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Why is violent behavior spiking as pandemic ebbs?

Isn’t this supposed to be a happy time?

CHICAGO --- As the pandemic begins to taper off and the country opens up after a year and a half of restrictions, a surprising downside has emerged: an increase in violence and aggressive behavior. Why are people so angry when the end of the pandemic should be a happy time?

Northwestern Medicine psychiatrists and mental health experts explain why this is happening and how to care for yourself through this stressful transition. To interview an expert contact marla-paul@northwestern.edu. 

The experts:

Dr. Aderonke Pederson is a psychiatrist and an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Crystal Clark is a psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg. Sheehan Fisher is a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg. Lori Post is director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Feinberg. 

What does this violence and aggressive behavior look like?

Aderonke Pederson: “What I’m seeing is pent-up tension and emotions, whether it’s the recent road-rage incidents, more aggressive behavior reported on airline flights and fans at sporting events being really aggressive or spitting at or throwing things at players.”

Crystal Clark: “I am seeing a lot of increased anxiety, depression, irritability and decreased stress tolerance. I see this in my patients, and when I am at the grocery store or even driving on the road; there seems to be more road rage.”

Lori Post: “We are seeing huge increases in homicides, suicides, domestic violence and overall gun violence.” 

What is the cause? It seems like we should be feeling joyous as life starts to return to normal.

Pederson: “Following traumatic or grief-inducing events, people tend to enter into a survival mode and may suspend self-care, in addition, extenuating circumstances beyond our control like the financial pressures of the pandemic, lack of child-care, closure of schools, uncertainty, missed events and family gatherings and for many, actual loss of family members and friends to the virus will take a toll on our mental capacity/reserves. 

“As we emerge from the pandemic, there may be pent-up emotions and feelings that people may not be conscious about. While on the surface, there may be excitement around re-engaging with others, for so many of us, we have to re-learn basic social norms while also acknowledging that we may have been affected very differently by the pandemic. People still have differing perspectives on when and where to wear masks even when around fully vaccinated adults, especially in the setting of unvaccinated children. These underlying tensions may lead to hypersensitivity — people easily being triggered — to people around us or increased irritability towards others.” 

Clark: “Overall, the trauma and stress of the pandemic has mostly gone unchecked, unacknowledged and untreated (especially with a shortage of therapist and psychiatrists to meet the demands) and now people are forced to re-enter society with these raw emotions still very much alive. Others may not recognize what they are experiencing are symptoms of PTSD or post-traumatic stress. 

“In addition, some thrived in these circumstances and are being forced to let go of the healthy changes that they made to their lives. People may be ready to get back to seeing each other comfortably but not in the same exact way they were before the pandemic.” 

How do gun sales contribute to the violence?

Post: “Since COVID hit, there has been a massive increase of people buying guns. There were 23 million guns purchased last year which represents a 64% increase in purchases from 2019. Gun permits to conceal and carry also are way up. We know ownership of a gun increases the likelihood it will be used. There is a huge increase of suicide by gun, homicides and of non-fatal shootings, because there are more people packing guns. If you have domestic violence, the purchase of a gun increases the chance it will result in a homicide. 

“COVID has created anxiety, depression and isolation. Depressed people are more likely to commit homicide or commit violence against other people. Those triggers are really significant. Some folks have lost their jobs. This is fueling the anger. During the Trump administration, violence became socially normalized.”

Do men respond differently to depression and psychological distress? 

Sheehan Fisher: “Mental illness and the impact of chronic stress do not simply dissipate once the country reopens. It takes time for the brain and body to recover from a long period of isolation and environmental stressors. For some individuals, mental illness that was the result of the pandemic stress could continue after the pandemic, if they don’t receive proper treatment.

“Men are more inclined to manifest depression and other psychological distress through externalizing behaviors, which contributes to men being the highest perpetrators of violent crimes. In addition, the country is reopening during the summertime, which is the season with the highest rate of many violent crimes. The intersection of unresolved stress and mental illness with the summer season may partially contribute to the unexpected increase in violence and aggressive behavior.” 

How can we help ourselves and each other? 

Pederson: “It is so important that we exercise patience and pace ourselves through the next few months. Take the time to listen to those around you and also make sure to articulate your needs to your support system. Note anxiety symptoms: anxious or ruminative thoughts, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite. Attend to your self-care and don't take on the pressure to ‘return to normal overnight,’ it will take time.”