Is it just me, or has the divisive conversational climate of politics and news in recent years had a terrible effect on our general happiness? I feel that we are living with more fear and angst, and that many people are even pulling back from involvement, unsure of how to exist in a world where anything we say or do might cause a stir. I worry about our well-being, on a macro and micro level. I am especially worried about trends in mental health. They're not good.
I am not writing this to say I know better than the next person about how to fix this mess. But I have some thoughts to share, because I do think it can be fixed. Maybe this will resonate with to you.
The Turtle Syndrome
The negativity we encounter on a daily basis pushes us inward, I think. I stopped posting regularly on Facebook after the last U.S. election. I felt sad and tired and like whatever I may think or feel or want for our world, our people and our environment just doesn't matter. That is not an empowered place to be, my friends. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and the impact of the current political climate on our general well-being. It seems like we have gone into a kind of self-protection mode that creates barriers in unseen but damaging ways.
I think of this as the Turtle Syndrome. When there is too much negativity on the airwaves, we stop connecting to protect ourselves. We quit behaving as caring, trusting people toward others, and pull away instead. We think of people we don't know well, or whose beliefs are different from our own, as "them." We look with hostility upon the person on the roadway who is driving too slow, the people at the market who are crowding the aisle and making it difficult to pass, and those not like ourselves who are doing anything in a way we don't understand. We may even wish others harm. To me, this is the perfect storm for a broken society, for lack of connection and a decline in mental health.
Negativity breeds more of the same. It builds, becomes contagious. Right now so many of the conversations are negative or judgmental that it's like a pervasive gas that is poisoning us all.
- When you hear a sad song, sometimes you actually feel sad. It can have a powerful effect on you. Conversely, when you hear a happy song, you can feel upbeat and like everything is going to be okay. This is the same thing.
- If you tune into the news, and it is all about negative politics, "us vs. them" conversations, name calling and political decisions that affect you, your family and your environment, but that feel completely out of your control, it takes you down a notch. How can you feel engaged and empowered and like you're a part of something good with all that going on?
What happens when people don't know which way to turn
Bad things happen when people don't feel empowered, don't see that they have choices, and feel alone and in pain. And I think more and more of that happens as this climate of negativity continues on relentlessly.
I'm not going to focus on this in depth, because I really don't want to dwell here on the ills of society, but on what we can do to create change. I believe we can and must choose to focus more on making things better and coming together as a society than on what is wrong. We do have to talk about the problems. That is critical. But it's not the only thing we should be talking about.
I want to talk about how to get well, at a macro and micro level.
One of the reasons I think about this so much is because of loss. In the time my kids were in high school, from 2012 to 2019, 8 children died in our community. Seven of these kids were students at my kids' high school. One was a young child in our community who was getting ready to start kindergarten. Only one of these was an accident; all the others were the result of violence, murder or suicide. Six of these deaths were directly linked to mental health problems. It hardly seems possible to me, even now, because we live in a great community, with plenty of resources. And it breaks my heart. When lives are cut short, it is so profoundly sad. How might those young people have turned out, and what joy might they have brought to those around them? What might they have achieved?
But think about this. For me, for us — my family — this was not the singular experience of those years. We were impacted deeply by these lives lost. We talked about them, and grieved. And we continue to reflect on the importance of love and caring and understanding, in part because of those terrible losses. But in addition to, and in spite of all that, my kids had a wonderful high school experience. They had great friends, and were involved in sports and activities, and we took trips and celebrated holidays together and with our extended family and enjoyed that time. In other words, looking back at those years and remembering the losses is just one lens through which we can view that time. Not only that, but my kids felt supported in how they processed and came to terms with loss. I feel incredibly grateful to the school system for how they handled the events, and the sensitivity to the need to feel and to grieve. I believe it helped to still the ripple effect of those terribly painful times.
What about this? Imagine a world where people were taught, at an early age, to really take care of themselves when they don't feel good, emotionally. "Always remember," we could tell our kids, "if you feel upset or like you want to do harm to yourself or someone else, you can make a different choice. Here are some resources for you."
What other choices or resources might we offer? I'm not a mental health professional, or an expert in any of this. But I do remember going through an incredibly tumultuous time as a teen and even into my 20's, feeling at times extremely depressed and anxious. I had no idea what to do. No one ever told me this could even happen, let alone how to deal with it. Resources for handling sadness, confusion, depression or loneliness were just not a thing. So I didn't talk about it. I suffered with it, day in and day out, feeling incredibly bleak and alone. And this was while I was working and in graduate school and had wonderful friends. The truly startling thing is that not one person in my life — not my acquaintances, my closest friends or my family members — had any clue, whatsoever. I wore a mask to disguise it all. Today, very honestly, I feel lucky to be alive.
What might have gone differently? Well, let's say as a child heading into my teen years, I was told that if I ever felt sad, that there were things to try, or people to talk to. That there are mental health professionals and medications. That it's okay to feel that stuff and you can get better. I know these conversations are more prevalent today than they were then, but we need to do much much better. Should it be a part of school curriculum? I would advocate for that.
I read today that the suicide rate in my state has gone up by 40% since 1999. WTF. Seriously. And why?
I won't claim to know all the answers, but I do know that, for me, getting better was a combination of things. I found vitamins and supplements that helped. I discovered the power of involvement, talking to people, doing work that is meaningful and being part of communities. It was a whole constellation of things, and it took time. I believe now that I had to remap my brain so that healthy, positive thoughts could eventually overtake the dark ones. There may not be any easy answers, but I believe there are many different things that can make a difference for people who are suffering emotionally.
I read recently that many people who attempt to take their lives don't premeditate on it. They get into a bad place. At that moment they don't see any way out. It all feels overwhelming and it's too hard to cope. That's when they make a short-term decision that has an ultimate, long-term impact. This we have learned from people who have attempted suicide unsuccessfully.
Finding our happy place
Again, I want to talk more about wellness and how we can each play a role in the healing of our society.
First a disclaimer. Anytime you talk about how to fix things, you run a risk. Someone may feel that their pain is belittled. Professionals may caution you not to take matters in your own hands, and say you must turn to those who have the skills and training to handle it. Please hear me when I say that I do not want or intend to diminish the depth of anyone's pain, or suggest that severely depressed people can fix it without professional help, or that curing deep depression is a matter of taking some vitamins and putting on a happy face. Believe me, I know better.
But let's talk about spectrums. At one end of the mental health spectrum, we all have bad days. Now and then we feel frustrated or angry or overwhelmed by parenting or our jobs or commute traffic or relationship problems. In the very broad middle of this spectrum is a general feeling that life isn't great, whether it's due to stress or ugly politics or personal problems. Maybe we really don't know why; we just feel like we're under a dark cloud, or like we are swimming in a malaise because of all the negative conversations around us. We may not want to talk about it, either because we fear that others wouldn't understand or it's embarrassing. And then there is the far end of the spectrum. Depression. Overwhelming sadness or anxiety. Desperation.
Think about that. Of all the things that could fall under the scope of a mental health discussion, it's only at that far end that we start really talking about diagnosable and treatable conditions. Here's the trouble, in my humble opinion. We should be conversing about this, and contributing to better mental wellness all along that spectrum.
Also, I believe that it is easy to be unaware or to miss the signals when malaise shifts over to something more severe. If you have a person in your life who you know is kind of moody, do you know how bad it is? Do you know what to do? Do you gravitate toward that person to see if you can lend a hand, or do you shy away, unsure of what — if anything — you could possibly do to help? And would you know if what they are experiencing went from bad to worse? It's okay. It's not your fault. We don't really have the tools and methods for helping those around us. And the people we know who are suffering may be really good at hiding it. They actually may not know how close to desperation they are, or what might trigger the shift from feeling bad to feeling like life is no longer worth living.
This is no easy problem to solve. But we must do so, don't you think?
If we could make a difference, what might that look like?
I think we desperately need certain things for well-being: connection, hope and joy.
Connection is about being a part of meaningful communities and friendships, and not feeling alone. With all the access to social media today, it's still possible not be connected in a deep way to community and close friends. We can't go around scooping up all the disconnected people and finding a way to help them. But we can say hi to those around us in the grocery store. We can smile or joke with the people waiting at the bus or standing in line for a concert ticket. We can let the other person go ahead in traffic instead of speeding up, scooting ahead and demonstrating a "me first" attitude. I believe these things breed more of the same, whether they are positive or negative. We can choose the positive. This is exquisitely within our power.
Hope is about believing that tomorrow will be better, or that the future is bright. Right over that horizon is something worth finding, whether it's a pot of gold, a goal to shoot for or a better tomorrow. Right now, and this is absolutely true, neighborhoods, businesses and cities are doing amazing things to make a better world. So when we talk about the decline in bee populations, the devastation of the rainforest, and the suicide rate, let's also talk about what's being done.
- Have you heard of Drawdown? Did you know about this initiative to reduce carbon emissions to the point where we can actually create a positive shift in our global climate? And that these things are happening?
- Did you hear that some students have invented a bacteria to eat the plastic in the oceans?
- Did you know about the Earth Day Network and their work to protect bees?
- And did you know the World Health Organization is working toward dramatically reducing suicide rates?
And joy. Joy is that feeling you get sometimes on a Saturday morning when you make that first cup of coffee and the birds are singing, and your little girl, or maybe your cat or your dog, sits on your lap and snuggles. It's laughter and enjoyment of things that are sweet and beautiful. And yes, I know that throughout the world there is terrible strife — war, and famine and people living under political oppression. I don't mean to suggest that everyone has equal access to all the things and experiences that can bring joy, because it certainly isn't true. What I'm trying to convey is that I believe most of us have an untapped joyful place in our hearts that has been perhaps rusted over. We need to clear off some of that rust and find that again.
Am I making any sense? My final thought for now is that I think we simply must remember the golden rule. This simple and beautiful concept is about treating others as you would want to be treated. It's about respect and human kindness. I believe we are all capable of that, but somehow in a world where nasty diatribe is commonplace, we have simply forgotten what we learned in preschool. Be nice. Treat others with respect. You would want that too.
Posted from my blog with SteemPress : https://jaynalocke.com/2019/09/16/lets-talk-can-our-society-be-happy-again/