Attention Kansas leaders: Here is mental health help from the state’s most famous psychologist
Members of the Kansas State Board of Education meet via video conference Wednesday to consider the governor’s order delaying the opening of public schools until after Labor Day. (Screenshot of Kansas State Board of Education virtual meeting)
Facing a horrifying midsummer surge of coronavirus cases, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly wanted to delay the start of the school year for three weeks.
It seemed reasonable.
Everyone wants things to get back to normal. Parents want to send their kids back to school. Teachers want to be back with their students. Maybe even some kids — at least those whose only real meals are the ones they eat at school — are ready for summer vacation to end.
Still, taking three short weeks to figure out how Kansas schools could maybe not become death traps seemed sane.
Because Kelly had requested those three weeks not by asking politely but by an executive order, the members of the Kansas Board of Education met on Wednesday to decide whether to agree.
On the Zoom screen for their meeting was Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The state was experiencing an “exponential viral growth phase,” Norman said. As of the latest count, 24,100 Kansans had tested positive for the coronavirus, 309 of whom were dead. “This is a terrible trend line,” he said.
Norman’s professional advice: “Schools can’t be safe islands in an unsafe community.” When the surrounding community is infected, “the virus will find a way in.”
Bristling at the idea that the governor’s order took away “local control,” half of the board members voted against it. Without majority approval, there would be no additional three weeks.
For those of us who’ve spent the last few months watching these kinds of decisions with dismay, it seemed like more madness.
In fact, the whole state of Kansas needs psychological help and I knew exactly who to call.
The problem, Lerner suggested, isn’t that we’re crazy. It’s that we’re making decisions based on anxiety.
We’ve already been living with chronic anxiety, what Lerner described as “survival anxiety” caused by things like economic stress or the awareness of climate change. The pandemic cranked that up to an unprecedented level.
“When you have an acute anxious situation, like a flood or a fire, we know what to do. People take action and they can be very empathetic and cohesive,” she explained. “With chronic underground anxiety, we’re programmed to act but it’s not clear what to do. That leads to trouble.”
Anxiety doesn’t just affect individuals. It can affect a whole family. Or a whole country.
“It affects all human systems in predictable, patterned ways,” she said. “Anxiety rigidifies thinking. It destroys the capacity to tolerate ambiguity and complexity. It leads to a steep decline in civility and cooperation among participants in the system.”
All of which, she said, leads people to make “compulsive, emotionally based decisions.” As we grasp for something to make us feel better in the short term, we don’t think about history or the future.
“If I were to put it very simply,” Lerner said, “I’d say anxiety makes even smart people do very stupid things.”
It’s only mildly comforting to know that humans at various levels of power who are making decisions that might kill their fellow Kansans are not stupid people but overly anxious people doing stupid things.
Lerner said we need to “respect the real complexity” when leaders decide it’s appropriate for people to gather in various situations. Human nature is to connect, after all.
Lerner advised self-care and “self-compassion” — not being too hard on ourselves, which she’s seeing a lot of — and helping each other.
“Being useful is the greatest antidote to despair,” she said.
And practicing more kindness. By which she does not mean avoiding confrontation out of what I’ll call classic Kansas politeness.
“Whatever it is — racism, injustice, lying — it really enters the deepest interior of family life and personal life. Never has the subject of kindness carried such weight and have the stakes been so high,” she said. “Life, especially these days, requires us to confront injustice and unfairness where we see it, both individually and through collective action, and requires us to hold our ground. But this is what I know to be true: Everything that can be said can be said with kindness. And every tough position we have to take can be taken with kindness. And having a very clear, strong, courageous, authentic voice does not mean shaming others or operating at the expense of other people.”
So I’ll say this as kindly as I can: Breathe, Kansas. If we aren’t making potentially life-and-death decisions based on so much anxiety, imagine how innovative we could be as we figure out our best new normal.
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