Mental Health, Social Media, and the Fabric of Community

Benton County Courthouse

Benton County Courthouse

On election eve the Corvallis City Club hosted a public forum titled “The Election, Mental Health, Social Media, and the Fabric of Community” at the Boys and Girls Club. Speakers included a diverse panel from within our community voicing a clear message: this election has championed divisions within our society, emotionally scarred many, and left us isolated from one another—but there is still hope.

Nick Houtman, editor of Terra magazine and former City Club president, opened the evening with this statement: “We saw that the American Psychological Association estimates that over half of the population is feeling stressed out about the election process.”

He explained that, reflecting on this, City Club members have asked themselves, “How do we foster these healthy conversations about things that we may disagree about, but how do we do that in a respectful fashion?”

Panelists responded by offering their perspectives on how the election has affected people’s daily lives and where things may be going in the future.

Jill McAllister, a minister for the Universalist-Unitarian Fellowship in Corvallis, used fabric as a metaphor to describe the binding properties of community. She said it is “that material thing which is always being worn out, tearing, and being renewed.”

“Politics,” said McAllister, “if you do some etymology, it basically means the shape of the community.” It represents the hierarchy of who is in charge, what boundaries are in place, and who is allowed into the club.

“What we call religions have been common [everywhere], because really it’s just a human undertaking, a human endeavor,” said McAllister. It is the essential act of asking ourselves, where do we come from, why, and how do we act?

“Whenever these questions are being asked and the answers are being given, that always becomes a political process,” said McAllister. “There is always a political process around how we incorporate these questions because they are intrinsically human.”

The risk, especially in the US where we have 500 to 600 varieties of Christianity alone, is that religious traditions often lend themselves to widening ideological holes in the fabric.

However McAllister reminds us that “when religion is at its best, it is helping to weave the fabric of society towards right relations, and you can see those elements in every tradition.”

Local social worker Jana Svoboda wanted to talk about something more personal—reflections garnered from experience in her own private practice. In the last few months, she has seen a rise in MUS or medically unexplained symptoms.

“MUS or psychophysiological symptoms are actual physical symptoms that show up in your body because you are stressed out,” said Svoboda. “Stress is a physiological process, it’s what we do when we are faced with more demands than our body thinks it can deal with.”

Where is all this stress coming from?

“In my private practice I have people who are triggered by the election because of their sexual trauma history, or their bullying history,” said Svoboda. “I have seen people triggered by their disempowerment history, because of having been the victims in the past of institutional racism which is now becoming voiced racism.”

Svoboda points to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, the self, and the ego. “In the shadow, there is a lot of stuff—not all necessarily bad—but a lot of stuff that didn’t work well for us, so when it does leak out, it tends to leak out in pretty ugly ways.”

“I think we are seeing a hardcore shadow election,” she said. The hope is that the release of these nationwide tensions is cathartic in the end, otherwise we have yet another xenophobic mess on our hands. Still, Svoboda remains hopeful and reminds us that “we also have these things called freewill and a critical mind—we can use those things to overcome those problems.”

How can we be sure this is happening all over the country and not just in Svoboda’s practice or McAllister’s service?

Daniel Faltesek, assistant professor of new media communications at OSU, uses computer algorithms to comb the Internet for certain media content. He is not spying on you, but looking for patterns of communication that emerge.

One such pattern arose during the Republican National Convention this year. “We got about 650,000 entries in the matrix for that—489,000 of them are not original. So only 120,000 people even went out of their way to think of their own thing to say,” said Faltesek.

This is what we call a media event. During such an event, “People tend to communicate less organically, they come up with fewer original Tweets…they share more things written by other people,” said Faltesek.

People get sucked into the hype of a media event, but what were they going to do on social media before the event?

“The technical term we have for what people do with social network is called ambient awareness,” said Faltesek. “You actually enjoy creating this sort of shell for yourself where you’re like, ‘Well, this is how the world is, this is how people are feeling.’”

“By getting so into this media event, they started to shut off all of their regular opportunities to build their worlds and build that ambient awareness that they use to feel good,” said Faltesek. “The more they get involved in that world, paradoxically, the more they actually lose that world they want to be living in.”

Fortunately, we have some control. The more you subject yourself to the same types of articles and attitudes online, the more of it your computer will feed you.

“The algorithms can be manipulated by you to make the world feel the way you want it to feel,” said Faltesek. “If you haven’t shared in a while the algorithms, the great robots that run our world, will think that it’s something really important and will put it in everyone’s feed.”

So post something happy. Change the subject and what you’re subjected to will change, changing the way you feel.

By the end of the discussion, two quotes by people named Mark came to mind. The first is “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The second is this: “Love thy neighbor,” because that is a power no government can take away. Think about that for a second, then go online and like some kitten pictures and post your favorite muffin recipe.

By Anthony Vitale