Essays edited by NYU Silver’s Carol Tosone show how therapists have responded to fear and anguish during the pandemic—while dealing with trauma of their own.
Carol Tosone’s newly published collection of essays by mental health professionals reads at times like a report from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, supplying wrenching details about the coronavirus’s impact on individuals, families, and communities.
When the pandemic struck, followed by the release of videotaped police killings of Black men and women, many people were already speaking to their mental health practitioner about their most profound personal challenges, such as addiction, discrimination, readjustment to civilian life after military service, domestic violence, an eating disorder, autism, family stress, or the death of a loved one. Then, suddenly, their treatment was complicated, or even sometimes upended, by the emergence of what has been a relentless stream of upsetting news.
Mental health professionals, meanwhile, faced unparalleled professional challenges, including what Tosone, a professor at the NYU Silver School of Social Work, sees as “shared trauma”—the affective response that therapists experience as a result of primary and secondary exposure to the same collective trauma as their clients. Many of the mental health experts and counselors who she assembled for the 36 essays in this collection, titled Shared Trauma, Shared Resilience During a Pandemic: Social Work in the Time of Covid-19, are academics, practitioners, and alumni from the Silver School community.
Tosone was uniquely suited to compile these reflections, having spent decades studying how mental health professionals respond and cope in disasters involving mass casualties, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. A die-hard New Yorker and hockey fan, she says she misses the whirlwind of activity and daily contact she once enjoyed pre- pandemic—which she describes as “my old life.”
Below are just five excerpts from contributors as they and their colleagues strive to make sense not only of the collective adversity, but also of the resilience paradoxically being born from it.
“Quarantine has been the cruelest test of our coping skills…One patient started smoking again, after years without a cigarette, while another has gained 15 pounds due to her uncontrollable binges. Another patient has started pulling her hair nonstop, while another has become a daily marijuana smoker. One of my teenage parents has developed crippling insomnia, falling asleep at 6 a.m. every morning due to her compulsive checking of social media. Another patient is experiencing an uptick in her self-harm cutting behavior. The list goes on and on.”
—Anna Wilking (clinical social worker and therapist)
“The loss of one’s job under ‘normal’ circumstances is often fraught with fear, anxiety, and trauma. … The pandemic also aggravates the impact of job loss in the sense that, amid the widespread unemployment and recession related to COVID-19, it is taking longer on average for people to find jobs…With drawn-out periods of unemployment, I see more depression and more anxiety in my clients, along with more revelation of childhood trauma related to feelings of inadequacy.”
—Howard Leifman (psychotherapist, career coach, and human resources consultant)
“As a specialist working with domestic violence victims, the ‘stay-at-home’ orders, intended to keep the general population safe, created new avenues of danger for victims. Financial stressors due to job loss and inability to work, children attending classes from home, and constant exposure to the abuser severely limited her option to leave or seek help.”
—Shari Bloomberg: (Clinical social worker and therapist)
“The emotional effects of parental incarceration can be exhibited by children through trauma-related stress symptoms such as depression, anxiety, challenges in forming relationships, concentration problems, sleep difficulties, emotional withdrawal, substance misuse, and significant feelings of stigmatization. …[N]early 2 million children [in the U.S.] have at least one incarcerated parent [according to federal statistics]. ...Nationwide, the known infection rate for COVID-19 in jails and prisons is about 2.5 times higher than that in the general population (according to the Equal Justice Initiative). Therefore, children of incarcerated parents remain a growing population who presently experience both the traumatic events of COVID-19 within their own communities, as well as the fear and anxiety associated with health concerns for their incarcerated loved ones.”
—Anna Morgan-Mullane (clinical social worker and therapist, NYU Silver adjunct lecturer)
“It seemed to happen overnight or at least over the course of a week. Even though these events occurred during one week in March, it feels like a lifetime ago when I was at a Rangers game in Madison Square Garden, dining at a packed, near impossible-to-get-reservations Manhattan restaurant; running a race; seeing a Broadway play; and meeting with clients face-to-face. The following week, coinciding with the first day of spring, I was sheltering in place…wondering if I should prepare my will in the event that I had already contracted COVID-19….My experience, coupled with a steady diet of hearing the fears, anxieties, and major adjustments that my clients are undergoing, lends itself to the experience of shared trauma…. The paradox of shared trauma, particularly now, is that in the isolation of quarantine and life in the virtual world, we are building a strong sense of community, shared resiliency, and promise of a future with more intimacy, both personally and professionally.”
—Carol Tosone (NYU Silver professor of social work)