With the release of the Mueller Report, emotions about politics are flaring. In the Trump era, that’s not new. What may be new about the past few years is the extent to which political topics are seeping into, and sometimes even dominating, discussions between therapists and their clients.
In the past, therapists were often trained to keep their political opinions (and most other personal information) to themselves. In striking contrast to decades of precedent, therapists are now routinely making their political opinions known to their clients. In a 2018 survey of 604 psychotherapy clients from 50 states, only 32% said their therapist did not disclose their political beliefs. Thirty percent said their therapists divulged their views, and the other 38% said their therapists made their beliefs known implicitly.
Donald Trump is in the therapy room and he is blowing it up. Counselors, clinicians, and life coaches find that their clients are showing up with exacerbated experiences of “paranoia, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, somatic complaints, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and nightmares.” The therapists aren’t exempt, either; some say they just can’t stop thinking about Trump.
With increasing urgency, mental health professionals have been reaching out to each other to try to understand what is happening and how best to deal with it. Sessions of professional meetings have been devoted to the topic. Last year (2018), an entire issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology took on the matter. Columbia University Professor Barry A. Farber, who wrote the book on self-disclosure in psychotherapy, edited the collection of 10 articles, “‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’: Politics and psychotherapy, 2018.” One of the articles describes the findings from the survey of therapy clients, eight more describe case studies, and the other is Farber’s introduction.
Results of the survey of therapy clients
According to the survey of psychotherapy clients, a striking majority of both Clinton supporters (70%) and Trump supporters (66%) said that they discussed politics with their therapist. That, though, was where the similarities ended.
Compared to how they were feeling before the election, Clinton supporters said that they were now feeling more despair, fear, anger, disgust, and other negative emotions. They were also experiencing less joy and hope and other positive emotions. For the Trump supporters, in contrast, there were no changes at all. They said that they were not currently experiencing any more relief from negative feelings or enjoyment of positive ones than they were before Trump was elected.
The survey asked clients to indicate, for 14 political topics (such as immigration, taxes, and distrust of the media), whether they were discussing them any more or less often now, compared to before the election. Clinton supporters said they were discussing 13 of them more often now than they were before. For Trump supporters, there was not a single topic they were discussing any more or less often in the therapy room.
Finally, asked whether they wanted to discuss politics in their therapy sessions more often than they did, it was the Trump supporters who more often said yes (59%, compared to 44% of Clinton supporters).
The stress started even before the 2016 election
Long before Trump was elected president, the mere thought that he could ascend to that position was making Americans nervous. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll from spring of 2016, 69 percent said that they were anxious about the possibility. Then it got worse. In their annual surveys on “Stress in America,” the American Psychological Association found that symptoms of stress, such as anxiety, anger, and lying awake at night, increased between 2016 and 2017. In the 2017 survey, which included participants old enough to have lived through World War II, more than half said they considered the current moment the lowest point in our nation’s history.
The “Stress in America” surveys are based on representative national samples, suggesting that Trump anxiety is widespread. The APA survey, though, is from a year ago, and the survey of psychotherapy clients is not from this year, either. At a time when political events seem to be transpiring at lightning speed, a year or so can seem like a very long time. I’m sure, though, that plenty of research is ongoing and we will all be hearing about the findings.
[Obviously, this is a departure from my usual single-at-heart topics. You can always find writings on single life, organized by topic, on this page. Many of the articles are from this blog.]