A group of Blank Slate Media columnists discussed the growing mental health concerns exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the state of media outlets after a contentious presidential election in a virtual forum last week.
Judy Epstein, who worked for nearly two decades in TV news and documentaries, has had her “A Look on the Lighter Side” columns appear in Blank Slate publications since 2013. Epstein’s columns have won a variety of local and statewide awards and she has also turned some of her insights into stand-up comedy routines.
Michael D’Innocenzo has served as a history professor at Hofstra University since 1960. In 2008, he received the American Historical Association Eugene Asher Award and the Outstanding College History Professor Award nationwide. He was a candidate for Congress in 1984 and also ran for the North Hempstead Town Board.
Tom Ferraro is a sport psychologist with a Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook, with more than 25 years of experience working with professional teams, coaches and Olympic athletes.
Andrew Malekoff is the former executive director and CEO of the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, where he has worked since 1977. He was named Social Work Community Practitioner of the Year by the New York State Social Work Education Association.
The discussion kicked off with female tennis phenom Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Wimbledon to spend “personal time with friends and family” in mid-June. Ferraro said Osaka, who is 21 years old, represents a growing issue with a younger generation of superstar athletes who deal with mental health crises on a frequent basis.
“It’s really hard to describe the level of pressure that these young people are under, where they’re really expected to have etiquette and be responsive and be bright and be interesting,” he said.
D’Innocenzo mentioned that he’s found the mental health strains are prominent in members of the younger generation who aren’t acclaimed athletes. The pandemic, he said, has underscored the thoughts of loneliness and potential suicide among teenagers and young adults.
“I think we have a crisis here in terms of mental stress for young people [as a result of] the pandemic and I think they need a lot of intervention,” D’Innocenzo said.
Malekoff said the common denominator between the top celebrities, athletes and other prominent figures and virtually everyone else in the world, is loss. Whether it be loss of a loved one’s life or their own social life, he said, the pandemic took away one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature.
“During the pandemic there are kids that lost family members and they weren’t able to go through the usual grieving rituals that we typically do,” Malekoff said. “They also lost a certain amount of freedom … They weren’t able to socialize as much as they did before, certainly not in a safe way.”
Epstein said the constant pressure that young adults face to stand out has been exaggerated in recent years for a variety of reasons. She mentioned that people should strive to have a personal best rather than a comparative best, but the way the culture has recently shifted has made it more difficult to be pleased with that.
“There is so much pressure on all of us and on kids to be the best at everything,” Epstein said. “So it may not be a good idea to go through all that torment, to get the best grades so you can’t even enjoy college so you can get into a great law school so you can get that great job and then hate it.”
Malekoff said the number of children that the Family Guidance Center saw who had suicidal thoughts and reported an increase in stress from school or in their personal lives had risen a dramatically from previous years.
The panel also discussed how the 2020 presidential election and its ripple effects were portrayed by the media. D’Innocenzo was blunt in his comments, saying that the media simply is not what it was traditionally considered.
“Our media is not as good as it used to be,” he said. “It’s hard to have a democracy if [people are unwilling] to make informed judgments based on reliable information.”
Ferraro touted the importance of local media outlets compared with the national-level outlets due to the audience they cater to. The higher-level outlets, he said, should be bringing people closer together and making them more informed, but instead have been a wedge that tends to stir up conflict.
“It’s kind of like Starbucks making us come together as a community, but it’s really not like the local cafe with people talking to each other,” he said.
Epstein said the political divide that the presidential election caused throughout the nation made it harder to look on the lighter side of things. The differences between Biden and Trump supporters, not even Democrats and Republicans, she said, was something rarely seen before in an election of this magnitude.
“My biggest concern is, however much we didn’t use to bolt together, and however much we didn’t use to listen to each other, it is so much worse now,” Epstein said.
Malekoff reflected on the work his organization did in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks as a time when the country was truly united.
“I think that we are in more dangerous times than we’ve ever been in and I can only say that I would hope that as we go, 10 to 20 years from now that we will look back and say we found a way through this [divide],” Malekoff said.
The event can be found online following the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiLFgcCdmEQ