It only took a few months for COVID-19 to reconfigure life as we know it, yet while face masks and deserted city streets have become common sights around the world, not all of the pandemic’s impacts are set to be as visible. Experts have cautioned that a second crisis could follow hot on the heels of the virus – that of declining mental and social wellbeing.  According to research carried out in late March and early April, 55% of US adults felt the crisis had affected their mental health and 19% described its impacts as ‘major’.  In the UK, the government’s lockdown announcement in March resulted in an immediate spike in depression and anxiety levels, and in the space of two weeks, the proportion of people who’d experienced loneliness over the previous fortnight rose from 10% to 24%. 
“Looking at mental health in the midst of this pandemic, we’re seeing two things take place simultaneously,” explains Staci Haines, a leading expert in the field of somatics and systemic trauma. “There is [this] big, collective pressure from social and economic disruption and individuals are also naturally undergoing experiences that could lead to trauma.”  Indeed, as the world enters a period of active adaptation to the pandemic, people seem keenly aware that their emotional health is at risk from cabin fever, prolonged isolation, job insecurity, and systemic precarity.
Research from GlobalWebIndex suggests that in countries such as the UK, Brazil, and Italy, concerns about mental health eclipse those relating to physical health, demonstrating the high levels of awareness at play.  But how exactly will COVID-19 affect our emotional wellbeing? Canvas8 spoke to Haines, author of The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice, to better understand the pandemic’s impact on mental and social health, and how brands and organisations can play a meaningful role in supporting people through the crisis.
If people have been feeling out of sorts, it’s not without good reason. Numerous mental health diagnoses have already been proffered to explain the widespread unease around the crisis – an outbreak of grief, an anxiety pandemic, a loneliness epidemic.  According to Haines, the most useful way of understanding the ongoing effects of living through COVID-19 is by approaching it as a form of active, systemic trauma.
“Trauma involves a great deal of stress combined with the inability to act for ourselves, which leads to experiences of helplessness and powerlessness,” she says. “It exists in many different forms, ranging from personal experiences like neglect, violence, or medical trauma, to much wider takes, which include systemic trauma. Right now, we are all sharing this difficult global pandemic.”  Under these circumstances, heightened stress and anxiety are natural responses, especially considering the immediate risk the virus poses to people and their loved ones. And the sense of danger is real, with a survey conducted in March revealing that 88% of Britons thought COVID-19 posed a major or moderate threat to the country. 
Haines suggests that the key to weathering the emotional storm is by building and nurturing emotional resilience. This helps craft more effective, considered responses to adversity, preventing uncontrolled emotional downturns. “Resilience has a practical function. It resets us, it moves us from frantic, hyper-alert states into calmer ones where we feel more connected to ourselves and others and can better assess what is happening around us,” she says. “In somatics lingo, resilience helps us get recentred. It allows us to make mindful choices and take conscious action to change things, instead of just automatically reacting to the situation.” 
Jesse Donoghoe (2020) ©
If the booming ‘comfort economy’ is anything to go by, self-isolators are eager to make the most out of their extra time at home.  From baking supplies to bicycles to sex toys, people are rushing to spend on things that can help them weather the storm.  Demand for entertainment, in particular, is booming; Netflix added almost 16 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 and German game manufacturer Ravensburger reported that US sales of puzzles over a two-week period in March/April were 370% higher than over the same period in 2019.  With news fatigue setting in, viewers are actively seeking out small, social outlets like @GoodNews_Movement to counteract negativity, and many are gleefully escaping into virtual worlds like Animal Crossing.
According to Haines, these distractions help people stay grounded in a time of sustained stress and they don’t have to be consumption-focused to work. “Nature is a resilience factor and animals are, too,” she says. “We have access to music, art, dancing. There are some very funny YouTube videos out there for family dance-offs and things like that. Getting out your pencils and markers and drawing is always great. Helping others through volunteering and donations can be a great way to connect – delivering food to those in need, for instance. And a connection to something more vast – something spiritual – is also important. People need to know this is going to be hard, but we are going to get through it, and there could be really nourishing things about this time. For some people, the break with the normal pace of life could be a subtle relief, allowing them to finally get some time alone or with their families.” 
Striking a balance between realism and optimism is key, and the search for enjoyment cannot come at the expense of ignorance regarding the pandemic’s devastating costs. Haines points out that people who suffer personal losses during the crisis and those with higher exposure and little access to state support, such as essential workers or undocumented immigrants, will have been disproportionately traumatised and will remember this period as exceptionally difficult. For the lucky rest, quarantine will be what we make of it. “Without going as far as denying what’s going on, this doesn’t have to be a horrible experience,” she says. “It can be a reset, a good time to pause, reflect, and ask ‘how do we want this to turn out for everyone in the wider scheme of things?’” 
Vino Li (2020) ©
The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely it is that new behaviours picked up during the crisis will endure. Haines suggests that, before long, we should turn our focus to wide-scale healing – on individual, community, and institutional levels. “Looking at the bigger picture, there is good news and bad news,” she says. “The good news is that we have a huge opportunity to make some decisions about how we want to come out of this and make renewed pushes for equality. The bad news is that we might see the advent of more disaster capitalism, where wealth concentrates, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Trauma is differentiated – not everybody is equally affected – and if economic inequality is reinstated, then people are more open to trauma than ever.” 
Only 9% of Britons say they want life to return to how it was before the pandemic – with many citing cleaner air and stronger communities as unexpected positives – revealing how the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19 are precipitating a new ‘normal’.  Both personally and politically, people could emerge from the crisis with new ideas about what constitutes a good life. In New York, for instance, Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a ‘reimagining’ of the city after the pandemic, pointing out that it could be an opportunity to improve rather than simply returning to normal. 
“The crisis has shown us that, in some ways, we are really good at cooperating,” says Haines. “Individually, in the private sector, globally, governmentally, we are cooperating to build effective solutions in ways that allow us to bypass poor leadership. Can we keep doing that post-pandemic for wide-scale healing, to address equity, and to come out of this with a new ‘normal’ where we define new and changed social values?” 
Marcel Strauß (2020) ©
Insights and opportunities
Engage in the mental health discussion
According to research carried out by psychology professor Jean Twenge, 70% of Americans surveyed in April 2020 reported moderate to severe mental distress in the previous month, far exceeding the 22% figure recorded in 2018, showing how the effects of COVID-19 stretch beyond physical health.  “We default to the conversation of physical health but the conversation is expanding,” says Haines. “People know the potential levels of global trauma are very high, especially as sustained stress goes on. We’ve been learning to normalise talking about trauma, which is positive.”  Both in and out of the health sector, brands have been proactively helping people stay balanced and resilient in quarantine. Social networking app Tuned is enabling couples to carve out private time in virtual worlds, and shoe retailer Zappos has set up a purchase-free hotline to help tackle loneliness. Wellness giant Headspace has opened up its subscriptions so people can access meditation tips and has also announced free content for healthcare professionals, while therapy start-up Frame has been working to destigmatise mental health concerns. As such problems surface during self-isolation, apps and other digital technologies can help people cope without leaving home.
Articulate social values
While three in four people say companies shouldn’t exploit the situation, 78% want brands to help them in their daily lives during the crisis.  “This is a great time for corporations to sit down and take a look at values,” says Haines. “Could this be a time to look beyond just making money? Could this be a time to resource the commons, honour and protect workers, and look for ways to really give back? For instance, this could be a great opportunity for large brands to support and fund health initiatives and trauma healing, and work towards making those free.”  Across the globe, 97% of internet users concerned about their mental health say they want to see brands share helpful content that could boost wellbeing – from ideas for quarantine activities to positive news stories – proving that there is an audience in this space for companies that might be considering branching out.  People aren’t completely averse to brand activity during the pandemic, as long as it adds value and makes them feel supported rather than being openly profit-driven.
Focus on employees
For brands looking to make a difference during the COVID-19 crisis, change could start on their doorsteps, with their workers. After all, job insecurity has skyrocketed – up to 59 million roles are at risk across Europe and brands like Bird have drawn backlash for not standing by their employees.  Haines is firm on companies doing right by their staff, saying: “All corporations who can afford it should be paying their employees through the crisis – even those who can't work over Zoom. All businesses are struggling, but major corporations can afford to do it.”  To support staff, Microsoft is extending its three-month paid parental leave policy, making sure that staff can navigate school closures with ease and flexibility.  Meanwhile, many other brands are investing in workplace platforms like Evermood to support employees and boost their wellbeing.
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