The last time the world was ravaged by a pandemic on the scale of COVID was 1918. The world was a much different place then, but there is no doubt that these two pandemics have a lot in common.
Aside from killing millions of people, the 1918 flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic both have had significant effects on people’s mental health. It would be hard not to experience some mental health difficulties given the challenges that have arisen from such widespread illness.
But, while there is still a great level of uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and when it might end, we can learn some lessons about the psychological impacts of pandemics by looking at what happened in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic.
According to experts, the 1918 flu pandemic caused a host of mental health issues, including depression, nervousness, and even psychological dissociation. People that contracted the flu could all but be assured of experiencing a loss of mental capacity and depression as a result of the severity of their sickness. Likewise, various forms of hysteria were observed in flu patients, as were psychoses, epileptic attacks, and reduced cognitive effectiveness.
And while psychotic episodes and dissociative occurrences haven’t been reported as effects or results of COVID, depression, anxiety, nervousness, and PTSD most certainly have been noted as being common among COVID patients (and non-COVID patients, too, for that matter). This brings us to the critical role of psychologists in the post-COVID era.
As in the early 1920s at the conclusion of the flu pandemic, once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, there will be lingering mental health issues amongst those that contracted the virus as well as those that managed to avoid getting it.
All of the illness, injury, and death, loss of jobs and economic uncertainty, and social upheaval with sides arguing about mask mandates and mandatory vaccines are sure to exacerbate people’s feelings of depression, anxiety, and so forth. It will be crucial for psychologists to be at the ready to help usher people around the world through the challenging times ahead.
But providing mental health services isn’t the only way that psychologists will be important in the post-COVID era. In fact, their expertise will be needed in many other areas.
Health Psychology Will Likely Become Even More Important
Health psychology is the study of how psychological, biological, and social factors affect one’s health.
More to the point, health psychologists are interested in how these factors intersect and how motivation plays a role in people’s health decisions.
A prime example of this is why some people are adamantly opposed to wearing masks while others are adamant in their use of masks during COVID. A health psychologist is interested in what the motivation is behind these two very different behaviors and what they can do to help promote mask-wearing as both an illness-prevention and health-promotion activity.
Of course, changing behavior is a very complex process, particularly when it comes to issues of mental and physical health. We can assume that as the opinions regarding things like mask mandates become more and more polarized that health psychologists will seek to develop an understanding of how and why these kinds of divides have emerged.
Additionally, health psychology will perhaps see rapid growth in the area of research. After all, health psychologists often study the underpinnings of what enables some people to be healthy while other people are unhealthy. Likewise, health psychologists are interested in developing a better understanding of what allows some people with an illness to cope very well with the challenges of being sick while others seem to be virtually unable to cope with being ill.
Understanding why these things occur can help psychologists work with other healthcare professionals to develop strategies of care that help patients build psychological resiliency, make more healthy decisions, and come out of their illness healthier and more empowered.
COVID Might Bring the Need for Psychology Services to the Forefront
People from all walks of life suffer from mental health issues. And people from all walks of life struggle with asking for help when a mental health issue arises. But perhaps COVID will change that.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is so large in scale, it stands to reason that many, many people - some of whom have never really struggled with mental health - are finding themselves in a very dark place and in need of mental health services. Psychologists from around the world have risen to the occasion to provide services to people in need, from frontline healthcare workers to parents to teachers and beyond.
Perhaps now more than ever, more and more people are recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a great deal of psychological stress on themselves and people they care about. This, in turn, could lead to more people seeking out mental health treatment, be that psychotherapy, group counseling, support groups, or perhaps even drug therapies for mental illnesses.
As we move out of the pandemic and return to some level of normalcy, psychologists and the services they provide will likely be at the forefront of our efforts to recover. That’s a good thing - psychologists have a lot to offer people that need assistance with working through their feelings and emotions regarding the effects of the pandemic.
Psychologists Will Need to Help Society Make Adjustments in the Post-COVID World
There should be little doubt that the world we knew before COVID is likely never going to return. While this is a depressing thought, our job now is to look ahead and figure out how to accommodate the changes that might be necessary for our survival.
Working from home, Zoom meetings, social distancing, and wearing masks in public might not have been mainstream activities prior to 2020, but they most definitely are now. And all of them have required an adjustment in our behavior such that many of us lead more isolated lives.
Isolation isn’t really in the human playbook - even the most introverted of people still need human interaction on some level. Moving forward, psychologists might need to help guide people in how to live a more isolated life while maintaining as many connections with others as possible.
Perhaps this would take the form of educating people how to connect with family and friends without actually seeing them. Working with people to build their emotional intelligence skills might be another avenue of preparing for the future. Psychologists will likely need to train themselves in working remotely and providing psychological services via video or phone chats, too.
The point is that we’ve already had to make plenty of changes in how we live as humans in the COVID era, and more behavioral changes are surely going to be needed as the pandemic subsides. But we should take comfort in knowing that psychologists and other mental health professionals will be there by our sides to help us navigate whatever the future might hold.