It’s too much.
First the pandemic, which divided us, economically devastated us, and has killed nearly 200,000 of us. Then the racial unrest, erupting at the deaths of more Black Americans at the hands of police: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude.
Now the extreme weather. For only the second time in history, the National Hurricane Center has moved into the Greek alphabet for storm names. This season’s wildfires are bigger, deadlier and more frequent than in years past. In the West, people can’t breathe.
Add the headlines: Feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lost to complications of cancer on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 46 days before the presidential election. “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, a hero in the Black community, gone at 43 after quietly battling colon cancer. Another woman accuses the president of sexual assault. A whistleblower claims federal immigration detainees underwent full hysterectomies without their consent.
And the polarization, worse than ever. We don’t agree on masks, on reopening schools, on what to do when a vaccine becomes available.
Many of us are vacillating between horror and disbelief at what can only be described as an American nightmare. Devastation doesn’t cover it. It’s impossible to know if the worst is behind us or still lies ahead.
Apart from our own suffering, constant exposure to suffering of others exacts a toll. Experts say what many of us are experiencing is “disaster fatigue.”
“It’s a sense, essentially, of psychological overwhelm,” said Patrick Hardy, a certified emergency manager and risk manager. “You’re being constantly bombarded with negative information. … It creates this sense of doom.”
When disasters occur sequentially, it can make it seem as though our problems are insurmountable. It’s getting worse and worse, we think. It’s never going to get better.
A strict interpretation of “disaster fatigue,” Hardy said, puts disasters into three major categories: Natural disasters (such as COVID and hurricanes), technological emergencies (chemical spills and power outages) and security emergencies (acts of terrorism and active shooters).
But Hardy said what qualifies as a “disaster” can also be subjective.
“What may be a disaster to someone else, isn’t a disaster to you and me,” he said.
While all of us are tapped into the disasters that become national news, community events can add to the mental load. A plant closing in your town that puts hundreds of people out of work is a disaster, too.
Many are personally suffering and bearing witness to even more suffering, which can lead to another condition called “compassion fatigue.”
“It’s really referring to the stress or the emotional strain of having that high level of empathy, and exposing yourself to this level of suffering, and when that happens over long periods of time, it can manifest in a variety of different psychological ways,” said Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.
Old mental health issues, new challenges
Lisa Phillips, 57, who lives with depression, says she’s “sick” over what’s happening to the country.
Her husband’s dental practice was on mandatory closure for two months, and since she works there, too, both incomes stopped. They’ve since re-opened, but many of the staff have been struggling with health issues and lack of childcare, which has ripple effects for Phillips and her husband.
Her daughter’s university moved exclusively online. Wildfires in Oregon forced her brother and sister-in-law to evacuate their home. The day after their evacuation, her father died in California. The family didn’t gather for a funeral.
To cope, Phillips went back to counseling and increased her medication.
“It kind of feels like when something else can’t possibly happen, it does,” she said. “I put one foot in front of the other but it takes quite a bit of effort.”
Political differences have also divided her family, compounding tangible losses. Stress and conflict are the new normal.
“I don’t feel apathetic, I feel overwhelmed and I’m very discouraged about the polarization in our country,” she said. “I’m fearful we won’t get back to who we were.”
Matt Wunderli, 36, was in the middle of building a technology startup when he went into lockdown with his wife and kids in Salt Lake City. Now, he’s surrounded by wildfires.
“In the beginning, I think we were all kind of sheepishly laughing about this, like ‘what is going on’?,” he said. “From the pandemic to the civil unrest to the political divides. As a country we’re sort of being slowly unwoven.”
Wunderli says he’s often overwhelmed by the negativity on Twitter, and can find it hard to stay optimistic. Living in a very religious state, he said, people around him often talk about this as the end of times.
“It’s a very stressful time for me as a founder, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a neighbor thinking about all the calamity around me and what’s next,” he said.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Alia E. Dastagir