Ian Ricci is all too familiar with PTSD. But what he’d like a world struggling with COVID-19 to know about is PTG: post-traumatic growth.
After his patrol vehicle in Iraq was hit with an explosive device, leaving two of his friends dead and him as the lone survivor, Ricci contemplated suicide. He hated being alive. But time and conversations with other veterans helped him embrace a new life focused on coaching youth sports, being a father to two daughters and mentoring other veterans.
As the nation grapples with the fallout of a pandemic year – more than 550,000 often unmourned deaths, 30 million coronavirus cases, shuttered businesses, and social distancing protocols that kept us apart – Ricci's and others' experiences of overcoming the worst moments in their lives might help us all emerge from the pandemic with a new perspective, mental health experts said.
“What we’re all dealing now within our own different ways is absolutely a trauma,” says Ricci, 39, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “The important thing to remember as we all start to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel is that it can represent a fresh start. In a way, it can be a reset button for your life.”
Calling that button a silver lining of the pandemic is perhaps too shiny a term to use when discussing the worst global health crisis since 1918. But interviews with experts who study post-traumatic growth, as well as people who have journeyed from despair to rebirth, suggest that there is an avenue to experience positive change.
To achieve post-traumatic growth, sufferers of trauma must first recognize and accept the ways in which core beliefs have been shattered by an event, said psychologist Richard Tedeschi, who along with colleague Lawrence Calhoun defined and began to research the phenomenon back in the mid-1990s.
Accepting that an emotional earthquake has occurred, he said, allows humans to grow in five specific domains: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength and spiritual change.
Tedeschi said positive change in those areas first requires the reconstruction of core beliefs, such as the predictability and controllability of life, that prior to the traumatic event often went either unexamined or were taken for granted.
Often the journey to growth can take years and on average only half of trauma sufferers truly succeed. For some groups, particularly communities of color, such change may prove particularly elusive given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19.
But, experts add, in instances where the trauma is shared by a community the time frame toward growth could be accelerated by people reaching out to each other.
"Shared trauma can initiate post-traumatic growth in communities or whole societies, and we will be witnessing that in the near future as this pandemic resolves and we see what remains," said Tedeschi, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and distinguished chair at the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth. The institute is part of the Boulder Crest Foundation, a Bluemont, Virginia-based organization that helped Ricci turn his life around. The foundation runs a program for post-traumatic growth aimed at veterans and first responders.
Surviving trauma can result in new appreciation for life
Psychologists say that it is human nature to seek out order amid chaos, beauty amid ugliness. Researchers studying the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on the national psyche found there was an increase in kindness, altruism and solidarity, along with, for some, a shift toward religiosity and patriotism.
"People who can identify these silver linings after bad times seem to have an easier time in terms of their general mental health," said Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo who studied the aftermath of 9/11.
But Poulin notes that while after 9/11 there was a strong "feeling of national unity" that helped many overcome the trauma of the attacks, the often polarized response to COVID-19 – with some communities embracing masking and social distancing and others shunning it – may make universal growth more elusive after the pandemic.
While there are always those for whom traumatic events permanently alter their lives for the worse, many eventually thrive. Psychologists studying the aftereffects of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that claimed 15,000 lives in 2011 found that while some suffered from crippling depression after the event, others in time saw growth in personal resilience, spirituality, life appreciation and enhanced personal relationships.
Although vaccines continue to roll out, it remains too early to tell how quickly the nation at large will bounce back from COVID-19. The desire to rebound is certainly strong. In the most simplistic sense, 12 months filled with mobility restrictions, financial challenges and unfathomable loss may trigger a renewed appreciation for travel, employment and life.
“Any manner of things could happen alone or in combination,” Tedeschi said. “Appreciation for life may occur in someone who recovers from a serious case of COVID-19. Changes in relationships may happen for people who experience caring and kindness in their struggles. Spiritual changes could happen as a person shifts perspective on how life can seem random. Personal strength could come to people who rode out challenges as first responders, and new possibilities may be recognized by those forced to shift into new employment.”
Some economists even predict that a return from the calamitous impacts of COVID-19 will generate a new Roaring ‘20s, a reference to the years immediately following World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic that gave rise to a fiscal and cultural explosion.
“When this plague ends, you’ll have something very similar as people relentlessly search each other out and there is sexual licentiousness, an economic boom and a blossoming of the arts,” said Nicholas Christakis, a professor of social and natural science at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.”
But, Christakis cautions, that buoyant time is still a few years away, 2024 to be specific.
“First, we’ll have the intermediate period lasting a few years, where we’re dealing with the economic shock of the virus, the impact to education, and a toll of both the dead and the millions disabled by COVID-19,” he said. “We’ll have to mop up. That’ll take time.”
It will also require those who have suffered deep losses during the pandemic – whether the death of family members or the decimation of a business – to confront those traumas head-on, experts say.
“If you’re able to purposefully think about what happened to you and make some meaning of it, that can lead you to a higher level than before,” said Whitney Dominick, a social psychologist at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Dominick is in the process of conducting research on whether individuals impacted by COVID-19 have experienced post-traumatic growth over the past six months. She said early findings show that while growth overall has not been detected, many respondents did report improvements in the areas of personal strength and new possibilities.
Growth happens when ‘you know it exists’
Mandy Pifer said she had little experience with trauma for most of her life. “My parents are still married, you know, I’ve had a great life,” she said.
Then came December 2, 2015. A masked husband and wife arrived at a holiday party being held by employees of the San Bernardino, California, public health department. The couple opened fire and killed 14, including Pifer’s fiancé, Shannon Johnson, who was shot as he used his body to shield a co-worker.
Months and then years passed in a fog. Often she felt guilty for any positive things that happened in her life. But slowly Pifer, a former trauma counselor for the city of Los Angeles, began to emerge from her self-imposed prison of grief.
“You have to know that post-traumatic growth exists in order for it to happen, and eventually it did happen for me,” said Pifer, who now works for a Los Angeles-based homelessness advocacy group called The People Concern. "You have to know it's OK to have good things happen after really bad things."
For Pifer, that progress included getting a new job, being excited by the prospect of perhaps meeting someone new, and generally having a rosier and more upbeat attitude toward life's possibilities after years of seeing the candle of hope dim.
Pifer said reaching out to share her emotions with close friends created a bridge back to a solid emotional place. Ultimately, the pandemic also played a part in her recovery.
“Strangely, connecting to the shared misery so many of us felt last year made me feel like I wasn’t alone," she said. "We’ve heard so many of each others’ stories of loss and pain. Sharing, I think, will help us heal.”
Psychologist Tedeschi echoes that notion, adding that it is critical those seeking out post-traumatic growth find an "expert companion," a nonjudgmental sounding board with whom to share thoughts and progress.
“In explaining what you’re feeling to them, you get a better understanding yourself,” he said. “This is not an easy process, it is a struggle. But with work, you start to see a forward-looking story to your life. You can start to write the novel about yourself, instead of being on autopilot and letting life happen to you.”
Tedeschi is quick to stress one common misperception about post-traumatic growth, which is that it is somehow synonymous with resilience. Resilience, he said, often is born of weathering repeated past traumas and acts more like a protective shell that in some cases can prevent an individual from both feeling trauma and experiencing growth.
Post-traumatic growth tougher for communities of color
Such resilience in many ways is part of the American experience for many Black, Latino, Asian and Native American citizens, experts say.
Centuries of systemic racism that have led to economic, health care and education inequities have resulted in a population that is familiar with struggle. That resilience has admittedly has been challenged by COVID-19, which has sickened and killed people of color at rates more than twice those of white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health care professionals who work with Black, brown, Latino and Asian communities are anticipating an unprecedented need for mental health resources in the wake of the pandemic, said Derek Novacek, who, when not working at the Therapy Lab in Los Angeles, is a post-doctoral therapist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“There are particular barriers to post-traumatic growth for Blacks when compared to whites, between access to health care and also a general distrust of the health care system,” said Novacek, who was lead author on a recent professional article titled “Mental health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black Americans.”
Novacek said that while he has seen Black communities get through trauma by sharing their experience as a community, the resulting numbness could hinder the kind of raw self-analysis that leads to post-traumatic growth.
“For a lot of racial and ethnic minorities, there is a level of resilience there that makes them say, ‘If it wasn’t COVID-19, it would be something else,’ so they just get up every day to face a world that doesn’t care about them,” he said. “But in terms of recovering socially and economically from the pandemic, it may take Black Americans longer."
Lovern Gordon, who describes herself as a two-time survivor of domestic violence, agrees that said post-traumatic growth may prove elusive for the most disenfranchised.
“For a lot of Black people affected by COVID-19, real growth may not be possible unless there are huge structural changes,” said Gordon, whose Boston-based Love Life Now Foundation helps victims of domestic abuse. “I have friends who have lost loved ones, lost businesses, lost healthcare. To regain that mental health after such traumas, it’s hard.”
Gordon said her own journey toward growth first required her to acknowledge that she was a victim, in her case as a child of an abusive father growing up in the Caribbean, and, later, as a girlfriend to a man whose beatings eventually landed her in a hospital.
She left her abuser but remained plagued by self-doubt and shame. The path toward growth started in earnest after she won the 2011 Mrs. Ethnic World International beauty pageant and decided to make domestic abuse her cause of choice.
“When I was lying in the hospital and being beaten, the idea of help didn’t make sense,” she said. “But growth comes when you can make people see that there are resources other there and other people who want to help you with that journey.”
Living a life ‘denied to someone you love’
Army veteran Ricci is the embodiment of that credo. Years after the explosion that took the lives of his friends, he said he felt as if he was a “burden on every person that I came in contact with.”
Ricci had heard about the Boulder Crest Foundation program called Warrior PATHH, which helps veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2018, he decided to apply. But from his dark psychological corner, Ricci said his mission was to attend a session in Arizona with the goal of taking his own life once there.
“I wanted to do it as far away from home as I could,” he said.
But once there, what he learned about the redemptive possibilities afforded by post-traumatic growth flipped a switch in Ricci. When he participated in group activities such as the labyrinth path – which has vets carrying and then putting down large rocks while meditating, a gesture of releasing burdens – he found light permeating his darkness. Instead of feeling like a victim, he saw his struggles as a “driving force” for his evolution.
Ricci’s post-traumatic growth journey now finds him helping other veterans go through Boulder Crest’s program, as well as mentoring young people through his role as a mixed martial artist and boxing coach in South Dakota. He urges those who are hurting from COVID-19 to stay positive and seek help from family, friends, or professionals.
“My advice for anyone suffering right now because of the pandemic is to create a series of regular practices for yourself and find a support system consisting of people who challenge you to do better,” he said. “Remember, you are not alone. Work toward that appreciation of life, a life that maybe was denied to someone you love. Do it for them, and do it for yourself.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After COVID-19 pandemic, Americans could embrace more fun