overrun with sick people. People were starting to leave their jobs due to overwhelm. When would the vaccines become available? I remember looking at this graph and thinking, “I thought the graph last month had us in the nadir of disillusionment.” But there was a branching of lines! Maybe we, as a state, would follow the yellow line and things would improve for us all, regardless of station in life.
A terrible winter passed. The days got longer, there were more opportunities to be outside, many people got vaccinated… but the yellow line never manifested for those in my professional and personal communities. By June 2021, we were still in a trough:
In retrospect, that “secondary honeymoon” was accurate. All the numbers we hoped would drop, did: Reproductive number, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. People in the Seattle-King County area were getting vaccinated. But so many of the people under our care were dying from overdoses, suicide, and chronic medical diseases.
Then came Delta, Omicron, more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Health care workers and others left their jobs out of frustration and demoralization. A contingent of people continued to decline vaccinations, despite knowing the possible outcomes… including chronic disease and impairment that still has no effective treatment.
When the December 2021 graph came out, someone observed, “The trough just keeps getting longer.” I wondered who on Earth was experiencing the benefits of “reconstruction”.
I have never had so many people under my care die during a comparable period of time. At least 10 of my patients have died since the beginning of the pandemic; the first death occurred in July 2020. The most recent death (that I am aware of) happened in November 2021. None of these people died from Covid. They either died by suicide, overdose, or their chronic illness collided with an acute, fatal event.
We know from history that pandemics do not last forever. The 1918 flu pandemic lasted just over two years. The 2002 SARS outbreak was declared over in less than two years. The 2013 Ebola epidemic persisted for less than three years. All things change, all things end.
I, like so many others, hope that we all will exit this trough sooner than we anticipate. I worry about the psychological consequences of this pandemic in the years to come. We continue to focus on the viral pandemic; the psychological pandemic has already arrived. We have yet to see an organized response to that.