With a cold wind blowing and students rushing by, Judith Valente paused on the Illinois State University campus before heading to work, sat down, observed the people around her and began writing in her journal.

She wrote two three-line reflections — one about an animal she saw earlier and the other about the students walking by. The reflections took a few minutes to write. Then, feeling refreshed and connected, she went to work.

“I pause at least once during the day to tune in intimately to the world around me,” Valente said. In those minutes on Oct. 21, Valente demonstrated something she believes is essential if our society is to thrive:

“The concept of pausing and taking moments for silence is countercultural,” said Valente, a poet, author and journalist who lives in Normal. “And I think that’s related to the loss of a sense of community in this country.”

That loss, she said, contributed to the federal government’s partial shutdown and ongoing political posturing regarding the possibility of another shutdown and the Affordable Care Act, she said. Regardless of one’s beliefs, many people can agree that — on both matters — the focus of most political leaders has been political marksmanship rather than resolving problems, she said. “The government shutdown is symptomatic of the lack of community in this country,” she said. “They were not listening to each other. They were talking at each other.”

In Illinois, dysfunction among the governor’s office and the General Assembly has meant no solution to the state pension crisis.

All this is taking a toll on the mental health of Central Illinoisans. Two licensed clinical professional counselors — Julie Bozarth with Collaborative Solutions Institute, Bloomington, and Chris Cashen with OSF Behavioral Health, Normal — have observed an increase in anxiety among some patients and throughout society.

Bozarth calls it chronic, low-grade stress. Cashen calls it background anxiety. From Aug. 1 through Oct. 21, the 24/7 crisis hotline for Bloomington-based PATH (Providing Access To Help) handled 2,224 mental health calls, including from people contemplating suicide, people who need prescription assistance for psychotropic medicines and people who need counseling referrals, Executive Director Karen Zangerle said. That’s almost 600 more than were received during that period a year ago.

“Politics has always been poisonous,” Cashen said. “But the 24-hour news cycle means we’re more acutely aware of it.”

The constant media coverage and 24/7 emails, Facebook messages, texting and Twitter lend themselves to leaders reacting rather than deliberately considering solutions. “There is almost no chance for the politicians to get together and, when they do, the extremists at either end attack them,” Cashen said. “So they sometimes act poorly to defend themselves to their respective bases. And the American people see that.” “We’re constantly being bombarded by trivial crap and, meanwhile, no one is talking about the real problems,” Bozarth said.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, when some leaders speak, “People read it and they think ‘That can’t work. That doesn’t add up,’” Cashen said. At some businesses, a top-down management style means things aren’t much better. Valente said some Americans’ lack of faith in business leaders began in 2008 with the realization that corporate greed contributed to the economic crisis. “People have fear over losing their jobs, even if their employer is secure,” Cashen said. “Most middle-class people have had no increase in pay in a long time, while workloads are increasing,” Bozarth said. Meanwhile, top executives’ pay is increasing. “A lot of people don’t feel the (economic) recovery,” Cashen said. Then there is the Bloomington-Normal-specific concern: “Will State Farm move me? That’s a local source of anxiety,” he said.

There always have been economic and political cycles, but generally there was the perception in this country that ultimately things would get better. “Now there seems to be a lack of belief that things are going to be OK,” Cashen said. “There is an unease that is different.

“There is less trust in government and in leaders. When people can’t look up to their leaders, it’s deflating. It contributes to that sense of anxiety. People have the sense that those who are higher up on the food chain have different lives, concerns. There is a feeling that they are truly disconnected from us,” Cashen said.

When people feel less connected, they are more likely to feel overtaken by events, he said. Of course, the rest of us are to blame too, allowing technology and negativity to rule our lives. “There is a lack of personal interaction,” Cashen said. “People are losing their social skills. We’re texting, not talking, and texting is totally inadequate for anything emotional. So we’re more disconnected.”

“Everybody is connected to everybody and no one is connected to anybody,” Valente said. “We text rather than talk face to face. We friend people on Facebook we don’t even know. That, to me, is not true community.”

High anxiety — and chronic, low-level anxiety — can lead to high blood pressure, accidents, desensitization to the world’s problems, hopelessness and depression, the counselors said. “People may think ‘Why should I take care of myself if this is the way things are?’ Cashen observed. “When we numb ourselves to pain, we numb ourselves to joy,” Bozarth said. “We lose sight of the beauty. How can that not impact our families and our own quality of life?” But people can change things by taking charge of their lives. “The benefit is you’re going to see healthier relationships, healthier families and healthier communities,” Bozarth said.

NOVEMBER 01, 2013 5:00 AM • BY PAUL SWIECH