World and national news has been horrific especially in the last couple of days. The lone-wolf terror attack in Ottawa and the ax attack on four policemen in New York just hours later put more atrocities in national news. Scenes from Ottawa were replayed and incessantly analyzed on TV. I happened to be at home; I was watching. Newscasters reported the unfolding situation, interviewed “experts”, and quoted their “sources” .
As the day wore on, additional details about the killing of a Canadian Guard and the attempted attack on Parliament emerged. Rational explanations to explain the motives, much less the personal life, of the Ottawa killer were few and necessarily tentative.
While I privately speculated about what pushes certain people over their fragile edge, I found it painful to imagine how a human mind could cruelly and violently act out and bring terror and death to other human beings. It is human nature for us to try to attach some kind of reason to chaos and to make the unknown into the known in order to create an illusion, if not reality, of personal safety.
As the day moved into evening and TV commentators searched for answers to what had been reported earlier, another “breaking news” banner flashed across the screen.
“A doctor in New York City, recently returned from working with patients in Guinea, may have Ebola”.
Moving focus from Canada to New York City, reporters emphasized that diagnostic tests were being conducted on this doctor. Results would be known later in the day. The tragedy still fresh in Canada had been overtaken by a new trauma in New York City.
With Ebola increasingly becoming a household word and a public health concern in the US, with the misdiagnosis and tragic death of Thomas Duncan, and with the two nurses who cared for him falling ill with Ebola (both now recovered), we as a country and as individuals face a test of our medical system and our personal anxiety and fortitude about our national and personal safety.
The media went into overdrive as I suspect did the emotions of many individuals. We were reassured that Ebola is not contagious unless there is direct exchange of bodily fluids with a sick person, that the doctor had followed proper protocols, that he was currently isolated in Belleview Hospital in NY which was fully prepared to treat him. We were given unlimited reassurances that there was very low risk for the general population, even those who had taken the subway or bowled with this doctor the previous evening.
Later in the evening, it was disclosed that Dr. Craig Spencer (how did the press get his name?) had tested positive for Ebola. There was a hastily arranged news conference with the Mayor and Governor of New York and various Belleview Hospital officials.
After a while, it became apparent to me that reporters kept asking the same questions that focused not only on details about the patient, but more so, reflected the fears of the public. It also seemed to me, the experts continued to give the same data about disease transmission and reassurance about “low to nil risk” for the general public in New York.
I realized that this news conference and the non-stop TV reporting were not sufficient to assuage the panic and anxiety that throbbed in the hearts and minds of an anxious public.
Concrete information was helpful to a point, but only up to a point. People wanted to be guaranteed that they were safe. “Close to nil risk” was not an absolute-enough reply. People craved more attunement to their feelings than expert medical/scientific data could offer.
People wanted answers that were impossible to give. They craved guarantees of personal safety over and above statistics and medical advice. People were scared. Reporters’ questions expressed underlying fears concerning loss of control and the anxiety that accompanies the uncertainty of not knowing.
There are no guaranteed answers for such anxieties. Each of us must deal with ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty in the face of fear at different times in our lives. Ebola anxiety brings past trauma, losses, and illness to our awareness. Ebola is no longer a disease “over there in West Africa”. Ebola anxiety is now within “us” (or in the US) and not just “them”.
The Ebola scare that has reached our shores is a form of mental terrorism that each person experiences according to his or her personal life history and psychology. Public officials and doctors can supply data and clinical reassurance, but it is important to understand that psychological terrorism, which is not based on rationality and objective data, must be addressed compassionately in equal measure to medical science. Scientific protocols can cure many diseases. Research can help find solutions. But science, like mental life, is not bottled with a formula that guarantees, “One size cures all”.
Excuse me a minute……..another “Breaking News” ribbon is crossing my TV screen.
“There has just been a shooting in a high school north of Seattle, Washington.”
In the midst of our ongoing Ebola anxiety and mental terrorism, mental health and human emotions must be taken very seriously both for those who are innocent bystanders, victims, and patients as well as for those who are desperate perpetrators. There may not be concrete answers to satisfy our fears, but we can learn better how to listen to emotions, detect cries for help, and treat the mind as well as the body.
photo by Renars Petersons