Journaling the Pandemic: To Record, To Remember, To Heal

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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This article was co-authored by Sarah S. Willen, Co-Founder, The Pandemic Journaling Project & Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Connecticut; and Katherine A. Mason, Co-Founder, The Pandemic Journaling Project & Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Brown University.

How will we remember these COVID times? How will they be recounted in future history books? More immediately, how will the pandemic impact mental health, now and as we forge ahead towards some sort of “new normal”?

While a comprehensive response to the mental health burden caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will require multi-level action, more modest efforts—including the Pandemic Journaling Project (PJP), which we launched nearly a year ago—may prompt creative thinking about the relationship between remembering, coping and healing, both individually and collectively.

We created PJP in May 2020, as an interdisciplinary team who felt the unfolding crisis demanded immediate response—not just from medical and public health experts, but from the humanities and social sciences as well. We set out to “pre-design an archive” of first-person accounts from a wide range of people—especially those whose stories might otherwise not be preserved. We wanted to make it easy for people to record their stories for themselves, their families and posterity. And, importantly, we knew that brief periods of writing can have mental health benefits for many, including those who have experienced crisis or trauma.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHS

Read more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHSRead more on the Forum Network: "Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic", by Rachel Clarke, Author & Palliative care doctor, NHS

The result of our efforts is a combined journaling platform and research study that lets anyone, anywhere in the world create a weekly record of the coronavirus pandemic, in about 10 minutes a week. Participants can contribute by writing, uploading photos or recording audio on their phones. The platform runs fully in both English and Spanish. Participants can log in securely to download their journals at any time, and they choose whether to keep their entries private or allow us to make them public on our Featured Entries page. After 25 years, all contributed materials will become part of a publicly accessible historical archive.

So far, over 1,400 people in more than 45 countries have contributed over 12,000 journal entries. Instructors at over 15 colleges and universities have engaged the Project in their teaching in different ways. Teens aged 15-17 can now participate as well, and we recently created a Resource Guide for secondary school teachers.

The Pandemic Journaling Project has three core aims. The first is historical. We ask: what can we do now to ensure that future histories of COVID-19 are not simply top-down accounts recorded by those with power and privilege? How can we encourage people hit especially hard by the pandemic to record their stories—including essential workers, students, people of colour and members of other systematically marginalised groups? We are working hard to democratise the production of COVID-19 histories through both technical choices and strategic outreach. Weekly participation takes just a few minutes, and no computer is needed—just a smartphone will do. Participants can use either the English or the Spanish interface, but journal entries can be in any language. In fact, participants do not even need to write: entries can be created by recording audio on one’s phone. Our outreach efforts are led by a diverse Advisory Board, including students. We will soon have the capacity to partner with community groups to help them preserve their collective stories.

Second, we wanted people to have their own space to reflect and preserve their stories. Not only will future generations benefit from hearing first-person perspectives on this turbulent time, but feeling one’s story is being heard—and recorded—can help people cope with unsettling and stressful experiences. One contributor expressed the hope that future history “will quote from the…Pandemic Journaling Project” as a way “to show the uncensored voices of people from around the world—their rage, sadness, frustration, grief, optimism, humor—all of it, so that future generations understand how we experienced it, uncensored and unfiltered”.

Read the report "The role of online platforms in weathering the COVID-19 shock" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

Finally, robust evidence shows that for some people, weekly journaling can improve mental health. PJP is not designed as a mental health intervention, yet we know that some journalers experience precisely this benefit. For some, another benefit is the chance to hear about others’ experiences on PJP’s Featured Entries page. As one participant explained, “This journal has been a way for me to process, to relate, to empathize with those who are similar and different from me...it has been a joy to just write and create. I learned to stand up for myself and know that it is okay to be overwhelmed, to be broken, to lean into my family and friends. This journal has helped me find a way to connect with others without ever getting to meet them”.

In the past year, communities already burdened by health risks and structural disadvantage have been especially hard hit by COVID-19, including people who are minoritised, low income, LGBTQ+, and living with disabilities, among others. Many others are struggling as well, including parents (many of whom have struggled with childcare and remote schooling), people who live alone (and often experience social isolation), caregivers for people with chronic illnesses or developmental difficulties (who have had little reprieve), university students, children and adolescents, health care providers, and other essential workers. Already, the PJP archive has grown to include first-person accounts from all of these groups.

Confronting the massive mental health burden these and other communities face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic will require a wide range of measures in multiple domains including the economic and political, public health and clinical care, education and social policy.

An initiative like the Pandemic Journaling Project cannot solve these problems. Yet we hope that by recording their stories, the Project may help participants navigate and cope with their own pandemic experience, juxtapose it with others’, and see themselves as part of history. Similarly, we hope the Project might spark innovative ways of confronting the individual and collective mental health burden that will remain with us even after COVID-19 itself is no longer wreaking havoc around the globe.

Discover the Pandemic Journaling Project to make your voice heard and your experiences remembered

      Image: Pandemic Journaling Project

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Sarah S. Willen

Co-Founder, The Pandemic Journaling Project; Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Connecticut

Sarah S. Willen, PhD, MPH is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, and Director of the Research Program on Global Health & Human Rights at UConn's Human Rights Institute. A former National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, she has published widely on issues of irregular migration, migration and health, health equity, health and human rights, and medical education, among other topics. Her book, Fighting for Dignity: Migrant Lives at Israel’s Margins (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), has received multiple awards. Dr. Willen is currently Principal Investigator of ARCHES | the AmeRicans’ Conceptions of Health Equity Study, and Co-Founder of the Pandemic Journaling Project.