Just because we can’t see a problem or researchers haven’t published on it yet, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
Psychology is the science of understanding and predicting behavior. In the absence of hard data, wisdom dictates that we prepare for the plausible using psychological insights. As the Chief Psychologist for Stella Center and one of the nation’s leading experts on trauma, here is what I predict: A surge of need from those who have experienced persistent trauma while living in a nightmare of chronic sexual abuse since the start of COVID-19 shelter in place orders.
What do I base this prediction on?
The size of the #metoo movement and the number of people who have come forward to report that they have been sexually assaulted suggests that sexual misconduct is already a widespread cultural cancer.
Further, the emergence of COVID-19 as a global health threat has created conditions that are a perfect storm for the abuse of power. Shelter in place orders have created socially sanctioned invisibility. If sexual assault was already hard to detect, now it is occurring behind closed doors with very little chance of discovery, even in incidental ways.
In addition, many people are experiencing peak levels of stress as they have lost the roles and identities that give our lives structure and meaning. Some of these people are abusers, who have lost jobs that took them outside of their homes for at least the duration of their working shifts.
People across America are consumed by helpless rage. Those who are unable to manage themselves and who feel ownership of those around them are even more likely to engage in predatory behavior to release their own rage.
For these reasons alone, when the shelter in place orders end, I predict that we will have a wave of need from sexual assault survivors and that we will not be ready to meet the need, unless we innovate.
What is this prediction based on?
First, we already had a lack of high-quality mental health providers to meet the existing mental health need before COVID arose. And the mental health providers we have are working long hours due to increased care needs from existing, and new, patients. They are simultaneously enduring their own stress because the changes in our rhythm of life and the childcare crisis have affected a wide swath of people, including mental health providers. In addition, given social distancing, it has become much more difficult for traditional shelters to offer safe havens for those who are enduring assault. And financial resources, including charitable giving, are impacted when people become fearful and focus on preserving their savings rather than being generous to others in need.
If this prediction sounds dark, it is because I believe that many will be in dire need. My hope lies in the fact these kinds of extreme pressures can create the conditions for critical innovation.
The traditional mental health model for trauma has been hard on patients and providers alike. Talk therapy for trauma consists of 12 to 16 hours of weekly therapy, sometimes much longer courses of therapy, that are focused on reliving – and processing – trauma. Many patients are reluctant to engage in therapy that will force them to approach what they would rather avoid. Many people are reluctant to relive their worst living nightmares – no matter how much relief they might gain from confronting – and processing – their trauma in this way.
The traditional model for trauma care is also hard on providers. Providers can sometimes begin to experience second order effects from sitting with people as they share vivid stories of horror and helplessness. Some have called this vicarious trauma exposure. Burnout can be especially high among healers and licensed providers who work with those who suffer from trauma.
Those who suffer from trauma need intelligent, practical, effective support for trauma. Trauma providers want to bring their patients to a place of healing. The paradigm shift that would accomplish this is for physicians and psychological healers to fuse their expertise.
I am currently working on an article with collaborators who work within the Special Forces community at Fort Bragg. We will be sharing our experiences in fusing biological and psychological treatments to get people effective, lasting relief. The population we have worked with – military veterans who have had multiple combat deployment – is a population that has also endured chronic, layered traumas. With this population, we have found that by addressing the most severe trauma symptoms with a biological intervention called Stellate Ganglion Block and then following this up with high-quality psychological treatment, many of our patients have been able to achieve and sustain game-changing outcomes – to be described in much greater detail in an article to be published in the near future.
My hope is that this line of work will be one example of how we can shift the paradigm and create a new model for trauma care. Paradigm shifts are sometimes like diamonds – they can come out of the convergence of incredible pressure – forces that press down and collapse in one each other can ultimately create something of great beauty, and lasting strength.
Dr. Shauna Springer is the Chief Psychologist for Stella Center and one of the nation’s leading experts on Trauma. She co-hosts a weekly podcast called “Seeking the Military Suicide Solution” for Military Times. Her work has been featured on CNN, Business Insider, THRIVE Global, Dr. Oz, US News and World Report, NPR, NBC, CBS Radio, Forbes, Washington Post, and Military Times. Her recently published book WARRIOR has been endorsed by Academy Award Winner and Author of the books Tribe and War, Sebastian Junger. WARRIOR is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, and Walmart.