Trauma in the air: Catastrophe and/or transformation

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the often-masked reality that mental health is as much a societal issue as it is an individual one. In 2020, COVID19 has united South Africans and the Global community as we face a common enemy, resulting in a collective trauma experience. Our mental well-being as a society has been ‘shook’, with most people coping with an unprecedented crisis. Our normal coping techniques have been found inaccessible, wanting and insufficient.

During this pandemic, many are beginning to see that mental ill-health can emanate from and become exacerbated by socioeconomic and societal realities. Writers and mental health experts around the world have been emphasizing the importance of being mindful of people’s emotional wellbeing, normalizing and validating the waves and storms that many are struggling with during this time. It has been a period of incredible emotional support from the global community as everyone shares the collective experience and “holding” each other as we brace ourselves and breath through it all, together. There is no shortage of breathing and grounding exercises that help us stay calm and sane. We are encouraged to connect to loved ones as we go through this period of collective mourning. All this, so that we do not come out the other side as mere shells of our former selves, having mental breakdowns from failing to process all these experiences.

We can clearly see how mental wellbeing is slowly gaining priority during this period categorized by great loss, grief and bereavement; isolation, restrictions to movement and other liberties; excessive use of force and police brutality by state officials. In South Africa, one cannot help but get a sense that we’ve been here before. South Africa has had, and continues to have, periods where entire societies are held hostage by oppression, communities brought to their knees as they lose their loved ones weekly and fearful of setting foot outside as security forces clamped down on them. Periods of gruesome murders seen on a weekly basis, periods where domestic violence has become widespread, where substance abuse has ravaged through the youth population and infiltrated schools, where fathers are gunned down senselessly by criminals and those who have sworn to protect. Periods of not knowing what the future holds in store, and juggling hopefulness and helplessness. We have been through this collective trauma experience during the Apartheid regime, Xenophobic attacks, gangsterism, SGBV, Substance abuse, etc.

During these periods, that may be internally experienced as psychologically identical to what is happening right now with the pandemic. We were not getting constant reminders to be present and mindful, no videos or demonstrations of stress management and grounding exercises circulated. No toolkits of coping strategies or emotional regulation skills to ensure that we all come out the other side with our sanity intact and the ability to process and re-build. No debriefing sessions, no check in’s.  Essentially, no real acknowledgement of what impact these experiences have had on the mental health and the implementations of proper mental health programmes and facilities. The collective trauma experiences have been a part of the very fibre of South African history. Dare I say, the South Africa of today, was built on collective trauma and this has been left unprocessed, leaving our society fragmented.

Holding this in mind, it means that most people (resilience being a factor) came out of or lived through these periods as indeed, shells of their former selves. They have been living and walking the streets as beings with fragmented minds, broken hearts and lives in despair. The vulnerable in society are often labelled and disregarded and so too, individuals who struggle with their traumas have been labelled by society and stigmatised with no empathy for their lived experiences of trauma and systems fail to provide them with adequate rehabilitation and healing.

The reality is that our society is plagued by transgenerational transmissions of trauma caused by years of systemic, socioeconomic and cultural structures that have oppressed and dehumanised people through injustices and brutality. This has left communities with distorted psychological organisations where largely unhealthy coping and numbing strategies are passed on as a way of life, we see this in cases of alcoholism and lack of emotional regulation. People have been stuck in a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze. And left to sort themselves out.

Mental healthcare has long been the “stepchild” of government interventions. Used either inadequately with stripped resources or not at all when it’s the very thing that could attempt to facilitate the reconstruction of individuals and societies at large. If we don’t learn anything from this period, I hope we learn this- Mental health is a social ill and should be prioritized and treated as such. People’s anxiety is exacerbated, maybe even caused by the lived experience of being in the middle of a pandemic. The environment is contributing to their mental ill-health. As it has for South Africans for years.  With the right support and treatment, people can learn healthy coping strategies, manage and process their distress. How many people have lived through and are still living through incredibly difficult periods and don’t have these services available?

At the same time, this era has presented an opportunity to reflect, pause and grow from the collective trauma that we have experienced. An opportunity to ‘be transformed’ by our experiences. There are talks of a new normal, as things will never be the same. A new way of being, living and treating each other. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in this month of October, being Mental Health Awareness Month, is launching a mental health campaign posing the following questions for reflection:

  • Are we living through a catastrophe or is this an opportunity for transformation?
  • Does this provide an opportunity for us to look at mental health and mental ill-health in ourselves and others?
  • Are there adequate resources allocated to mental health needs in our society?
  • Is mental health care accessible to all who require it?

As we ask these questions, we note that the pandemic has given mental health practitioners, especially those at CSVR an opportunity to reflect on their practice and change it to meet the changing global context, noted through the increased use of online therapy approaches that have made mental health support more accessible.  The transformation of mental health care is an opportunity that CSVR is hoping the world takes advantage of.

CSVR acknowledges the impact COVID19 has had on the transformation of self, families, communities, societies and the globe. And encourages us all to reflect on our society and be present and comfortable for the uncomfortable conversations that need to be had in order to create real transformation. As I invite you on this journey of reflection and insight gaining I am aware that this can feel catastrophic as it forces us to examine ourselves and our lives and may call on us to change.

We need to decide if this becomes the wound that we carry, that we continue to let our children carry. Or does this become the opportunity for transformation in how we deal with our pain and woundedness. To paraphrase a famous quote, “in the same way that trauma can be passed through intergenerational lines, so can healing”. We now have the opportunity to move from transgenerational trauma to transgenerational healing, from a trauma carrier to a trauma healer.

Which of these gifts do you want to give to yourself and your children?

Written by: Charlotte Motsoari, Celeste Matross, Jacqui Chowles and Gugu Shabalala.

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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