The world finds itself with a public health emergency brought on by a mysterious and stealthy virus called COVID-19, or the coronavirus. The unprecedented disruptions this pandemic have brought about are something out of a science fiction movie but they are all too real. One question to think about is this: Will this massive influence on all of us bring out the worst in us or the best?

Neither the government nor the public health systems and frontline health care workers valiantly stepping up to address the emergency will be able to predict the answer. I think that the determining factor will be found in something that nowadays is overlooked fundamental to American democracy that’s closely linked, believe it or not, to mental health.

To understand what I mean, know that French aristocrat and scholar Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1831 that the success of America’s experiment in a new way of government, something the world had never seen before, rested upon important ideals. One of them was whether or not people believed in the notion of the ‘common good,’ that we’re all in this together. Without that, he said, we would not have a society – we’d only be a collection of isolated individuals ripe for any despot to prey upon.

It seems that the way we cope with COVID-19 puts the question to us in a dramatic way: Will people do just what they themselves need to do during this trying time to stay healthy; or will they attend to the needs of others?

Already, we can easily find examples of the first reaction. While we have heard about price gouging for things like hand sanitizer and panic buying of things like toilet paper, there’s another ugly side of people’s reaction to COVID-19 less noticed but, in my opinion, equally as threatening as the nasty virus that can make us sick. It’s called stigma.

People like me who have connections to the field of mental health and recovery know a lot about stigma. It happens out of fear; it shows itself as discrimination, prejudice and avoidance of certain people deemed to be outcasts or outsiders. It can fall upon people of a certain race, nationality, economic background or religious belief. People who face a health challenge can face stigma too. It looks like avoidance and rejection, covert denials of basic rights, and even physical violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that stigmatization is especially common in disease outbreaks. I suggest that we guard against that too.

Sometimes, this social shunning even falls upon health care workers and first responders who put themselves at risk each day. Neighbors and friends can keep them at bay but now is the time they need our emotional support too.

As we follow recommendations for social distancing, let’s not use these guidelines as an excuse for emotional distancing. When someone we know gets quarantined or sick, we should remember to reach out by phone or email and see what we might do to help with things they might need. When stocking our own shelves, don’t forget about those who might not have the means to get food beyond tomorrow. Let’s remember that isolation can mean loneliness for some people which, as new research shows, is as dangerous to health as the consequence of nicotine.

So do you believe that ‘we are all in this together’? We’ll all soon find out.

Phil Wyzik, MA, is CEO of Monadnock Family Services in Keene.