Is COVID a Collective Trauma?

Karen Costa
6 min readFeb 9, 2022

And how do our answers to that question impact our work in higher ed?

Two years ago, I saw a surging interest in trauma and its impacts on our work in higher education. Trauma wasn’t new, obviously. It is as old as time. But it reached a level of ubiquity that changed how we talk about it and who talks about it. A great deal of my work over the past couple of years has been to help educators define trauma and understand how it impacts teaching and learning.

I’m now starting to feel like we need to talk more about the concept of collective trauma.

There are three questions I want to address here:

  1. Is COVID a collective trauma?
  2. What do we know about the timing of trauma responses and collective trauma responses?
  3. What does this all mean for our work in higher education?

Collective Trauma

We can’t take a test to determine if COVID is a collective trauma. There’s no giant swab to rub over society and stick in a little cardboard test kit to see if a pink line appears. I’ve read recently that an expert in the trauma field who I consider to be one of my own great teachers does NOT think COVID is a collective trauma.

As always, it will be up to you to decide for yourself. Here are some points for your consideration:

Gilad Hirschberger, in a piece I’ve been leaning heavily on lately, defines collective trauma as “a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society.”

Another definition, for your consideration, from Dr. Leia Saltzman: “Collective trauma is an event, or series of events that shatters the experience of safety for a group, or groups, of people.” Saltzman goes on to say that, “these events are a shared experience that alter the narrative and psyche of a group or community.”

Examples of collective traumas include “bombings, gun violence, natural disasters, and war.”

In March of 2020, major disaster declarations went into effect across the entire U.S.

I asked an expert on trauma and higher education, someone whose work I respect a great deal, to chime in. Here’s what Janice Carello has to say on this topic.

I would classify the COVID pandemic as a collective trauma, yes. There are differences and disparities in the ways individuals and groups have been and continue to be impacted. But there is no question that humans across the globe have experienced the pandemic collectively and that it continues to demand collective responses. As Judith Herman (1997) points out in Trauma and Recovery, “Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (p. 33). We have definitely seen systems of care, including higher education, overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic.

Based on all of this, on my own experiences, and on my work in higher education, I feel confident in saying that COVID is absolutely, 100%, without a doubt, a collective trauma. But what do I know? You decide for yourself.

Timing is Everything

This graph from SAMHSA depicting the phases of trauma fascinates me.

Full description of phases of trauma here: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/images/fema-ccp-guidance.pdf

COVID imploded this model. With each surge, we’ve been in this bizarre combination of impact-anniversary-grief-setback-recovery. And while I do think we are transitioning to a new phase of the pandemic with vaccines and treatments at our disposal, I also invite people to once again consider that pandemics are symptoms of climate change.

I fear the reconstruction phase of this chart only leads to new warnings, new threats, and new impacts. Groundhog day all over again.

But what I most want to convey here, other than the cyclical-implosion nature of COVID, is that the darkest days of traumas, generally speaking, fall well after the impact. You’ll notice on this chart that the one year “anniversary reaction” event falls lower on the emotional scale than the actual impact.

I fear that people don’t realize that the hard part often begins when the traumatic event is over.

I think a lot about the grief and trauma of people who’ve lost loved ones, of healthcare workers, and of those still fighting long COVID. These lasting impacts are immense and probably just beginning. To deny this denies reality.

Collective Trauma in Higher Ed

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many students, faculty, and staff who are living, learning, and working in higher education have experienced collective traumas before and beyond COVID. I think the scourges of racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression are absolutely examples of collective traumas. The previous examples of gun violence and natural disasters stand out to me as collective traumas that have had both direct and indirect impacts on college campuses.

But what of this most recent collective trauma of COVID-19? How has that been impacting higher ed, and how will it continue to impact us in the future?

One of the things I haven’t been able to stop thinking about lately is this essay from Professor Christopher Schaberg and his students entitled, “How Learning Feels Now.” The students describe a profound sense of dis-ease, of going through the motions to get through their courses, of being “on the verge of a breakdown.” I think a lot of us can relate.

an empty lecture hall
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Remember, a collective trauma is not a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year. A collective trauma “shatters the basic fabric of society.”

If you’ve experienced a significant trauma in your personal life, you might know what that shattering process feels like, as if you are splitting apart into a million pieces and then putting yourself back together again. Once you do, you find that you are not the person that you were before. You never will be again.

Higher ed will not be the higher ed that it was before.

Gilad Hirschberger, whose work I referenced previously, writes about the complexity of collective traumas. They are a bit of a paradox. On one hand, they are horrifying and destructive. But on the other, they often prompt “a crisis of meaning” that leads groups and individuals to imagine new, possible worlds.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

The challenge for higher ed, it seems, will be to help its people manage the horror and destruction while also opening itself up to the possibility of a new higher ed, a more humane, loving, hopeful higher ed that is willing to do the hard work of teaching and learning in the era of climate death (and rebirth?).

Janice Carello had this to say about how higher ed might respond to this collective trauma:

Collective responses are required. And I use the plural “responses” because there is no one-size-fits-all response to COVID or to any other crisis. There are common frameworks we can use, however, and common values we can draw upon as we continue to survive, grieve, recover, and hopefully — eventually — grow. People are still getting sick and still dying, though. Different people and different institutions and communities are in different phases of the pandemic. And we don’t understand the long-term impacts yet. I keep coming back to the need for collective responses. None of these are burdens we can bear alone. None of this is work we can accomplish alone.

What collective responses are taking place on your campus to help prevent people from getting sick, to help heal and support those who’ve been sick or traumatized, and to guide people through this crisis of meaning?

I hope that we can continue to talk about the impacts of COVID related trauma on both individuals and as a collective. I hope that we will continue to call out bad actors who refuse to acknowledge the immensity of these impacts and invite them to choose a new, possible world with us. I hope that we can find a way to make some meaning of all of this beyond pretending that we can ever go back to “normal.”

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Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.