Communication, trauma and the public’s mental health
4 June 2020
By Andy Bell
Covid-19 is a global emergency that has led governments around the world to have to take unprecedented steps to change people’s lives overnight. It has led to many thousands of deaths, including in the UK, leaving behind thousands of bereaved families, and affected the way every one of us lives, works and conducts our relationships every day.
It is a traumatic event that for many people will leave lasting psychological scars, long after the events of this year. It is estimated that at least half a million people in the UK will experience poor mental health as a result of Covid-19; a figure that could go much higher if there are further waves of the virus to come.
Decisions made by governments and health services will have a major bearing on what the mental health impact of Covid-19 eventually turns out to be. These include big decisions about the economic safety nets that have been put in place to protect incomes at this crucial time, about how much is invested in mental health care, and about how schools and workplaces are reopened at scale.
Decisions made by governments and health services will have a major bearing on what the mental health impact of Covid-19 eventually turns out to be.
But it also matters how authorities communicate with us during a crisis. Evidence from research shows that it’s not just the message but the way it’s communicated that matters to our mental health. It would be hard for anyone not to feel fear, anxiety and distress at this time. All the more so for people with long-term conditions, people whose livelihoods and household finances are most precarious, and people who face higher risks from coronavirus and its longer term effects.
Communication happens at many levels, from televised ministerial speeches to the nation to the letters we receive from our local GP and text messages from national and local authorities. We are all being flooded with messages about the virus, what it means for us, and what we have to do about it. If we’re clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, this is even more the case. And when many of us feel heightened anxiety, insecurity and isolation, that can be especially challenging.
Evidence shows that it’s not just the message but the way it’s communicated that matters to our mental health
So getting those messages right is crucial. Research shows that good communication that seeks to minimise trauma and maximise safety needs to be clear, honest and comprehensible. It needs to be accurate and timely, acknowledging where there is uncertainty, and offering a true account of events. And just as importantly it needs to be empathic, showing a genuine understanding of how people feel about what is happening and what may be to come.
Good communication like this can help us to heal together from the trauma of Covid-19. So it is crucial that the messages we get from those in positions of authority reflect that approach. And that has to be the case at every level and in every interaction we have with the Government, the NHS and those we entrust with decisions about our safety and wellbeing. Truthful, compassionate and clear communication can save lives.
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