At his inauguration two weeks after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden spoke movingly of America’s democratic ideals even as he soberly enumerated the country’s challenges: “A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis.” For many who were listening, hopes were high that a new administration would bring a return to normalcy. Nearly a year later, however, the pandemic is still with us, despite the wide availability of effective vaccines. An otherwise robust economic recovery is held back by rising consumer prices and lingering supply-chain disruptions. The conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd has not quelled racial tensions. Another summer of deadly fires and floods has underscored the inadequacy of our response to climate change. And the Republican attack on voting rights continues, while our already intensely partisan country remains more divided than ever.
Small wonder, then, that large numbers of Americans are reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. Recent surveys by NPR and data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that a third of U.S. adults are struggling with mental-health challenges; children and young people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—are faring even worse. The spike comes even as the nation’s patchwork mental-health system, already overtaxed before the start of the pandemic, has proved incapable of accommodating the surge in demand for services. Providers’ waiting lists have grown just as more therapists, as well as more doctors and nurses in COVID wards, report increased levels of burnout. The crisis is visible not only in the record sales of books on trauma and self-care or in unruly outbursts on airplanes; unable to find or afford relief, many Americans have turned to self-medication and substance abuse.
Whether or not things are actually worse than normal, they certainly feel that way. That may be at least partly by design. Bad news and sensationalism in the media are nothing new—doom and gloom have always sold best—but the ever-more sophisticated algorithms deployed by tech and media companies, engineered to favor incendiary and divisive content in viewers’ feeds, have incentivized media outlets to produce and highlight more of these negative stories than they otherwise might. The result is that other, more positive stories are crowded out. For instance, poverty has been drastically reduced thanks to the generous provisions of the American Rescue Plan. The passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act has paved the way for the country to begin repairing its crumbling roadways, bridges, and transit systems. And the approval of vaccines for children and the announcement of an effective new antiviral therapy from Pfizer may finally allow society to recover from the pandemic