Our society is suffering from two pandemics, the Covid-19 illness and denial. Denial is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. It is a legitimate and powerful psychological defense mechanism. According to the Mayo Clinic, "refusing to acknowledge that something is wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information, and anxiety. You can be in denial about anything that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as an illness, addiction, eating disorder, personal violence, financial problems, or relationship conflicts. You can be in denial about something happening to you or someone else.
When you're in denial, you:
· Won't acknowledge a difficult situation.
· Try not to face the facts of a problem.
· Downplay possible consequences of the issue.
For example, if you're in denial about a deadly virus sweeping the nation, you may refuse to wear a mask or social distance to prove to yourself and others that it's not real.
Short term denial is both normal and necessary. It gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won't send you into a psychological tailspin." However, long-term denial is detrimental to our health and our society.
A near year-long, global pandemic shutting down our economy and changing the way we live and work is certainly a shocking and distressing series of events. Even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing. Add to it an economic crisis, a racial reckoning, an insurrection, and a myriad of personal hardships, and it's not surprising that the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed. According to Mental Health America's 2021 Report, youth and adult mental health is worsening. More people are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide than have ever been recorded since tracking began in 2014, and 24% of adults with mental illness have an unmet need for treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness," Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. systems addressing mental health services were already in crisis due to demand and insufficient services. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now facing a "loneliness epidemic" exaggerated by the isolation required by COVID-19 pandemic. While the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 are preventative and necessary, they have social consequences and have created many subsequent stressors." "Quarantine conditions are known to increase feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, depression, frustration, and irritability." The lonier people become, the harder it is for them to reach out to others, form bonds, process social cues, and empathize," writes Robin Blades, in her article The Psychological Toll of the Pandemic: What Isolation Does to the Brain.
Perhaps this explains why so many Americans have been susceptible to Donald Trump and conspiracy theorists' lies and propaganda. After all, targeting emotionally vulnerable people, isolating them, telling them you love them, and validating their feelings and beliefs, is how cults recruit their members. Perhaps this is why such large swathes of Americans are receptive to radical ideology and distorted reality. Maybe this perspective is a way to begin to empathize with those refusing to accept the truth, especially when fact, fiction, and opinions have become so blurred in our news feeds.
As hard as it may seem, we must find a way to empathize and communicate with our adversaries. I believe we have to start sharing our personal stories instead of our talking points. Only then will our hearts and minds open enough to listen. Instead of yelling sound bites at one another, we need to talk about our life experiences.
We also have to stop taking sides. We are not enemies. We are neighbors and countrymen. We are in this together, whether we like it or not. We may disagree on how things should be done, but we have to find a common goal again. We have got to shift from individual survival towards healthy communities. Our forced isolation during the pandemic is amplifying our need for human connection and belonging. The less of that we have, the more dehumanized we become. The more susceptible to radicalization we become. Too many people are desperate for acceptance and belonging. They are sick and tired of feeling helpless and unworthy.
This country and it's individualistic, capitalist culture has taught us that our self-worth is measured by our economic success. You must be productive, have a good-paying job, and accumulate wealth to be loved and respected in America. The more you have, the more you are worth as a human being. You have probably read about the top ten wealthiest people in the country, and we attribute the success of entire organizations to a single CEO. We know how our worth is measured in this country. It's by your FICO score.
The engine for the middle class's economic success sputtered out and halted over the past twenty years in large part because of the deregulation of our financial systems, the myth of trickle-down economics, and old-fashioned greed. What will this country do now that our self-worth is barely in reach? With unemployment the highest it's been since the Great Depression, it's no wonder that people are rioting in the streets. The loss of a job in America is more than just another layer of fear on the most anxiety-riddled generation in our history. The loss of a job in America is the loss of one's dignity. The loss of one's worth. This belief system is our greatest myth, and it will be our downfall.
Imagine what our society would look like if we believed a person had innate self-worth, regardless of their salary or skin color? How would our laws and policies change if we felt every person had a right to live with dignity? What if our CEOs were paid according to their company's profit and loss statements, the way teachers are measured by their student's test scores. What if the police were paid according to how safe their community felt? What if the minimum wage kept a family out of poverty? What if no American had to choose between their rent and their hospital bill? If we believed in every person's right to dignity, we would have spent the past ten years figuring out how to give every American healthcare. Instead, we are still fighting over whether we should give every American healthcare. Over 400,0000 lives have been lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, many Americans would still prefer to save their hard-earned dollars than save another person's life. Why? Because it's much harder to sacrifice our dignity and self-worth than our money.
The current state of our democracy cannot be blamed entirely on one man. His influence has the power it does today because of the deterioration of our economy, our problematic value system, and government leaders who would rather win than help this country's people. Instead of governing, they have dehumanized their citizens and created the conditions ripe for violence. Whether the extremists in our country are in denial or their egos won't let them admit they're wrong, this country's leadership is partly to blame. Until it unanimously accepts responsibility, adopts a communal value system with human dignity at its core, and leads a bi-partisan transformation, our country and the people in it will never achieve their true potential.