The COVID-19 pandemic has caused immeasurable personal, social, occupational, economic, and political harm. Nonetheless, many writers, researchers and mental health professionals have described how we may individually or collectively experience posttraumatic growth following this crisis. Posttraumatic growth refers to the positive psychological changes people experience following the struggle with a highly negative, traumatic or adverse experience. Aspects of posttraumatic growth include, but are not limited to, developing a greater appreciation for life, stronger sense of self, and improved relationships following the struggle with adversity. A wealth of evidence has shown that posttraumatic growth can occur following the onset of physical illnesses such as multiple sclerosis; mental health challenges such as psychosis; as well as wars and natural disasters.
Given the range of adversities that give rise to posttraumatic growth, there is a strong possibility that people and communities will experience posttraumatic growth following this pandemic. However, the opportunities for experiencing posttraumatic growth may not be equitably distributed across the population.
First, negative experiences that are moderately distressing are more likely to lead to posttraumatic growth relative to experiences that are highly distressing. Highly distressing experiences may completely overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope with a given adversity, limiting the possibility that posttraumatic growth will occur. We should ask: who among us may be highly distressed throughout this crisis? Some may include the overwhelmed front-line and essential workers dealing with this crisis. People affected by severe poverty, homelessness or housing instability, as well as persons with serious mental health challenges may also be faced with more extreme and distressing circumstances relative to those privileged enough to have sheltered at home throughout this crisis. Such people may be less likelyto experience posttraumatic growth following this crisis.
Second, various psychosocial interventions, such as therapy or peer support, can help people find ways to experience posttraumatic growth. With few exceptions, such interventions are inaccessible to many, for reasons such as cost, wait times and availability of such services. Such avenues for posttraumatic growth are therefore more likely to be pursued by persons with privileged access to resources. Persons without such resources may be withheld another important tool to experience posttraumatic growth.
Finally, people that receive strong social support from loved ones (e.g., families, romantic partners, etc.) are more likely to experience posttraumatic growth. However, contact with our loved ones is being eroded. Without face-to-face contact with our loved ones, many have resorted to reducing isolation and fostering human connection through digital technology. Yet many are without such technology and are extremely isolated, leaving many without the social support many draw on to experience posttraumatic growth.
I hope that many people experience posttraumatic growth following this pandemic. There are individual-level exercise that one can do to help (such as reflecting). Yet, posttraumatic growth may not be experienced by everyone. To solve this, we need to acknowledge and address the vast inequalities in our society that limit possibilities for growth for many. We need more front-line and essential workers and we need them to feel safe. We need to increase access to psychotherapy within our universal, publicly funded healthcare systems. We also need to bridge the digital divide. But more than anything – we need an effective vaccine or treatment for this virus. Only through a social justice approach will opportunities for posttraumatic growth be equitable for all people.