Therapists Nationwide Are Struggling to Talk to So Many Clients Worried About President Trump

The New York Times published a letter signed by 35 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. The letter suggests Trump’s “grave emotional instability… makes him incapable of serving safely as president.”
The New York Times published a letter signed by 35 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. The letter suggests Trump’s “grave emotional instability… makes him incapable of serving safely as president.”

In her 35 years as a therapist, Arlene Drake has never heard so many clients talking about the same issue. Week after week, they complain of panic attacks and insomnia because of President Trump. They’re too anxious to concentrate at work. One woman’s fear turned into intense, physical pain. 

“It’s just a nightmare,” said Drake, who practices in West L.A.

Drake was trained not to reveal her personal beliefs, but now will agree with clients if they say they don’t support Trump.

“If this were just another session, if this weren’t such a big thing, if this weren’t so evil, I wouldn’t,” she said. “But I have to stand for what I stand for and that does cross over into politics.”

Therapists nationwide say they’ve been overwhelmed by the strong feelings triggered by one of the most divisive figures in modern political history.

Some patients who support Trump say they feel isolated because they can’t share who they voted for in their workplace or home for fear of being harassed or called xenophobic or misogynistic. With few people to talk to freely, they turn to online forums and their therapists.

Opening up about voting for Trump has already stoked conflict with family and friends. One therapist mediated a case in which an adult son threatened to cut off his relationship with his parents because they voted for Trump.

Mental health professionals such as Drake have abandoned neutrality, while others are struggling to maintain it. Therapists on both sides of the political aisle are grappling with how to help patients affected by a national issue over which they have little control.

“This is so monumental because we are not in normal anymore,” said Randi Gottlieb, a therapist who heads the L.A. chapter of the California Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists. “It’s putting into flux and questioning how do we practice, what is the best way to support the people we care for. We’re beginning those conversations — we don’t really have good answers.”

Therapists say the last time so many people came to therapy wanting to talk about the same thing was after the Sept. 11 attacks. Trump has been a topic of discussion for months, even for people who see therapists for issues as seemingly unrelated as relationship troubles or eating disorders.

“I had a 10-year-old in my office who was talking about it,” said Paul Puri, a psychiatrist in Brentwood.

Over the summer, William Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a therapist in St. Paul, published a manifesto online declaring Trump a unique threat to America’s mental health. More than 3,800 therapists signed it.

Doherty wrote that Trump’s campaign was creating widespread alienation and fear among Americans. Trump was normalizing behavior that therapists fight to reverse, including “the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities,” he said, and “a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships.”

These issues haven’t gone away now that Trump is president, Doherty said. He formed a group last month called Citizen Therapists for Democracy to consider issues raised by Trump’s presidency. Therapists aren’t accustomed to advising patients on how to handle this kind of “public stress,” since psychotherapy has traditionally been limited to private lives and psychology, he said.

Among the unanswered questions for therapists: Can they validate clients’ feelings without wading too far into politics? What’s the best way to uphold and act on their personal values? How can they help people deal with something that’s so pervasive and unpredictable?

“It’s thrown therapists,” Doherty said. “We’re struggling with it because we’ve never dealt with it — and now we’re forced to.”

Mental health professionals have also debated whether to diagnose Trump himself. Though some have publicly done so, an ethical standard known as the Goldwater Rule prevents psychiatrists from diagnosing public figures without personally evaluating them.

In 1964, more than 1,000 psychiatrists said in a magazine survey that then-presidential GOP nominee Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president. It was an ethical misstep that might have eroded confidence in psychiatry, wrote Maria A. Oquendo, the head of the American Psychiatric Assn., in a statement last year reminding members to abide by the rule.

At the most recent board meeting of the L.A. County Psychological Assn. last month, therapists also discussed how to talk about Trump, especially with patients whose political beliefs might differ from their own. It turned into an hourlong discussion that Hillary Goldsher, a therapist on the board, described as “emotional, challenging, difficult.”

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SOURCE: Soumya Karlamangla 
The Los Angeles Times