Covid Denial: Shared Psychosis–Or Something Worse?

DeSantis speaking at a press conference in southwest Florida,

“I have (three) young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have, we won’t. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”

I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. What are the outer limits of rightwing arrogance and delusion? What are the limits of human delusion? Are there any limits?

Does “depraved indifference to human life” have any meaning anymore? Does anything have any meaning anymore?

This . . . man, this father, this college-educated governor of a major state, this grinning buffoon who was elected to protect the well-being of 21.6 million souls–the population of Florida, third-largest in the nation—is instead toying with their health and their lives–AND THE HEALTH AND LIVES OF HIS OWN WIFE AND CHILDREN!—and for what?! Stab in the dark here: his personal political ambition.

Florida is averaging 17,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day as the deadly Delta variant surges. Seventeen. Thousand. A day.

And Ron DeSantis wants to see his kids smiling and having fun. So, no masks. And he’s not going to allow schools to mandate mask-wearing in Florida, either.

Ron DeSantis must have a major smile jones.

Over the past wretched year, the past wretched five years, I have often snapped at friends who wailingly ask, “What have we come to?” “How did we get to this point?”

They ask it in bewilderment over Covid denialism. And the Trump administration. And the post-Trump-administration depravities such as the January 6 Capitol storming. And the subsequent mockery directed at brutalized, traumatized police heroes as “actors” in “political theater.”

And in bewilderment over the armchair rightwingers such as the radio blowhard Charlie Kirk who denounce the tormented Simone Biles as a “selfish sociopath[!]” for withdrawing from the Olympics. (On Tuesday she decided to compete in the balance beam final and won a Bronze medal.) And the others who sneer at “the liberals” who supposedly “shed a tear” over her mental-health crisis.

I tell these worried friends: Don’t just ask, in tones that imply the question is unanswerable. There are answers! Find them! Read! Research! Go online! Google “collective psychosis”! Google “tribalism”!

And feeling ever-so-slightly superior in my own stern rationalism.

Until I could no longer pretend to hear the small voice inside me that kept repeating, more loudly each time: “ . . . Maybe.” With the loudly unspoken corollary: “ . . . And maybe not.”

I’ve spent the past several weeks—well, months—trying to follow my own advice. I’ve pored through books, scholarly articles, and serious journalism to help myself figure out why the political fissures and tensions, always present in American life, have burst into this continental oil-refinery fire. And why those who stand to suffer the most from its many scorching flames are responding by throwing more petroleum onto it. ( Vide: Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida throwing up barriers to commonsense Covid protection so that he can see his children smile and have fun.)

Have you ever heard of a more deranged and irresponsible reaction to an existential threat?

As the father of two loved and loving sons who both contracted schizophrenia, one of them taking his life, I am naturally attuned to the fragility of the human mind. (And infuriated at the fatuous Governor for taking his children’s health for granted.) I’m no psychiatric scholar, no authority of any kind. Yet I have learned enough to understand that none of us is truly “normal.” There really is no “normal.” We all advance through life across a thin membrane, a membrane that could rip and thus plunge any of us into a chronic, incurable brain disease such as schizophrenia. Or, far more commonly, into treatable yet debilitating conditions such as depression, rage, alcoholism, refuge in alienated “tribes,” susceptibility to the lure of seductively tyrannical cults.

I’ve winnowed my explorations to the latter two: the tribe and the cult.

An affinity for either of these collective bodies strongly suggests that even though the adherent may not be seriously mentally ill, she may well be wounded enough by life’s cruelties (including abuse, poverty, addiction, a bad education) that her self-identity is ravaged and she has surrendered the capacity to think and act in her own best interests. She accepts the group’s ethos as her own.

To vastly oversimplify: the tribe is generally a physical community of people nurtured by handed-down beliefs. It has the power to absorb an individual’s identity into its shared values, myths, prejudices, and class/political assumptions. The cult generally does not spring from an organic community. It magnetizes rather than nurtures. Its magnetism has been radically enhanced by the electronic grid. The psychic power of the cult over vulnerable individuals is if anything far greater and more insidious than that of the tribe.

I accept the reality of tribal behavior—like most of us, I have witnessed it and lived it to some degree—yet I’ve found myself leaning to the cult as the powerful source of our present chaos.

Cults attract people who did not necessarily come of age under a cultish spell. Cults attract desperate loners; those whose self-identities have been desiccated; people who virtually doubt their own existence and crave identification with a group that promises them a means of belonging.

I think of QAnon. I think of Chris Hedges’s masterful and ironically titled 2014 book, “War Is a Force that gives us meaning.” I think of the odious threadbare trope, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”

Cults, I came to believe in my hard-earned layman’s understanding, are a form of collective psychosis. Yes, that was it! Shared psychosis.

And then I contacted Dr. Joseph Pierre for confirmation.

Dr. Joesph Pierre

Dr. Pierre is professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is copiously published and widely interviewed in the areas of forensic psychiatry, neuroscience, delusion-like belief, cannabis-induced psychosis, and in many topics related to schizophrenia.  

Dr. Pierre has studied shared psychosis, yet he does not think it is responsible for our current havoc. In a recent email, he wrote,

“I am firm in saying that movements like QAnon, however crazy they might sound, are not examples of shared or collective psychosis proper.”

He clarified his view in a June edition of the online journal “Medium.” Without intending to speak for him, I infer a proposition even more troubling than psychosis: the rapid erosion of shared reality. The twilight of “the truth.”

Referring to the rash of harebrained theories that accompanied Covid’s rise, Dr. Pierre writes,

“Conspiracy theories reject authoritative accounts of reality in favor of some plot involving a group of people with malevolent intentions that are deliberately kept secret from the public. The psychological underpinnings of belief in conspiracy theories include a long list of associated cognitive quirks including lack of analytic thinking and heightened ‘bullshit receptivity;’ need for control, certainty, and closure; and various attributional biases such as the tendency to ascribe random events to ultimate ‘teleologic’ causes.”

There it is–an explanation of our current carnival of chaos as terrifying as it is simple. And as tragic. Dr. Pierre titled his essay, “Winning the Battle Against Covid-19 Requires More Belief in Reality.”

And good luck with that. William Butler Yeats wrote the death warrant for such optimism eighty years ago in a line from “Four Quartets”: “Go, go, go, said the bird. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Not that humankind ever could. In America alone, we have lived with the denial that slavery caused the Civil War since the ink dried on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Thus seven hundred fifty thousand people died over “states’ rights.” (Uh, states’ rights to do what?) The curse of racism stoutly denied is viler than ever today, embedding itself blatantly in our school systems and poisoning free and fair elections.

In April 1966, the cover of Time Magazine thunderously asked, “Is God Dead?”—having answered the question the previous October, in the affirmative. What millions of believers took as the ultimate Truth was pulverized before their eyes.

The academic “deconstruction” crusades of the 1980s gave even intellectuals the vocabulary for denying that truth, and meaningfulness in words, existed. (Besides handing a victory to the anti-intellectual right, the “tenured radicals” found themselves obliged to use words in refuting the meaning of words. An irony lies buried in there somewhere.)

And at about the same time, members of the Reagan administration, including Ronnie himself, were launching their historically effective renunciation of science.

Don’t even get me started on what this meant for poor Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Or for all of us. For the “planet” we “live on.”

Dr. Pierre again:

“Conspiracy theories often arise during times of societal upheaval and can serve a blaming or scapegoating role intended to ‘self-medicate’ fears arising from chaos and uncertainty. Belief in conspiracy theories can also be understood within an overarching ‘socio-epistemic’ framework whereby mistrust in authoritative sources of information leaves us vulnerable to biased misinformation processing when searching for alternative explanations.”

So perhaps Dr. Pierre, and others, have it right: why should we reach for elusive concepts such as “shared psychosis” when the steady, centuries-long assaults on truth and meaning have softened up our frantic civilization for belief, or disbelief, in anything?

Run along and play, DeSantis children, in the open, sunlit, infected Florida air. Have fun. And don’t forget to not wear your masks!

Black Children and Mental Illness: An under-examined Hell Within a Hell

The ravages of mental illness continue to flood every corner of society. Coverage of this atrocity has improved in quantity and sophistication in the last quarter-century–but to what end? Policy-makers, law enforcement and public opinion remain largely indifferent to meaningful education and reform. Mis-diagnoses, non-diagnoses, incarceration, hospital indifference, and violent deaths of people in psychosis surge on, gathering speed. And no one is at the wheel.

This strongly observed and written story by Hannah Dreier of The Washington Post throws light into an especially neglected precinct: Poor black families, and the mentally afflicted children within those families. It provides a glimpse of the day-to-day crises of a divorced Black mother, Kelli, and her two sons–one of whom, the 11-year-old Ahav, is diagnosed with schizophrenia.

You may read Dreier’s piece as simply a searing journey into the wilderness of one family’s mental-illness misery, and of the heroic efforts of Kelli to keep Ahav safe. A closer reading reveals a miasma of bureaucratic obstacles, therapeutic failure, option-choking poverty, and the constant dread of trigger-happy law enforcement that imprison tens of thousands of families such as Kelli’s in the rusted chains of our failed mental healthcare system.