BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The mounting stress of the pandemic has spawned a mental health epidemic.
NEWS REPORT What can we do to flatten the curve? Well, the number one thing we can do is avoid COVID fatigue. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT There's pandemic fatigue setting in around the world. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Many people are feeling now what we call COVID burnout. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The overwhelming anxiety and stress from being shut down and restricted. It is very, very real. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In our editorial meeting this week, producer Michael Lowinger spoke about his inability to meet each horrific new day with the emotional response he believed it was owed, which is why he brought up a piece in The Washington Post that jolted him out of his numbness for the first time in months. We thought it was worth sharing, so I asked him to recount what he'd said at the meeting.
MICAH LOEWINGER Getting push notifications from The New York Times. And there's like some stat about the number of people who have died or, you know, states where the virus is surging or the rising unemployment rate. You know, I just swiped that stuff away. I'm no longer feeling the appropriate magnitude of what is taking place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A psychiatrist that I spoke to in the poverty series that we did a couple of years ago, a professor named Paul Bloom, he said this about empathy.
PAUL BLOOM There's a wonderful collaboration between Tania Singer, a neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and biologist, where they train people to feel empathy. Then they train another group to be compassionate, to care about other people, but not necessarily engage in the same way. What they found was empathy group. They suffered more and they helped less. The compassionate group felt good and they helped more. So if you took away empathy, what would you replace it with? A sort of rather cold blooded, rational cost benefit analysis? Go not after what gives you the buzz, but what really helps other people. And then the second thing is we need some sort of emotional push. But to push need not come from empathy. The push can come from love, from caring, from compassion, from more distance emotions that don't swallow us up in the suffering of others.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's fair. And if I were like in the fetal position crying every time I read a story about this pandemic, maybe you could say, oh, Micah, you're taking it a little too far. Like, this isn't healthy, but no longer feeling it just feels like another extreme.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, Michael, tell me this story that set you off, that was in The Washington Post.
MICAH LOEWINGER The story is told from the perspective of a man named Bruce McGillis, who's at a nursing home in Ohio and begins with this really haunting image of him feeling helpless and stuck and bored in his nursing home room. He has preexisting conditions that would make him especially susceptible to the virus. And his doctor has basically told him, like, the only way to survive is to not get it. And so he's he's sort of panicking in this nursing home. You know, news begins to spread that, you know, one person has it and two people have it. Then thirty people have it. And so each morning he's waking up and he sees the plastic on the walls and in the hallways where the infected members of the nursing home are being, you know, physically quarantined. And this plastic barrier is actually just creeping closer and closer to his room. He doesn't know what to do. He calls the CDC. He can't get through to them. He calls the local priest. He finds a phone number for Dr. Fauci. He calls Dr. Fauci. It just goes to an answering machine. He calls 911, they say, what's the emergency? He explains. They say that doesn't really sound like an emergency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was he looking for? What did he want to see your doctor forced you to do?
MICAH LOEWINGER I I don't know. I think he needs someone to hear him. He even says at some point. Out loud, "hello, can anybody hear me? Is anybody going to do anything?" And this was kind of a moment where I felt like he was addressing something that I was experiencing, but I hadn't articulated, he says people are thinking, oh, it's just another nursing home. They were already at the end of their road. For a lot of people in here, you know, maybe that's true, this is their last stop. But there's still people and they're still alive. I don't know. Just like. Reading that like it just kind of screwed me up. There was just something about him stating it so plainly just we matter, you know, my life matters. What's happening here matters. And like, maybe you're numb to me. You know, maybe the woman on the phone is numb to me, but like. Don't look away, and it made me realize I had been looking away and the end of the story. He says he's come to the realization that the only way to survive is complete isolation. And so he finds a plastic picnic blanket in a linen closet in the nursing home. And he tells the journalist that he's going to tape it over his door and just trap himself inside. That's all we know about Bruce.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do we know about you from this experience? I mean, how bad is bad enough to feel?
MICAH LOEWINGER I don't know, I mean, that's a good that's a good question. Should a person feel guilt if they don't feel bad enough about the bad things in the world? You know, there was a statistic this week, and I'm sure by the time this goes to air, the statistic will be worse, but it was that more people had died on a day this week than on 9/11. And on 9/11, when I was a little boy, I cried a lot and I was very disturbed. And it shook up the way that I saw the world. And I haven't felt that intensely about this pandemic in a really long time. Maybe at the very beginning, but the days just keep going and the world is telling me like, hey, there's as much tragedy as the biggest tragedy in recent American history. And so I should feel an equivalent amount of sadness. And I really don't. And I want to and I understand it. And it's our job on the show and as citizens to understand it and to care, but if I'm being utterly honest, I just don't feel that sadness every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mean, isn't pain disabling? I guess I wonder if keeping those receptors is as sharp and as sensitive as always works toward improving that project or whether it might make it harder?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, it would be very hard to exist as a functional person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If you had your skin flayed off on a daily basis.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, exactly. Which could be a rational response to what's going on. But I just think it is our responsibility to feel the pain of of people around us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What good does it do them?
MICAH LOEWINGER We could hold those in power accountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, there's nothing more immobilizing than depression.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. I guess the point I'm trying to make is I feel like I'm so far from being depressed. I'm not even I'm just not getting close to depression. I'm just I'm just on another part of the emotional plane altogether. And that it feels frightening. It feels unhuman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about that plane.
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, it's something like a bell curve. If you feel nothing, you do nothing. If you feel too much, you do nothing. But in the middle, there's some kind of sweet spot of action, of productivity and inspiration and motivation. And I fear I'm too far to the inactive side of the bell curve that doing nothing, feeling nothing. You know, I'm going to survive. I'm going to be fine. The people around me, for the most part, are going to be fine and do OK. This is not an existential moment for me, but that doesn't mean I don't have a responsibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Micah, thank you so much.
MICAH LOEWINGER Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Micah Loewinger is a producer for On the Media.
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