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Does it feel like everyone is hanging out again?
Stephanie Hayes | Safety matters more than ever. But so does empathy.
A customer plays pinball at Reboot Arcade & Bar in Dunedin.
A customer plays pinball at Reboot Arcade & Bar in Dunedin. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2020

Nod along aggressively if you feel this. People are hanging out again, right?

I’m not talking about anti-maskers or folks who never adhered to social distancing in the first place. Nor am I talking about those people in South Dakota who put it all on the line to go to a Smash Mouth concert at a biker rally last weekend. Let that sink in. Smash Mouth.

I mean people who put #stayhome on their profile picture in March, whose best friend all spring was a sourdough starter named Bread Flanders. Previously locked down and proud, they are suddenly sharing photos from gyms, boats and picnics with — shudder — other people.

My first reaction is admittedly snide. With 5 million cases in the country and more than 500,000 in Florida, why choose now to loosen up? I am still only hanging out with the people I live with, who possibly hate me, which is why I keep making them desserts.

Then, I remember that attempting to understand other people is kind of like exercise. It sounds like a lot of effort, but you always feel better in the end. You are better in the end.

This led me to call Kristin Kosyluk, an assistant professor with the department of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida. She studies stigma and how it impacts treatment and discrimination. And she has an interest in suicide prevention.

Smash Mouth folks notwithstanding, we can’t view every person the same way. I, for example, am fortunate to have other human beings in the house. Not everyone has that.

“House parties and everything else, that’s just fervent disregard for public health,” she said. “But then there are folks that are doing some more risky behaviors, and they might be preserving their own mental health.”

Kosyluk recently sent her 3-year-old back to daycare, for the sake of both their mental states. It’s not a choice she would have made in different circumstances.

For some, the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 is less scary than the risk of spiraling into a mental space they can’t escape. That’s real. The stresses are economic, spiritual, academic, social. Even the absence of little things, like talking to a coworker you could barely tolerate at the water cooler, can take its toll.

“This is an unprecedented time,” she said. “It’s almost like a social experiment. At least in our lifetimes, we have never experienced such forced social isolation. We are absolutely seeing the influence on the mental health of the globe. Research is exploding in this area right now.”

We are no longer in adorable sourdough territory. The first month was hard. The second month was harder. In the third month, professionals started to see major problems emerge, from substance abuse to domestic violence. Studies have shown calls to suicide hotlines are up around the country. Virtual connection and technology is expensive and not available to everyone.

So, no, I’m not hanging out. I might still be a bit judgey. But I’m trying to proceed more kindly when someone makes a decision that I wouldn’t personally make. To operate with empathy in a time where no one has the answers.

If we could think before rushing to judgment, Kosyluk said, “we’d be in a much better place.”

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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