I spent years researching and writing about the health care crisis. It was depressing and isolating — traumatizing. When I met someone with more reach, it was a relief to be able to stop.
Early on, it was obvious to me that our medical health care crisis is actually a mental health crisis. It is about disconnectedness and devaluation of relationships, a basic need. Evidence abounds. The doctor-patient relationship is crucial for compliance with treatment, therefore, ultimately, cost. Research on attachment shows the importance of connections to others for optimal child development, which extends into adulthood. The detriment of disconnection is substantiated. We feel increasingly negatively about each other.
Interpersonal violence in places that used to be safe, like schools, is an almost daily occurrence. A sign at the local medical school where I see one of my doctors, proclaims, “This is a healing environment.” Interpersonal violence, whether verbal or physical, will not be tolerated. Record numbers of working people are hungry and homeless or near homeless, and it is as if they are not connected to the rest of us.
What about our “Great Society” and basic tenets like “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Where are our barn raisings where neighbors come together? What about quilting bees? “Bowling alone” is much less fun. Instead, we now have a “culture of contempt,” where many people have unmet basic needs, and we cannot tolerate disagreements and are willing to break off relationships.
What happened to us?
This combination of the “terrible twos” and adolescence is made worse because, individually and as a society, we are traumatized. So much trauma is untreated, and thus can interfere with attachment and relationships, well-being, emotions, behavior, and even physical health.
It seems obvious if one looks at books, articles, online resources, news, that not only do we have a problem, but many people are searching for help. There is always a plethora of “new” psychological solutions.
Really, not much is “new.” Psychodynamic psychotherapy connects the past, present, and future, which is crucial to effective treatment. Specifically, the trauma approach connects the past, present, future, behavior, emotions, thoughts, and personal responsibility. This is applicable to society and to individuals.
Recently, when I looked at my own work, it also felt disconnected, a seeming reflection of our society. It is certainly reflective of the mental health field. Instead of viewing human development and well-being as connected, we now have disconnected areas of “expertise,” such as anxiety, relationships, grief, anger, sensory integration, bullying, obsessive-compulsive disorder, EMDR, phobias, insomnia, panic attacks. Psychotherapy is impacted. Cheap quick fixes abound. The demise of the importance of health care relationships means that rather than working through rough spots, one of the most important parts of psychotherapy, it seems easier to just quit. It is hard to work this way.
Being so disconnected from each other is not good for us and it needs to change. But can we reconnect? I do believe so. Research shows that smiling and kindness are contagious. The health benefits of relationships are clear. Activist efforts are effective en masse. People can successfully come together, with a minimum of “posturing,” for their own benefit, as well as their communities. There are certain habits that are obligations for good citizens. We have recovered and reconnected as a nation and as individuals from traumas before.
Everything in our universe is connected, whether we choose to believe it or not. Trees are a good example. When one of them is hurt or diseased, others increase sharing of nutrients. Nonhuman animals form bonds and communicate with each other. Captive isolated elephants exhibit signs of loneliness and trauma. People who work in labs and rescue animals from them report that the animals are obviously afraid and anxious, never mind the fact that this cruelty is holding us back from medical progress.
Cows cry when their calves are taken away from them. Pollution threatens our land, water, air, and health. Children who do not have supportive loving homes can later face challenges in work and personal relationships. Abusers of animals typically also abuse humans. When wolves returned to Yellowstone, it thrived. During a tsunami, there were no animal carcasses because they sensed danger and migrated to a higher altitude.
I soon realized that just getting relief from the stress of health care research is not the whole answer for me. I don’t like feeling disconnected, and I don’t like that my work felt that way. It seemed that my work on the health care crisis, trauma, and my writing and artwork were hopelessly disconnected. Yet when I read about seemingly disparate topics such as private equity plunder and recovery from trauma, a common theme emerged: we are responsible for ourselves and each other. It is up to us all, individually and collectively, to heal our country’s disconnectedness.
As a developmentalist and a community activist, I am interested in how trauma impacts both individual and community well-being. I have often wondered how I, just one person, can possibly do anything about this disconnectedness in our society. It seems that I must start with myself and my own work. I can use my training and experience in psychology and research in a different way, which unifies all of my art, writing, research, and community activism to offer myself and others hope and a path forward.
When I talk with my friends and my colleagues in other professions, I learn that they have the same concerns and experiences with our disconnectedness to each other and to our communities. I hear the same laments from all of them.
So I’ve decided to ask them to tell me about it, and how they are addressing it, in a podcast series. I will include veterinarians, business owners, writers, musicians, artists, lawyers, physicians, students, literary agents, nonhuman animal advocates, non-profit officers, web designers, car mechanics, bankers, restaurant owners. I want to hear what they do and what they think that we all can do, to reconnect, and how they maintain hope that we can do so.
I want to hear what they say about trauma’s role in our disconnectedness. I also will seek out people willing to talk about their traumas, how they survived, and how this influences their worldview, including our disconnectedness.
Perhaps a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world by connecting seemingly disconnected stories,” as Margaret Mead suggested. Together we can make a positive contagious change and reconnect to each other, our doctors, nonhuman animals, and the earth.
Our lives depend on it.
Peggy A. Rothbaum is a psychologist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Peggy Rothbaum. She is the author of I Have Been Talking with Your Doctor: Fifty doctors talk about the healthcare crisis and the doctor-patient relationship.