Dr. Jeff Kane: Vitamin R for mental health
We keep hearing that the anxiety, grief and precautionary measures that accompany the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting our mental health. We’re not crowding psych wards, but suffering more subtly: we’re drifting apart from each other, and even diminishing our hold on consensual reality.
COVID’s just one player in this year of unprecedented uncertainties. We’re confused about more issues daily. How can I balance COVID protection with my need to lead a real life? How can immunizations be helpful when so many people say they’re harmful? Are Russian trolls skewing my internet? Is my car exhaust wrecking the planet? Will I be able to find an exit through wildfire smoke?
We normally maintain our notion of reality by checking in with one another, a process psychologists call “reality testing.” Almost all social discourse boils down to “Here’s what I think is happening and what I feel about it.” Comparing notes back and forth over our lifetime, we develop a practical consensus about reality, at least enough of one that affords us more civility than social chaos.
When friends ask how I’m doing during these months of COVID sequestration, I usually reply, “OK, but I really miss my social life.” I don’t mean that I don’t party enough. I miss the quality of contact I call “cross-pollination,” the live, knee-to-knee exchange of mind-refreshing thoughts. Sure, I have phone conversations, take walks with friends, and sometimes shop and Zoom, but contacts aren’t as numerous or as thorough as in the pre-pandemic era. Sequestration, distancing, and masking necessarily limit socialization, so reality testing is bound to suffer. A greater proportion of my thinking is me reminding myself of my own thoughts, and I suspect that’s true of others.
Reality testing is necessary for mental health. Call it Vitamin R. When its deficiency is widespread, society erodes. As if we weren’t already fragmented enough by politics, many of us, short on Vitamin R, are so hungry for certainty that we find ourselves drifting onto paths we might once have called crazy. That is, community mental health is beginning to fray.
Our most hopeful strategy is higher doses of Vitamin R: disciplined individual efforts to maintain contact with one another, even when masked and distanced. We need to say, “Here’s what I think is happening and what I feel about it,” and then listen carefully to the reply.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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