Across the United States, an alarming number of people are lashing out in aggressive and often cruel ways in response to policies or behavior they dislike.
“I think people just feel this need to feel powerful, in charge and connected to someone again,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a school board member in Brevard County, Fla., who said she has faced harassment.
The Federal Aviation Administration has initiated over 1,000 unruly-passenger investigations this year, more than five times as many as in all of 2020. Health and elections officials have expressed fear for their safety amid public vitriol. As school board meetings have become cultural battlegrounds, Attorney General Merrick Garland has asked the Justice Department to investigate what he called a “disturbing spike” in threats against educators. Some American shoppers, long used to getting their way, have unleashed their worst behavior in recent months.
In some of these circumstances, it’s unclear whether aggressive behavior has actually increased this year or whether the public has simply trained more focus on it. But mental health experts said it’s likely that the worldwide state of perpetual crisis has truly spurred more frequent instances of inappropriate and abusive behavior.
Nearly two years into a pandemic coexistent with several national crises, many Americans are profoundly tense. They’re snapping at each other more frequently, suffering from physical symptoms of stress and seeking methods of self-care. In the most extreme cases, they’re acting out their anger in public — bringing their internal struggles to bear on interactions with strangers, mental health experts said.
Some of those behaviors appear to be the result of living through a long-lasting public emergency with no clear endpoint, the experts said. As the omicron variant rages across the country, it is again unclear when the pandemic restrictions will end. For some people, this kind of catastrophe strains their coping resources and causes them to act in ways that they normally would not.
Layer that onto other recent national crises — including race-driven social unrest, an economic recession, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and myriad extreme-weather disasters — and people can hardly bear the stress.
“We’re just not meant to live under this level of tension for such a prolonged period,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. “So what that ends up doing is it really wears on our coping abilities to the point where we aren’t able to regulate our emotions as well as we could before.”
That kind of emotional tension is most relevant to people who continue to take precautions and factor the virus into their decision-making. Much of the country has long moved on from tracking the pandemic’s every turn, with many people instead living much like they were in 2019.
But research supports the idea that Americans as a whole are struggling mentally and emotionally. A study of five Western countries, including the United States, published in January found that 13 percent of people reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder attributable to actual or potential contact with the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, the inability to return to a country of residence or other coronavirus-related factors. The researchers also found that anticipating a negative pandemic-related event was even more emotionally painful than experiencing one.
The coronavirus outbreak had barely begun when mental health experts started expressing concern that the crisis would cause collective trauma, which occurs when a deeply distressing event affects an entire community and creates a shared impact. Although psychologists disagree on the definition of trauma and whether the term applies broadly to the pandemic, they are generally in sync on the underlying issue: The pandemic’s devastating consequences have spared almost no one.
Of course, the coronavirus has hit some people and communities harder than others. The families of more than 800,000 people in the United States — disproportionately Black, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native — have lost a loved one to the virus. Others have been hospitalized and survived. Almost everyone has sacrificed an important aspect of their lives: a job, the ability to safely gather to mourn a death or celebrate a marriage, or any degree of certainty in planning the future.
It remains unclear when that suffering will end. Reported infections and hospitalizations in the United States are surging as the country finds itself facing a variant that appears to be more transmissible and better at evading protection from approved vaccines and as holiday gatherings provide new opportunities for viral transmission.
That danger heightens the feeling of whiplash among people tired of the pandemic’s twists and turns, said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine.
“The news about the omicron variant came right at the time that many people in the U.S. were poised to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with loved ones for the first time in a long time,” she said. “It seemed almost cruel that just when ‘normalcy’ seemed to be on the horizon, hopes were again dashed with the latest news.”
Worry about the pandemic, climate change and other crises has made Kia Penso, 61, so on edge that she can’t watch suspenseful television shows, and interactions with her brother when she is worried about him have become “10 times more explosive.” Her past year and a half has been marked by her uncle’s death from covid-19 and persistent worry about the safety of her elderly mother overseas.
Those stresses have been exacerbated by her feeling that the coronavirus’s threat would be negligible by now if other people hadn’t fallen victim to false claims that the federally approved or authorized vaccines are dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently said the immunizations are safe and effective.
“We’re still in danger, we’re still cooped up in our houses to some extent, we’re still not free to move about because of malevolent lies,” said Penso, who lives in D.C.
On a flight this year, Teddy Andrews’s colleague walked over to him on the verge of tears. A passenger was refusing to wear a mask and giving her a hard time, his fellow flight attendant said.
Andrews approached the man, who called him the n-word and said, “I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country,” according to Andrews’s testimony later before a congressional committee.
A tense exchange followed, with Andrews asking the man to don a mask to protect his fellow passengers. Eventually, the man backed down and put on the face covering.
Andrews, who has been an American Airlines flight attendant for a decade, said he believes years of heated rhetoric from political leaders has riled people up and encouraged them to defend themselves against the purported erosion of their rights. Then the pandemic erupted. The result, from Andrews’s perspective, is an epidemic of people behaving as if rules and social norms don’t apply to them.
“What we see manifested in society, you’ll see it happening in the air, you see it happening in restaurants, you see it happening in malls, you see it happening in school board meetings,” he said.
For a few weeks this summer, low infection numbers served as a light at the end of the tunnel for people eager to move on from the pandemic. That hopefulness made it harder for many people to handle the abrupt about-face when the delta variant fueled a new surge, said Wright, with the American Psychological Association.
People are also faced with constant news about the virus, making coping even more difficult, said UC-Irvine’s Silver.
“Even if I personally have not lost a loved one to covid, I can be seeing pictures and reading stories about the sheer tragedies,” said Silver, an expert in trauma. “So it’s both direct exposure and indirect exposure to the media of all of these cascading traumas that have made it so difficult to cope with it.”
Stress from those cascading traumas is cumulative, Silver has found.
Whether it’s the death of a loved one or the cancellation of a vacation, the pandemic’s losses are more likely to linger in people’s minds than the positive experiences, said Stevan Hobfoll, a researcher and clinician with expertise in trauma. The human brain searches gains for hidden losses, he said, so people are more likely to think about how much they miss traveling than about improving infection numbers.
Then there’s the struggle to maintain hope, which is complicated by the pandemic’s lack of a clear endpoint. Early in the crisis, many people identified what they could control and created routines, said Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster. But he said that intentionality has largely fallen by the wayside and people have become more distressed.
In Florida, emotions over school district policies were boiling over for months before Jenkins spoke publicly about the harassment she said she faced. Angry about decisions around masks, transgender students and teaching about race, some parents had threatened her, coughed in her face and filed false reports with the Florida Department of Children and Families, she said. (The agency did not respond to a message seeking confirmation of those reports.)
At a board meeting in October, Jenkins said she supported parents’ right to protest but would not stand for credible threats of violence against her family.
“I reject them following my car around, I reject them saying that they’re coming for me and I need to beg for mercy,” she said. “I reject that when they are using their First Amendment rights on public property, they’re also going behind my home and brandishing weapons to my neighbors.”
In Jenkins’s eyes, the outbursts are fueled by widespread pandemic-induced vulnerability and a desire for purpose that some people have learned to manipulate by building communities around angry, public resistance to policies and officials. She said she thinks that a general lack of societal trust also contributes and that the lack of connection makes arguments out of what could have been conversations.
The last large-scale pandemic was similarly divisive. As influenza cut a destructive path around the world in 1918 and 1919, many businesses refused to enforce mask mandates and roughly 2,000 members of an “Anti-Mask League” rallied in San Francisco to oppose the ordinances. The coronavirus pandemic has the complicating factor of a hyperactive social media ecosystem that overloads people with often-conflicting information.
“When people are presented with situations that seem overwhelming, they are more apt to give up in a sense and lock more tightly to a single perspective and approach, because the work that’s necessary to hold on to all this different information is just too much,” Morganstein said.
Coronavirus pandemic-era anger also has coalesced around whether mask and vaccine requirements violate individual liberty — an issue that Morganstein said tends to animate people. Many public outbursts have been from people vehemently expressing that no one else can tell them what to do. The result is an environment where trust in other people is severely limited.
That lack of social cohesion prolongs people’s sense of crisis, Silver said. In a study of Israelis who survived years of bombing, she found that those who fared well did so in part because they had a strong sense of community. Without that sense of national community in the United States, people lean on their smaller tribes of people with similar worldviews, Silver said.
By June, before the delta and omicron variants became widespread, levels of anxiety and depression in the United States had declined from their pandemic peak but remained higher than in 2019, according to a study published by the CDC. And more than 80 percent of psychologists told the American Psychological Association that they had experienced an increase in demand for anxiety treatment since the pandemic began, compared with 74 percent who said the same a year ago.
Additionally, about 2 in 3 vaccinated Americans said they were “angry at those who are refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and are putting the rest of us at risk,” according to a survey this fall by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core.
For Jennifer Le Zotte, a college professor in North Carolina, a challenge of the pandemic’s ceaselessness has been feeling disconnected from her personal communities. She wonders when she’ll feel comfortable fully reengaging in her pre-pandemic activities, and she said she’s constantly recalculating her family’s risk as the facts of the coronavirus outbreak change.
Le Zotte said that after keeping her children and elderly parents safe for nearly two years, she would feel deeply troubled if she lowered her defenses now and one of them contracted the virus. But being constantly on guard feels emotionally draining.
“Part of me feels like I have to finish this,” she said. “But,” she believes, “there is never going to be a concise finish.”