Cases of swine flu, or H1N1, are climbing and spreading to more states. At least 141 people in the U.S. have been infected, and one Mexican boy visiting Texas has died. Many more cases will be diagnosed-likely many thousands-before the spread of the illness ebbs. Public health officials and journalists warn of a pandemic, an epidemic of infectious disease that sweeps across a large geographic area, such as a continent, or around the whole world.
The toll of this new flu may turn out to be disastrous, but there's no current evidence that a calamity is brewing. Thus far, every American who has contracted the illness has survived. Even if there turns out to be 250,000 cases this year, the number will still be dwarfed by the toll of diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, depression and alcoholism on our population.
What the 141 cases of H1N1 flu have already proven, however, is how vulnerable we are to panic. Americans are on edge, uncertain about the economy and uncertain about the direction our President is leading us. Ultimately, for all but those with the steadiest of nerves and most solid sense of self, we are a nation collectively experiencing a sense of impending doom-one of the hallmarks of panic disorder. H1N1 may or may not cause serious physical suffering for our population, but its emergence will cause serious psychological suffering for a nation already traumatized by deep doubts about whether the solutions to our collective problems reside in bailouts, embracing dictators and apologizing for our national shortcomings.
Some might say that connecting our reaction to H1N1 flu to the economic crisis and cultural crisis at hand is too great a leap, that we are as steady on our feet emotionally as a population as ever. I don't think so. I've been at my work 16 years, seeing adults and adolescents facing every imaginable twist and turn of fate. Never before I have seen as many individuals who feel disempowered, unable to mount any resistance (words intentionally chosen) to the stressors impacting them.
Our psychological resistance to trauma of any kind is down right now. That's one reason that Air Force One flying low near Ground Zero was such a grand faux pax_ It re-traumatized thousands of people who don't have emotional bandwidth to spare. It's even possible that our psychological stress could reduce our resistance to physical illnesses, including H1N1.
It's time for a real public health initiative, rolled out through private health care providers and, perhaps, community health educators, that targets two certain epidemics already sweeping the nation: anxiety and depression. They may not be spread by coughing and sneezing, but they have the capacity to paralyze us emotionally and cost our nation dearly.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at livingthetruth.com.