Chuck Zobac describes how meeting with veterans’ groups eased the post-traumatic stress he suffered after his intense combat experiences in Vietnam.
That’s something today’s war veterans currently don’t have because of the social distancing imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, he said.
“It was important that we have that connection,” Zobac, 75, said of veterans lending support to each other in person. “The world has absolutely changed, so the social isolation is really going to be difficult for a lot of people.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, which shut down most venues and activities where people met in person, have made many feel more alone than ever. And mental health experts say while the isolation is having a psychological impact on most people, it’s especially difficult for those grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumas such as sexual abuse.
The pandemic can amplify anxiety in those living in areas where an outbreak is escalating and in anyone who has suffered trauma because the novel coronavirus poses an invisible threat that can strike without warning.
“We know a pandemic is universally stressful,” said Maria Jose Rodriguez Cadiz, executive director of Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe. “We have noticed it could be even more traumatizing for survivors of sexually and other violent crimes.”
Survivors often live near their abusers or even with them, so the state order that has led to more people working at home or getting laid off can force survivors to spend more time around those who assaulted them, Rodriguez Cadiz said.
Thus, the social isolation increases the chance of further violence being inflicted on the person, she said.
Feeling cut off and uncertain about the future can raise the anxiety in survivors, who are already more on edge than the average person, she said.
Forced solitude also can compound the emotional turmoil of veterans struggling with PTSD, observed Zobac, who has been a member of PTSD recovery groups for decades.
“I think we’re going to see an increase in self-destructive behavior — drugs, alcohol and suicide,” Zobac said, speaking about the general population. “We’re all social animals.”
Many Americans already are lonely
Loneliness is an age-old condition that has grown as modern technology increasingly separates us.
Much research has been done on how people are spending less time in community gatherings and more time alone in front of an electronic screen. It began with television. Then came computers, smartphones and social media.
Although it’s too soon for psychologists to examine the effects of the current widespread social distancing, many studies have delved into social isolation. A 2018 Cigna study said loneliness was becoming an epidemic in America, two years before COVID-19 compelled most people to further reduce human contact.
The Cigna study found 46 percent of Americans felt lonely at least some of the time. Forty-three percent felt isolated, and only half said they have meaningful, in-person interactions with friends and family on a regular basis.
People living with someone such as a spouse or roommate were less likely to be lonely.
And those who reported getting the right balance of sleep, exercise, work, social interactions and solitude were the least lonely. If they scored too low or too high in any of those areas, their loneliness increased.
Finding the proper lifestyle balance would be more challenging for people who spend most of their time at home because of decreased social contact, the study suggests.
A 2016 Finnish public health study said social isolation can double the risk of mortality, depending on how extreme the isolation is along with other factors such as whether the person drinks heavily, exercises, feels productive or gets depressed easily.
It’s crucial for people who are isolated to still connect with others, whether it’s by phone, Skype, Zoom or even messaging, mental health experts say.
It’s especially important for trauma victims to seek support and not let isolation, anxiety and other “destabilizers” drive them to despair, Rodriguez Cadiz said.
“That could be a very high risk for suicide,” she said.
Counseling no longer in-person
To respect social distancing, Solace is counseling clients by phone or videoconferencing rather than in person.
The shift to voice and video sessions hasn’t discouraged people from seeking help, Rodriguez Cadiz said.
“Our hotline is not dying down,” she said.
When schools reopen, kids who suffered abuse during the shutdown will confide in their teachers or school counselors — who will, in turn, get them referred to the center, said Jess Clark, Solace’s educational program manager.
The center always receives an influx of young people after summer breaks, but the number is likely to rise after an extended school closure, Clark said.
“We’re almost bracing ourselves for what we’ll see,” Clark said.
The Santa Fe Vet Center also has changed to telephone and electronic conferencing.
It serves about 200 veterans from various wars, with roughly half from the Vietnam era.
Younger veterans from the post-9/11 wars are comfortable with the digital counseling, but older ones — including a few from World War II — don’t care for it, said Albert Gomez, the Vet Center’s director.
“None of it is ideal,” Gomez said. “I like human connection. I like being in front of my clients.”
The veterans who come to the center are wrestling with PTSD and other mental health problems, Gomez said. For some, the suspension of group sessions is difficult because that was their only in-person social contact for the week, he said.
Zobac said the loss of group therapy kills a camaraderie that veterans value.
“If you’re talking to other veterans, then you have some commonality,” Zobac said.
Gomez said some veterans have discussed feeling more anxious and cut off from others, similar to how much of the country feels at the moment.
“A lot of us are feeling a little bit isolated and out of sorts in response to the uncertainty of being in unprecedented times,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s up to each person to keep fostering healthy relationships, even during greater isolation, and to seek counseling if needed.
“People do not have to stay alone,” Rodriguez Cadiz said. “Connection is very important in the midst of the pandemic.”