The PEN Pod: Staying Connected Amidst Social Isolation with Andrew Solomon
The PEN Pod spoke today with author, past PEN America president, and professor of clinical psychology Andrew Solomon, whose books include the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and more recently, New Family Values: On the Many Faces of “Family” (an Audible Original audiobook exclusive) and Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World. We spoke with Andrew about the importance of prioritizing mental health while in medically mandated social isolation, the power of a good book, and what we can hope for amidst the ongoing crisis.
What do you think we need to know about mental health and the mind during a major public health crisis like this one, especially amid social isolation?
I think that depression results from the combination of a genetic vulnerability and triggering circumstances. People who have a very high genetic vulnerability need only very minor triggering circumstances, and people who have a lower vulnerability need much bigger circumstances to trigger a depression. These are triggering circumstances—the fear that you’re going to die, the people you love are going to die, that life will never return to normal, that everyone is going to lose people, and so on and so forth. All of these things are going to instigate depression and are going to be highly problematical. The other piece of it is that I think we have to weigh the merits of social isolation against the challenges that it faces for mental health. It’s obviously very important for physical health that we continue a path of people engaging in social isolation, but from a mental health standpoint, that’s highly problematical. We have to continue to weigh the public health crisis that is coronavirus, which we protect not only others but also ourselves from by engaging in social isolation, against the problem that people who are terribly isolated and depressed are not only in great pain, but also often commit suicide. There can be lethality on the mental health side as well, and we have to keep balancing the risks. What is the risk of going outside and seeing a friend? What is the risk of staying inside and not seeing a friend? Both of them can be dangerous in very troubling ways.
“If you’re stuck in social isolation, there’s little that’s better company than a really good book.”
The literary community is being hit hard by cancelations, and of course, social distancing. What can we do to support fellow readers and writers?
I think writers are better placed than many people for a crisis like this, because I think when you are stuck in your own house and not allowed to go outside or do anything, it can be your own private artists’ retreat. It’s like being at Yaddo or MacDowell without anyone else, where you just sit and are able to do a great deal of writing. But the cancelations that are going on are having a severe and specific economic impact on writers that can’t be underestimated. So I think we have to try to support writers, as everyone else, in a time of economic crisis. And I think a lot of writers, especially in nonfiction but even in fiction, rely on research. And while some research can be done online, a lot of research takes place in the context of human interactions, and there aren’t going to be human interactions of the kind that undergird so much of literary accomplishment. I myself have had to cancel twenty interviews and two interview trips that I had set up for the next couple of months. It’s a pretty dire time. That being said, if you’re stuck in social isolation, there’s little that’s better company than a really good book. And so, finding a book that you can read and finding books that you can connect with can give you a sense of being attached to the larger community, even in circumstances when you are in total isolation.
“A pandemic like this represents not the occasion of one country doing something dangerous to another country—not the occasion of closing borders because people from outside are going to come in and make us sick—but rather a moment when all of us are facing our common enemy, and when we can help one another.”
As a writer, you’ve written about and traveled the world. Now that we’re all a little bit more shut in these days, what can we do to stay global?
My last book was called Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World. It argued very strongly for the idea that more travel actually would result in fewer diplomatic crises, and that our interactions with people in other cultures and societies are essential to maintaining our sense of perspective and reducing the “us versus them” mentality that has so hideously been realized by the Trump administration. Now it’s this moment when everyone is canceling their trips. I think it’s going to be politically dangerous; I think it’s going to lead to greater nationalism and greater jingoism, and it’s going to be very damaging. I think the only thing we can do is to try, through whatever online media we have, to look at: How is the news being presented in Italy? How is the news being presented in Vietnam? How is the news being presented in South Korea? How are people dealing with this elsewhere? And to recognize that a pandemic like this represents not the occasion of one country doing something dangerous to another country—not the occasion of closing borders because people from outside are going to come in and make us sick—but rather a moment when all of us are facing our common enemy, and when we can help one another. My greatest hope, of course, is that scientists and doctors who are working on treating this, and policymakers who are working on figuring out the best way to contain it, will continue to work with one another internationally.
What are you reading or watching right now?
I’ve been reading a variety of things. I’ve been reading Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, which I’m thoroughly enjoying. It’s the novel on my bedside table at the moment. I think it’s a time for escapist literature. I have a 10-year-old son—we’re here together—and I’m reading him The Lord of the Rings. I’m finding that entering that world full of mad villainy, evil, and terrible magic is actually quite a pleasant way of removing ourselves from a world that’s suddenly characterized by trauma and terror.
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