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Dr. Jeff Kane: Denial — A mental health emergency

Dr. Jeff Kane

COVID is pandemic, but denial is even more widespread.

We’re in denial when we know something to be true but act as though it isn’t. Psychologists call denial a “defense,” since it protects us from what we’re not ready to face. You say I have cancer, Doc? You must have switched my records with someone else’s, so I’ll just stow that news on the back shelf and go back to watching the PGA tournament.

Everyone employs denial occasionally. After all, it’s instantly effective. But it’s time-limited, as facts don’t go away.

We live these days with a horde of unpleasant facts we’d rather not face. Climate change, for example, is not only real but intensifying. We see it locally in our regional drought and mounting wildfire hazard, and globally in mass migration and its disturbing political consequences. Homelessness is increasing, cities are getting meaner, and road rage and firearm massacres are ever more commonplace. The spectacle of obscene wealth alongside obscene poverty pains us, so we turn our gaze away. Pollution of air, water, and soil continues almost unabated, unfortunately within a finite environment. In other words, we’re in broad and dire trouble.

Rather than confront these profound existential issues, we tend to remain uninvolved. Sure, we know what’s going on, but we rationalize that technology will save the day or that some mythical “good guy with a gun” will ride in and turn the climate around, rectify our woesome economics, and install a just peace.

Denial has helped us manage to feel okay, but okay is eroding at this point, leaving us helpless at the edge of catastrophe. Either we face our precarious situation now or our kids and their kids will inhabit an increasingly inhospitable world.

Considering the various imminent challenges, we can’t wait for fixes from our traditional systems like politics and think tanks. Albert Einstein wrote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

So what can a poor soul do? First, we need to acknowledge the predicament, feel the heat. Notice how often we look over our shoulder for signs of fire, predators, shortages, and other threats. We need to take the drought seriously, notice the people sleeping in the street, recognize rampant greed alongside chronic hunger. We must stop believing we can “throw things away,” because there is no “away.”

The words “emotion” and “motivation” share their root: genuinely feel the situation, and you’ll act. How? The airwaves abound in suggestions, and even given our penchant for denial, we’re a pretty creative species.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City


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