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David Pendered Columns

Mental health, isolation: Explorations with an academic, choreographer, student leader

David Pendered

By David Pendered

Mental health – a survey new in June shows 50 percent of American adults say they feel isolated, and happiness is at a 50-year low. Three leaders met in a virtual town hall to share thoughts on these issues and more – Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera, renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, and Tech student leader – and artist – Mykala Sinclair.

Bill T. Jones, What Problem

Acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones (center) explores isolation, divisiveness and community in a performance slated for Oct. 29 at Georgia Tech, ‘What Problem.’ Credit: Baranova via Georgia Tech

The trio covered a wide swath in a 52-minute conversation that took as its starting point a performance Jones is to bring to Tech Oct. 29, pandemic permitting. Jones created What Problem before the pandemic. It explores topics that recent events have made more relevant: Isolation, divisiveness, and the role of community.

Jones framed the issue in response to a question by the event’s moderator, Lois Reitzes, host of WABE’s City Lights:

  • “Right now, I feel people need people. People that I care about need more respect for ideas, more respect for the investigation that goes into living a full life. How do you not become a bigot in your own right? Do you really know yourself? Do you know the language you’re using? OK, you’re a down, black gay man, right? But you have difficulty using a correct pronoun for a white trans person and you slip up several times in a rehearsal and get angry inside: ‘Why do I have to change my language?’ Yes, sometimes there is a conceptual gap. Sometimes it just is, who has the courage to say: ‘I don’t know.’”

The exploration could provide insights to those challenged by isolation resulting from the pandemic. Plus the mental health issues related to social protests following the death of George Floyd. Concerns are felt especially, according to tweets by Mental Health America, among those who identify as LGBTQ, Black, Latinx, immigrant, homeless, impoverished, or otherwise marginalized.

The topics of isolation, community and connections were explored in a virtual town hall moderated by Lois Reitzes and including choreographer Bill T. Jones (top left); Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera (top right); Tech student Mykala Sinclair (bottom left) and Lois Reitzes. Credit: facebook.com/ArtsatTech

Released June 18, the survey by NORC at the University of Chicago revealed a growth in mental health issues in the U.S. The survey was conducted online and over the phone, in English and Spanish, with 2,000 respondents. Results showed changes in outlook:

  • Happiness – 14 percent today vs. 30 percent in 2018;
  • Isolation – 50 percent today vs. 23 percent in 2018;
  • Desire to get drunk – 27 percent today vs. 4 percent after Kennedy assassination and 7 percent after 9/11.

This is the context of the virtual town hall, sponsored June 25 by Georgia Tech Arts in partnership with WABE and ATL PBA. The purpose was to, “examine questions probing the ways in which we all have felt isolated before and during this pandemic; how we can come together and create a sense of community, of belonging; and how art can help us to imagine a new future of connections.”

Cabrara described the time when he felt most isolated, and how his life was transformed as he applied lessons learned:

Ángel Cabrera. Credit: Georgia Tech

  • “Perhaps the time that I felt the loneliest was in my first three months as a student at Georgia Tech, in 1991. I’m a young man coming from Spain. Landing in this new planet and barely even understanding not just this crazy language, but this new crazy culture. And having some of those same reactions we’ve heard about, about judging the other and making comparisons about my home culture and this one, and this incomprehension is someone else’s fault.
  • “At the end, as hard as that process was, it was deeply transformative for me. This process of suspending my disbelief, of opening my mind to other ways of looking at the world, to not get too wrapped up when all of a sudden I was confronted with a stupid stereotype, I guess what we would call microagressions – we didn’t have that word back then. It’s easier said than done. That process was painful. But once I was able to do that, that process opened me to not just the American culture, but it really turned me into a different person, and my genuine interest in getting to know people from around the world. I would never have been able to do that without that experience.”

Black mental health is the subject Sinclair is now exploring through her art, which includes painting and assemblage. Sinclair traveled across her journey through Black mental health, pausing to note a popular song about suicide before stopping on the notion of fitting into community:

Mykala Sinclair. Credit: Georgia Tech

  • “The arts provide an opportunity for self reflection, reflection of your community, and a reflection of your environment. When I create, I have to consider all the factors of my environment. Right now, the series I’m working on is centered around Black mental health. So I’m doing a lot of research around mental health and the Black community, and getting the pulse on it. So now I see it is larger than me. Even though I identify within it, it’s larger than me. So let me investigate, ‘how do I fit within it.’ It’s important to have that self reflection to see how you fit into a community, to really assess what community you belong to, and what role do you play in it, to bring the individual portion back into it….
  • “There was a certain song that talked about Black mental health. People were literally dancing to it in the clubs. I was like, that’s a little weird. Trigger warning for the audience: They were talking about taking their own lives. And people were still jamming to it. That’s uncomfortable.”

Sinclair paused to share a thought she had entertained after reflecting on comments about her artworks, as voiced by her mother, a university-trained artist:

  • “If I don’t conform, if I don’t speak in the language of many others, then I won’t belong. And so it’s this fear of not belonging in community, almost, which is interesting. I don’t know if anyone has commentary there.”

Jones instantly stepped forward:

  • “Belonging can be a very scary thing. In your African American community, if you do certain art, that the people think, ‘Eh, that’s not Black,’ you run the risk of being excommunicated. So it cuts in every possible direction.”

Jones presented the final major thought before the discussion was opened to questions. Following additional comments by Sinclair, who had pondered what boundaries, what level of respect for boundaries set by others, will apply in social settings at the time the pandemic has become an accepted part of life, Jones observed:

Bill T. Jones. Credit: Philip Habib via Georgia Tech

  • “Right now, I say a lot of the work I have been making is asking the question, ‘Is there a we? Is there truly a we?’ This is what this respect is you’ve been talking about. ‘Why should I respect you if I’m rich enough, if I got a big enough gun, and my Hummer is off the road? Why should I care?’ This is the rub, isn’t it?
  • “Martin Luther King says, ‘We shall overcome.’ Our founding documents say, ‘We the People.’ It’s so glib. Is there really a we? For me, as an artist right now, it is asking the question, no, I am in pursuit of the we, and it is a question of faith: ‘Do I really believe there is a we?’ And if I had a couple billion dollars in my checking account right now, would I care? Would I really care? Why? I would have to adjust my halo, my virtue. What about that we? Is there a we?

 

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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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