Dating back to our earliest times, humankind has experienced the psychological impact of a wide range of catastrophes, including famines, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, windstorms, wars, and, last but certainly not least, outbreaks of potentially deadly infectious diseases. We are certainly no exception today as people try to figure out how to cope—and help others cope—with the grief, stress, and anxiety caused by biggest health challenge of our time: the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
With more than 215,000 Americans having lost their lives and more than 7.8 million infected since COVID-19 first gripped our nation, the pandemic has taken a profound psychological and emotional toll on us all. Still, behavioral and social science researchers have identified some strategies to help us deal with our fears, and even rise to the challenge of supporting others during this unprecedented time.
Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss the science behind mental health responses to disasters with Dr. George Everly Jr., a psychologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. A world-renowned expert with more than 40 years experience studying the psychological impacts of disasters, he co-founded the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, an organization affiliated with the United Nations. Our conversation took place via videoconferencing from our home offices in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:
Collins: Good morning! At NIH, we are doing everything we can to keep our scientific mission going by supporting groundbreaking research into COVID-19 and a lot of other things. We’re also deeply committed to helping people manage stress and attend to mental health. So, we’ve invited Dr. Everly to share insights that I believe will help us learn some skills to build resilience. Goodness knows, this is a time where we all need resilience, as well as to help others around us. We’re all called upon, I think, to look after our friends and neighbors in the aftermath of a circumstance like the current pandemic.
Everly: It’s a privilege to spend some time with you today and chat about such an important topic. The topic we typically think about in terms of disasters is the physical response. Today, we’ll talk about the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is actually my third pandemic, having consulted in Hong Kong with SARS and Singapore with H1N1. I’ve also done consulting with Ebola.
However, I will tell you that this pandemic, COVID-19, has been the most challenging. I think we can we agree that mental health is an intrinsic value as it relates to us as humans. Anything that threatens mental health, especially in large numbers, threatens the core fabric of society.
According to the United Nations, we may now be looking at an impending international mental health crisis. Some have called this the “hidden” pandemic: people who previously coped well may have challenges and people who had challenges coping before COVID-19 may have increased challenges. Looking at first responders and frontline workers, we have seen heroic efforts on their part, but not without consequences—and mental exhaustion may be one of them
Collins: How is this crisis similar—and how is it different—from most of the disasters that people have dealt with?
Everly: The first thing is expectations. If we expected COVID-19 to be short lived, we have been remarkably, if not catastrophically, disappointed.
So, this connection occurred to me. A number of years ago, I was interested in the psychological impact of the London Blitz, and I went to England to interview people who went through that night upon night upon night of intractable bombing during World War II. I wanted to find out what helped people make it through. It was very clear that their initial belief that the bombing would be short-lived was tragically violated. They then as a community understood that they had to shift into a different mindset, and realize the Blitz wasn’t a sprint—it was marathon. They’d originally sent their children out into the countryside, but later decided to bring them back in the midst of bombing. I will suggest that psychologically, that was the turn of the war. In fact, research later by Anna Freud found that sending the kids away was psychologically more injurious than keeping them in the city. And I think that’s really important. Realizing that we are in for a long haul with COVID-19, in and of itself may be a game changer.
Collins: A very interesting comparison. I hadn’t thought about it that way—an acute disease becoming chronic.
Tell us a little bit more about the undercurrent of malaise in our country even before this COVID-19 pandemic hit—what economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case have recently written about as the “deaths of despair” and the opioid crisis. We are facing a pandemic from coronavirus, but it didn’t land on a completely blank page. It landed in a circumstance where many people were already feeling significant stress, and where depression was increasing risks of overdoses and suicide.
Everly: Fantastic question. You probably remember the work of Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who actually coined the term “stress.” He said, at any given point in time, we have a limited supply of what he called “adaptive energy.” In the best of conditions, this reservoir is quite high and will allow us to meet unusual challenges. However, I would suggest that the background noise of chronic issues that predated COVID-19 did begin to deplete that reservoir of adaptive energy, making us more vulnerable to things that turned out to be far more challenging than we thought. We were starting with one foot in the hole, so to speak.
Collins: All the more reason why our resilience is being called upon. Piled on top of it, many people are facing the serious challenge of trying to telework from home and trying to manage their responsibilities in terms of children or other family members who need care. My heart goes out to those folks as they struggle with this shared set of responsibilities, probably feeling as if there aren’t enough hours in the day and distractions are always getting in the way.
People are also feeling stressed now about the health of their children. What do we know—and what should we be thinking about—in terms of the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on kids?
Everly: In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a child psychologist. But I have studied trauma, crisis, and disaster for quite a while, and, invariably, children are part of that. One of the most powerful things I have seen in my career is that children often become reflections of their parents. Children not only desire, but they need, stability. My message to parents is that your children rely on you. You must be that strength for them. Even when you think you can’t be strong for yourself, reach down deep inside and say, “This isn’t just about you; it’s about others as well.”
I’ve got three young grandchildren, and this is the message I am telling their parents: “This is an important time. This may be one of the defining milestones in your children’s development. It’s an opportunity to show them how to cope.”
Collins: I have grandkids as well and have been watching how they have adapted. In some instances, I can see how they have actually gained in strength, as they’ve learned that this is an opportunity to face up to a challenge and learn how to cope. It does seem to be a mix of providing that foundation of support, but trying not to prevent children completely from having the experience of realizing they can get through some things themselves.
Everly: We can certainly be overprotective. From studying Olympic athletes, we learned that when they were asked what helped them reach the elite tier and win Olympic medals, they answered: challenge, plus adequate support. While well-intended, I think support alone is misdirected.
Collins: That makes sense. I know, during the current crisis, there is an interest in figuring out, in scientifically rigorous ways, what mental health interventions seem to produce good outcomes. Tell me a little bit more about where we stand as far as the opportunities to be doing these sorts of trials of various interventions. It would be a shame to go through this and then say to ourselves, “We missed a great opportunity there to learn more.”
Everly: It’s tough to do a randomized, controlled trial in the middle of a disaster. There are quite literally ethical issues at play. So, we approximate as best we can. For example, in the past, we built our own model of Psychological First Aid and tested it in two randomized controlled trials and three content validation studies, as well as in structural equation modeling studies. Have we tested it in this current environment? Not yet. There may be others doing that—I’m not sure.
If you take a look at the Cochrane Review on resiliency programs, you will perhaps be a little surprised. The review says there’s not a compelling body of evidence that resiliency programs work. However, we believe they work. We know there is this thing called human resilience and we encourage everyone to keep on trying to study it in scientifically rigorous ways.
Collins: I’m glad that you are. We should not miss the opportunity here to learn, because this is probably not our last pandemic—or our last crisis. Any final words?
Everly: So, with the caveat that I’m a diehard optimist …
Collins: That’s okay. I am too!
Everly: … I truly believe that from the greatest adversities, opportunities can emerge. When I spent three years in New York working after the 9/11 terrorist attack, I thought this is the defining moment, not just of my generation, but of others. I got to see it up close and personal, and worked intimately with various agencies. And I did see opportunities. As a result of 9/11, we changed not just the way we go through airports, but the way we look at trauma from a public health standpoint. Perhaps for the first time, we realized that we need to take a far more active preventative and interventional role.
Now, history repeats itself. I believe that this pandemic will change us for the rest of my life—and I don’t think all those changes need be negative. I think there are huge opportunities. I certainly am eager to investigate this at the highest levels of science. Let’s see why things work when they work and why things don’t work. Then, let’s use that information to build programs and test them in randomized, controlled trials.
I think we will come out of this pandemic better than we went into it. I would encourage people to understand that we’re in this together. Way back in the mid-1800s, Darwin told us that the greatest predictor of resilience was collaboration and cohesiveness. This is a time to reach out to each other.
Collins: I totally agree with that. You’re making a really good point: social distancing doesn’t have to mean anything more than physical distancing. We can stay socially close and reach out to each other in different ways. We’re going to get through this, but get through it in a way that will change us. We will be changed by becoming stronger and more resilient, having learned some lessons about ourselves and about each other. We cannot simply hide our heads under our pillows and wait for this to pass. When you wake up in the morning, say to yourself: “I’m engaged in something that matters. I’m not just a passive victim of this terrible pandemic. I’m trying to do what I can and work toward getting us through.”
Many thanks, Professor Everly, for all your good work and for giving us this time to reflect on this important area of research and how to make the most of it.
For most people, pain eventually fades away as an injury heals. But for others, the pain persists beyond the initial healing and becomes chronic, hanging on for weeks, months, or even years. Now, we may have uncovered an answer to help explain why: subtle differences in a gene that controls how the body responds to stress.
In a recent study of more than 1,600 people injured in traffic accidents, researchers discovered that individuals with a certain variant in a stress-controlling gene, called FKBP5, were more likely to develop chronic pain than those with other variants . These findings may point to new non-addictive strategies for preventing or controlling chronic pain, and underscore the importance of NIH-funded research for tackling our nation’s opioid overuse crisis.
The humble laboratory mouse has taught us a phenomenal amount about embryonic development, disease, and evolution. And, for decades, the pharmaceutical industry has relied on these critters to test the safety and efficacy of new drug candidates. If it works in mice, so we thought, it should work in humans. But when it comes to molecules designed to target a sepsis-like condition, 150 drugs that successfully treated this condition in mice later failed in human clinical trials—a heartbreaking loss of decades of research and billions of dollars. A new NIH-funded study  reveals why.