How to Describe Our Pandemic State(s) of Mind
ROXANNE KHAMSI In February, the Leibnitz Institute for the German Language released a list of over a thousand new words that came into being during the pandemic. There's Nahweh, the opposite of wanderlust, a strong longing to vacation close to home. And then there's pandemieblues, melancholy or depressive moods caused by the pandemic, and Coronoia, acute anxiety about catching Covid-19. OTM producer Eloise Blondiau looked into how the words we choose to describe our mental anguish actually shape how we experience that suffering.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Recently, I asked you, our listeners, to record a voicemail sharing the words you use to describe your pandemic mental state.
STEVEN TELECARDI This is Steven Telecardi,] social worker, and spoken word poet here in southwestern Virginia. Early on in the pandemic, I remember vividly getting out of bed and walking over to the window because I could no longer localize what was real or what day it was or what was expected of me. And the only word that I can find a sort of captured is a Portuguese word, saudade, the nostalgic or melancholic feeling for a place or a person that one can no longer get back to or no longer experience. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU And this is from Grant Henry in Worcester, Massachusetts.
GRANT HENRY It feels like I'm melting like I'm a snowman and the sun is out. And if I really focus, I can make it look like I'm not melting. I can slow it down a little. But no matter what, at the end of the day, I'm going to fall apart and be liquid and mush and feel terrible. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU Sahar Baharloo is one of our beloved New York Public Radio colleagues.
SAHAR BAHARLOO The word I was thinking of was actually gray. I just felt the color gray, [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU thanks to everyone we heard from in my search for the right words for a moment, I also took a trip into the past.
ELOISE BLONDIAU It's 1935, the greatest and longest economic recession in U.S. history had been underway for 6 years.
FDR Unemployment remains a serious problem here, as in every other nation [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU the same year. Fortune magazine introduced its readers to the concept of the nervous breakdown.
JERRY USEEM The situation that brings on the breakdown may be anything from a row with the cook to the discovery that one's wife is unfaithful. And it can happen to quote practically anyone at all.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Atlantic contributor Jerry Useem wrote about it in an article titled Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown.
JERRY USEEM The broker with a twitching tick in his eyelid, the maiden on his constant headaches, the schoolboy who stammers, the executive who writes memoranda about using both sides of the paper. All these people were at risk of the nervous breakdown
ELOISE BLONDIAU In the Great Depression, he wrote, Nervous Breakdown was a catch all available to anyone who needed it. Its vagueness was its usefulness.
JERRY USEEM There was a 1947 headline from the New York Herald Tribune. I came across it. Just cracked me up. It was: A Modern World Viewed as Too Much for Man, which is kind of headline you read only in The Onion.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Saying you are having a nervous breakdown gave you an excuse to take a period of rest without a doctor's permission and without the stigma of a medical diagnosis.
JERRY USEEM Instead of making you look inward and saying, hey, what are my defects, what's wrong with me? It deflected a lot of the causes on environmental factors.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Some 86 years later, we're facing a different set of environmental factors and again, grappling for the right language to articulate their toll on us.
NEW REPORT New research shows levels of anxiety and depression are up.
NEW REPORT There are four and a half million people in this country alone who are grieving.
NEW REPORT 40 percent of workers say they have experienced burnout during the pandemic. [END CLIP]
ADAM GRANT Psychologists have found that one of the best ways to manage unpleasant emotions is to name them.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Adam Grant is professor of psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and he's been pondering the need to name a current mental anguish. In April, he penned an op ed in The New York Times offering up the word languishing. Millions read it.
NEW REPORT Languishing is described as a, quote, sense of stagnation and emptiness.
NEW REPORT One person compared it to climbing a never ending ladder. Another like listening to a song on repeat. [END REPORT]
ADAM GRANT I think for most of my life, even as the psychologist who studies this stuff for a living, I thought about mental health in terms of am I depressed or anxious on one end of the spectrum and then am I flourishing or thriving on the other end? And I didn't pay that much attention to the in between.
ELOISE BLONDIAU That in between, he says, is where many people have been stuck in the last year and a half. He calls it the neglected middle child of mental health.
ADAM GRANT When you're languishing, it feels like you're stagnating. You have a sense of emptiness, like you're in a void. And it's not depression because you still have a sense of hope. It's not burnout. You still have energy. You just feel a little bit joyless and aimless. It's almost like looking at life through grayscale instead of in vivid color. And I don't really notice as the colors get a little bit fainter.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Languishing, according to a study by the American Journal of Public Health, puts you at higher risk of experiencing more acute distress down the line.
ADAM GRANT If you want to predict who's going to be depressed in a decade. It's not the people who are depressed today that are at greatest risk. It's actually the people who are languishing today.
ELOISE BLONDIAU And in case you're wondering, like I did, if languishing is an upper class complaint, like the ennui that afflicts boredom and beautiful French starlets,.
BORED FRENCH STARLET My smile is void of laughter [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU Grant disavowed me of such a notion.
ADAM GRANT I just saw an analysis actually from an Ipsos poll. They actually found that languishing was more common for people with fewer resources. So they found 26 percent of people languishing at 100,000 dollars or more household income. And at less than 50 thousand dollars, household income, 42 percent of people languishing, I think one reason why people seem to benefit from being able to call this experience languishing, it turns a fuzzy feeling into a real lived experience, and that allows people to have conversations about it.
DR LAWRENCE KIRMAYER It's pretty clear that the language that we use to talk to each other and even thinking to ourselves about what we're going through exerts a powerful effect on how we experience particular forms of distress.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Dr. Lawrence Kirmayer is a professor and director of the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. He says that we know from studying mental health across cultures that depending on how a type of distress is described, different symptoms come up. What we would call depression, for example, exists in some form in many places in the world, but it's not always framed as psychological or even emotional.
DR LAWRENCE KIRMAYER It may be felt as a physical problem is a problem of fatigue, is a problem of lack of energy, as a problem even of losing one's soul.
ELOISE BLONDIAU There's also something called the looping effect, which occurs once a culture commits itself to a particular framing of mental suffering.
DR LAWRENCE KIRMAYER The way that we interpret our experience as human beings becomes part of our reality. So if we adopt a certain diagnostic category, let's say in our health care system and people come to know about this and they come to the doctor already saying, I think I might have so-and-so, and the doctor looks for that problem. And lo and behold, they find certain things that fit it. There's a kind of a loop between the diagnostic label that's available, the person's experience and their interpretation and the response to the health care system. So all those pieces fit together in a self vindicating account.
ELOISE BLONDIAU It may be too early to tell how the popularization of the term languishing will shift perceptions. It's not an official diagnosis, but there are plenty of examples of other conditions entering the lexicon via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a.k.a. the DSM, the official canon of mental health diagnoses in the United States.
DR LAWRENCE KIRMAYER Human suffering doesn't necessarily come in. The neat categories that are in the DSM
ELOISE BLONDIAU Diagnostic labels can be useful, but Dr. Kirmayer says they're far from foolproof.
DR LAWRENCE KIRMAYER Depression is a good example where a very severe depression that has this whole cluster of symptoms that can be very disabling for people hangs together as a kind of discrete problem. But many of us have periods of low mood that might last for hours, days or weeks that don't meet the criteria for a disorder.
ELOISE BLONDIAU The DSM s rise to power began 40 years or so ago, according to Anne Harington historian of psychiatry at Harvard University and author of the book Mind Fixes.
ANNE HARRINGTON Up through the 70s, most of American psychiatric mental health care was oriented toward psychotherapy, was broadly psychoanalytically oriented, paid a lot of attention to family dynamics, to relations between children and their mothers in particular. There was a lot of concern with the social determinants of mental suffering, mental disorder.
ADVERT Every person who lives is subject to stress and pressures from outside some of us. Sometimes the pressures seem almost too much to bear. [END CLIP]
ANNE HARRINGTON And then in the nineteen eighties, people were basically told it's all wrong. The sources of mental disorder, lie not in your life story, not in your biography, but in your biology. And the field pivoted radically towards drugs and medical seeming diagnostic categories. Now the odd thing about all this is that in this period when the field pivoted so radically, there had been no new developments in treatment and no radical breakthroughs into understanding the biology of mental illness. A biological revolution was declared in the absence of any new radical insights into the biology of mental illness.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Those insights never materialized, and the rise of drugs kept biology front and center, and a profit incentive emerged.
ANNE HARRINGTON The drug companies learned that they can sell diseases and not just drugs. But first you have to persuade people that they suffer from those disorders. So there are campaigns to encourage people to experience more and more of the spectrum of their distress as potentially having their roots in, say, chemical imbalances and therefore most effectively treated using drugs.
ADVERT While the causes of depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells in the brain. Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance. You just shouldn't have to feel this way anymore. [END CLIP]
ELOISE BLONDIAU What was lost from psychiatry, pivoted to its narrowed focus on biology, was a more complete picture of what contributes to mental health and how to heal it. Yes, drugs can really help. Yes, some people are more prone to mental suffering than others, but our brains can't be studied in isolation from their environments and they can't be healed in isolation either.
MONNICA WILLIAMS So you're more than a bag of chemicals, right?
ELOISE BLONDIAU Monica Wiliams is a clinical psychologist and director for the Laboratory for Culture and Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa.
MONNICA WILLIAMS There's not just a biological piece, but there's the psychological piece. There's the social piece that the spiritual piece in Western culture, we draw lines between them. But those are artificial lines.
ELOISE BLONDIAU One area we see the convergence of all of these pieces is trauma. Another word we've heard a lot this past year. Dr Williams researches and treats racial trauma
MONNICA WILLIAMS in a nutshell. It's when people have PTSD symptoms as a result of experiences of racism, and often those experiences are many fold. I mean, there may be a primary source of racism that they're dealing with, but they're also dealing with racism on a societal scale. They're also dealing with maybe historical or cultural problems that stem from racialization. And it all gets to be too much for people.
ELOISE BLONDIAU Racial trauma is, of course, not recognized in the DSM, and that absence has real world consequences,
MONNICA WILLIAMS particularly in the U.S. You have to have a diagnosis to get your insurance to pay for your mental health care because racial trauma isn't described in the DSM five, a lot of clinicians are just not aware of it. And then that creates a problem for people who are trying to get help for it or people who need help, but they don't know what's wrong with them.
ELOISE BLONDIAU The right words can help us heal by leading us, practically speaking, to treatment. But what if there was also a kind of remedy to be found in the words themselves? Perhaps the best words for our mental suffering remind us that healing is a shared project. That's what makes Atlantic writer Jerry Useem long for the return of the nervous breakdown.
JERRY USEEM I think it is sad in a way, though. It's something we lost as a society, and I think it'd be helpful if we could bring something like it back or at least not talk about mental health in a way that makes people feel atomized on their own specific journey, their own specific diagnosis.
ELOISE BLONDIAU It can help to feel connected to something bigger, even if that something is, well, a collective sense of despair. Take a look at the comments under Adam Grant's languishing op ed and you'll find readers who have found a bond in the word itself. Labeling and writing about this feeling has served as an antidote to the inherent loneliness in the experience, wrote a reader from San Francisco. Reading this has made me feel so much better, wrote a commenter, and I'm not the only one, remarked another. What a relief!
ELOISE BLONDIAU For On the Media, I'm Eloise Blondiau.
ROXANNE KHAMSI That's it for this week's show! On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. Thank you so much for having me, I'm Roxanne Khamsi.
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