What’s in a hashtag? #InThisTogether: Fantasy and Fallacy

A Psychologist’s Perspective

For the past several months, once the coronavirus clearly landed in the US and started its sweep across the country, the message of unity and shared suffering has brought us together. As we have quarantined at home, found new ways to work, attend school, shop, exercise and stay in touch, we have been comforted by the message that we’re all in this together. That message has overtaken the twitter-sphere, and newscasters have used it while signing off their broadcasts. Through the fears of becoming sick and the anxieties around trying to stay healthy, some of the only solace we have gotten is by holding onto the belief that we are not alone.

Recent events, however, have shown us that this belief is nothing more than a wishful fantasy. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, and the subsequent public outpouring of deep pain and outrage show us that we are farther apart than ever before. After the death of George Floyd, there was a sharp increase in clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression for Blacks (from an already high level of 36%, to 41%, per Census Bureau data.) Whites experienced no such increase. The differences in how Blacks and whites are experiencing these traumas stem from generations of institutional and individual racism that pervade our society, even our mental health care system. They reveal that we have never really been in this together.

When the pandemic hit, many people who look like me could easily transfer their work to video or phone, and had to deal mainly with the anxiety and loneliness of isolation. Black and brown people disproportionately kept working. They prepared and delivered the food we ordered; they drove the buses; they cleaned our hospitals; they nursed our elderly. This disparity is one reason that they have gotten infected and died at disturbingly disproportionate rates. In my city of Chicago, African-Americans make up a little less than a third of the population, but they account for more than half of those who have tested positive and 72% of virus-related deaths. Ratios are similar in Illinois, and in other states from Michigan to New York to Louisiana. Clearly, we are not all in this together, in the same ways.

Before the pandemic hit, there were stark differences that cut across racial and economic lines. In Chicago, decades of segregation have divided the city into Black neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, German neighborhoods, etc. In the Black neighborhoods, basic resources — quality education, safe streets, adequate grocery stores, access to physical and mental healthcare — are poorly funded and maintained. Exposure to chronic stress and poverty have real, measurable effects on our bodies and minds; the life expectancy of Blacks in Chicago is 8.8 years shorter than that of whites, and regular exposure to racism increases the chances of developing depression and serious mental illness.

It has never been so clear that we are not all in this together. This cheery slogan that provided some initial solace and sense of unity has become just another empty marketing slogan. While corporations may hang on to it in order to eke out some sales during this economic slowdown, it only reveals their tin ear.

There is a lot of work to do in order to clean up the messes we’ve made. My field can help in many ways. We can address our own racist issues — our tendency to over-diagnose, mis-diagnose and pathologize people of color instead of understanding the impact of racism on their psyches; lack of access and availability of quality therapy for those who need it most; embarrassing racial disparities in academia and leadership positions in the profession. We can also take this opportunity to eliminate some of the marketing slogans that have been used in my field (“chemical imbalance,” “evidence-based therapy,” and the new misnomer “text therapy.”) These marketing slogans have created a lot of confusion on many fronts; one very unfortunate result is how they’ve contributed to making in-depth, individualized, highly effective therapies increasingly rare for those without means.

I’m heartened to see conversations opening up on anti-racism. I’m proud to see people of all colors marching together in peaceful protest with the goals of justice, respect and truly equal opportunity. They make me hopeful that one day we will all be in this together. No hashtags needed.

Linda Michaels is a psychologist. She serves as co-chair of the Psychotherapy Action Network (PsiAN) and is a fellow of the Lauder Institute Global MBA program. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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