The Crisis Tearing Us Apart | Avi Gutfreund

As an individual intimately involved in the mental health profession, I sometimes have a different perspective on hot-button issues. From rowdy children to politics, my viewpoint often comes from a deeper understanding (through training) of the human psyche and we behave the way that we do. In no way is this more apparent than right now, specifically with regard to the historic upheaval we have been witnessing in the United States with regard to the presidential election.

As everyone already knows, on January 6th a violent mob stormed the US Capitol, with some involved threatening to kill lawmakers and even Vice President Pence over their refusal to overturn the election for Donald Trump. We’ve heard a lot since about how President Trump incited a riot – he was even impeached over it. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the whole messy situation, and in no way would I stick up for the individuals who invaded one of the most significant federal buildings in the nation, but I do think it’s necessary to shine a light on what has been happening from a mental health perspective.

I had a theory about what was going on. Yes, there are always kooks out there who will buy into and act upon conspiracy theories. In a nation of 330 million people, there are bound to be at least a few bad apples. But in the past year or so we’ve been seeing a trend toward conspiracy theories, most notably the QAnon conspiracy theory. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a short explainer: there is an anonymous poster – known as Q – on a fringe website that has been releasing messages that are essentially gibberish. But followers of the theory believe that they are secret codes being released by a top-level national security official who is trying to warn us about what is happening in Washington. The theory posits that President Trump is fighting against powerful people in Washington, DC, who kidnap and eat children. They believe that Trump will soon reveal the identities of these people for the whole world to see and incarcerate them. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic idea.

It has been shown that a significant number of the people who stormed the Capitol were QAnon believers, including Ashli Babbit, the woman shot and killed by a police officer during the riot. Why are there so many people who are buying into this craziness? Why are so many people literally willing to believe in a conspiracy theory that is objectively crazy, to the point that they will literally risk their lives over it?

I believe that a lot of it may have to do with what we have undergone with the coronavirus pandemic. Along with the tragedy of hundreds of thousands dying from the virus, we had another tragedy, a mental crisis perhaps greater than anything we have ever seen before. Lockdowns kept people apart, leaving us to feel like we were fending for ourselves, without the help of family or community. Ask any psychotherapist what this has caused, and every one of them will tell you how it absolutely clobbered the psyche of so many. Report after report shows how mental health emergencies across every age group and demographic have spiked over the course of the pandemic. There’s a very simple reason for this: humans are social creatures. We are built to be with and work with each other. And our brains need social support to work as it should. It’s one of the reasons that social support is a key ingredient in the treatment of many mental health problems and disorders.

And so, my theory was that this lack of social support due to the pandemic lockdowns was literally pushing people over the edge. People who were otherwise normal, sane people began looking for a community, somewhere to share with and connect with others, to give them meaning and a purpose in life – the biological realities demanded it!. And, over the course of the pandemic, they found that meaning and purpose in online communities, in conspiracy theories that people from all different walks of life bandied around and promised to be a real, significant thing that truly mattered.

I scoured social media to see if my theory had any legs, and boy does it. Account after account of people who know individuals who believe in QAnon say how over the past year their friends and family members have become unrecognizable to them, and how these wacko beliefs are tearing their families and friendships apart. Why is it happening? Because, like mentioned above, some people are taking desperate measures to feel like they belong somewhere like they have a community to rally with, like they are not alone in the world.

The United States, I believe, has an ongoing mental health crisis that is far more serious than we would like to admit. I am not going to wade into the debate over whether lockdowns are a net positive or net negative for society. But we do have to recognize the secondary crisis that it has caused. We have to realize how alone people feel, we have to realize how there are those who are literally losing their minds over being cut off from society. I’m sure you know some of them – you might even be one of them.

On January 6th we saw the dire consequences of this mental health crisis. We saw how people will literally try to overthrow the government in pursuit of feeling togetherness, we saw how extreme beliefs can so easily seep into one’s mindset when they feel alone. And while more than ample attention will be given to the rioters themselves, will any attention be given to the everyday person who is struggling? Does anyone care about the person who has been hanging on by a thread for the past 10 months? Does it matter to anyone that so many people who were functioning just fine before the pandemic now need the assistance of a therapist? I fear not.

But not all hope is lost. There is one thing every one of us can do. Pick up the phone. Check in on your family and friends. Ask them how they are coping. Even if you can’t help them, allow them and encourage them to get their struggles off their chest. And in turn you can tell them how difficult it has been for you, and notice how much better you feel afterwards. We are social beings, we need social support. There’s no way around it. So let’s be as social as we can, show others that we are thinking of them, that we care about them. Doing so can be very helpful in averting the coming tsunami of long-term mental health crises that is right now unfortunately inevitable.



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There are 5 Comments to "The Crisis Tearing Us Apart | Avi Gutfreund"

  • David says:

    Definitely agree with you on many of your points . It’s not just QAnon that people have latched onto. There are many people out of work / school etc due to Covid that have latched on to a variety of questionable movements and causes while being locked-in.
    Some suggestions that I have for those that maybe be suffering from emotional well-being during these times (aside from the most obvious one to get professional help)
    1. Turn off the Phone!
    Just disconnect yourself from the news media as much as possible!
    2. Get out and exercise, I find that exercise really helps people clear the mind .
    3. Go on vacation , make it work and enjoy this beautiful world that HaShem has given us
    4. Get someone to talk to, the easiest way to do that would be to call helplines similar to Regesh and just talk .

  • Sruli says:

    Wow, powerful post! I do not have a background in mental health but have been aware of QAnon and totally confounded on how it took root. I can’t imagine such kookiness becoming so widespread just a few years ago. Unfortunately it seems that some of our frum brethren have fallen prey to it, one just needs to look at some of the comment threads on some the frum news sites. It’s very sad.

  • Steve says:

    QAnon may be bogus, but if you think for a minute the democrats have our best interests at heart I have a bridge to sell you.

    Everyone just means zich.

    • write a comment says:

      Steve – you are the target audience here. The issue isn’t which side has bigger kooks. You need to stop living this nonsense, and stop believing EITHER side has anything to do with you. None are your friends, and your identity should not be enmeshed with any of them.

  • Solution says:

    I think there should be a frum version of meetup.
    People with same hobbies can get together.