I Survived a Terror Attack. After 2020, America Needs Mental Health Care | Opinion

In 2008, I was a victim of the Mumbai terror attacks, where almost 200 civilians were killed by extremists. I'm still healing from that trauma.

The events of the last year in the U.S. have been a trigger. A trigger that has been, for millions of Americans, a much more traumatic event than even 9/11.

To truly put the pandemic behind us, we need more than just vaccines for every American—we need universal mental health care for everyone, for as long as they need it. We need to create a society that brings people together, not divide them.

On 9/11, nearly 3,000 lives were lost. During the pandemic, there have been more than 500,000 American lives lost and counting. It is not surprising that the trauma is comparable, especially when for most of the pandemic Americans have, unlike in 2001, been divided against each other and suffered from a lack of unifying political leadership.

After the 9/11 uncertainty, we securitized our lives to create the feeling of safety in our homes, our offices and our country again. The pandemic will only really be over once we have recognized the collective trauma and support each other to move past it.

The roots of that trauma run deep: We're conflicted in ourselves and judging each other. We're polarized in our government and our society. We're afraid.

For white people, it's often also the grief of—as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement—coming to the realization that systems have been put in place to benefit them and not all of us.

After surviving the terror attack in Mumbai, I was only able to heal because of the professional mental health care I received here in the U.S. Now 330 million Americans need the same.

President Joe Biden is leading a nation in mourning. He must invest in resources we need for healing. The same resources that I had access to, that allowed me to grieve and remember, before moving on.

The spread of mental health and trauma due to the pandemic has been almost as predictable as the spread of the virus itself: The link between depression and job loss has been well established.

Unemployment triggers feelings of powerlessness, depression and low self-esteem at the best of times, but especially when combined with stay at home orders and anxiety. The mental health epidemic could rival COVID-19 itself.

This health and economic trauma coincided with the cultural trauma that many people experienced as a result of the killing of George Floyd, the events of January 6 and four years of divisive leadership.

American flag
The sun sets on an American flag. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Many of those traumatic events were repeatedly shown on social media and news networks—just like the images of the collapsing Twin Towers two decades earlier.

While my trauma was condensed into one day—and it still led to more traumas, such as losing my business—the Trump and pandemic era trauma has been relentless. We'll see the results in our government, our economics, our children, everything.

Just like prior traumas, recent months and years have led to increased social divisions.

After 9/11, America saw an unprecedented uptick in hate crimes against Muslims and Middle Eastern people. Increasing attacks on people of color, including Asian Americans, during the last year is an eerie reminder of how easily crises can exacerbate societal divides.

Some of us will feel that we don't need a post-trauma strategy. American culture prides itself as one that values pushing through at all odds.

Like it or not, the scars of the pandemic will not disappear when the final vaccine is shot into an arm, just as the trauma of a contested election result did not dissipate on Inauguration Day.

We won't be able to heal as a nation if we can't all have access to the healers.

Americans have universal access to the vaccine, which stops the virus. We also need universal access to therapy, which heals the trauma caused by it.

The city of New York provided universal trauma care to New Yorkers suffering the mental impact of 9/11; Biden should do the same now, nationally.

This applies to all of us, but especially children, whose brains can be more severely affected by lack of social contact and trauma. About one in three children in Germany are displaying COVID-related mental health symptoms; American kids can't be far behind.

Once we start healing, we need to reunify. Part of the route toward that is having national discourse that doesn't sacrifice the resilience of American society for the sake of ratings.

We should look to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to present controversial issues in a balanced and honest way. We can't address challenges like racism—or the pandemic—if 74 million Americans don't believe the problem exists.

The most important step to recover from trauma is to remember and not turn away from it. It's giving yourself time and getting the support needed to heal. That was true for me 13 years ago and it is true for America today.

Kiran Rai founded celebrity-endorsed fashion line Sir Alistair Rai. As co-founder of Consciously Unbiased and the CU Project, Rai works to help change the narrative in our culture and empower people.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.