The state of our mental health has our attention. While advocates have spent years passionately focusing on the mental health of individuals, it has taken a pandemic to stop us in our tracks.
But now that we are paying attention, the question remains, what will we do? How will we change as a culture and society going forward? How will we nurture one another and not neglect the thing that is so vital to our physical well-being, emotional, spiritual and mental health: companionship.
The world breaks everyone and many are strong at the broken places, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway. But many simply remain broken.
Distractions have been reduced, human contact is minimal, losses are profound, anxiety becomes our daily companion and fears of the future and economic decline loom before us. The social isolation of the pandemic has resulted in far too much emotional distancing that can be harmful to us as human beings. Men and women were simply not meant to be alone.
We walk the neighborhoods with our dogs yelling across the street to one another to connect. “What kind of terrier is that?” “I had a sheltie when I was little, where did you get her?” “The weather is so lovely today.” Anything, in order to connect with our neighbors and fellow human beings.
In the movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks is shipwrecked on a desert island and finds a soccer ball, makes a face on it with his bloodied hand and names it Wilson after the name brand. Wilson becomes his companion throughout the isolation and ordeal, and their conversations become the backdrop for the film. Our need for companionship is fundamental to wholeness.
Even our homes can feel like desert islands. This pandemic is lonely, and it turns out that loneliness can hurt us, as people and as a society.
Mental health matters, now more than ever. We can save thousands of people from the virus by sheltering in place, but we must focus equal efforts to preventing diseases of despair compounded by this physical distancing: depression, addiction, suicide. We cannot devote ourselves solely to the former at the risk of the latter. We must do both.
This pandemic undoubtedly has the power to transform us. It is time to put to rest our fierce independence and the many distractions in our life that keep us from being emotionally healthy and fully engaged with others.
The great World Wars brought Americans together to make sacrifices for the values we believe in — freedom, justice, equality and respect for human life. How will we come together to put to rest the stigma of mental illness while promoting the health of a nation? Can we at last say that our hearts and minds are as important as our physical bodies?
Are we paying attention? Mental health matters. This is the silver lining to the storm we are now in.
Shirlee Zane is a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
You can send a letter to the editor at email@example.com.