A little more than eight years ago, I made my debut as a staff writer for Impulse, the monthly electronic newsletter of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies. The piece was titled “Psychological Post-Mortem of the Midterm Elections.” It viewed the topsy-turvy political environment from President Obama’s election to his midterm “shellacking” just two years later through a psychological prism.
Interweaving attachment theory, neuroscience, and Melanie Klein’s notion of development, I noted that it was as if President Obama were trying to govern a paranoid-schizoid nation from a depressive position (non-therapists will have some idea what I mean by this by clicking on the link to the earlier piece).
Based on Nancy McWilliam’s commentary on the pitfalls befalling therapists who operate from their own depressive personality styles, I also drew parallels between how President Obama related to congressional Republicans and well-meaning therapists who attempt to work too flexibly with hostile clients.
My debut caused a minor furor within NCSPP, some of whose members wanted me and the editor to resign. Instead, the powers that be quickly removed my 400+ words from the site and issued an apology. Back then, electoral politics was largely viewed as having no place in psychotherapy. Fast forward to today. Is there a psychotherapeutic organization or office that hasn’t been infused with politics?
The enormous uptick in anxiety and depression therapists encounter has been dubbed “Post-Election Stress Disorder.” Clients routinely talk about re-triggered personal traumas such as sexual assault, family ruptures brought on by political disagreements, or how they can no longer bear their like-minded loved ones’ incessant obsession with Trump. A client who had never breathed a word about politics sent me a photo of a bumper sticker that said, “Elect a Clown, Expect a Circus.”
Outside of our consulting rooms, heated debates rage among mental health practitioners over the ethics of opining about Donald Trump’s mental health, and whether a duty to warn trumps formerly sacrosanct neutrality. The American Psychoanalytic Association renounced the “Goldwater Rule” (the American Psychiatric Association still upholds it). The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President was a New York Times bestseller. When William Doherty, professor, therapist, and founder of Citizen Therapists for Democracy, published an online manifesto declaring Trump a unique threat to America’s mental health, more than 3,800 therapists signed it. Classes and seminars about practicing in the current political climate and combining activism with psychotherapy have proliferated.
As is often said in the new era, “This is not normal.” The same could be said for the changes in the field of psychotherapy in the years since I wrote my piece. We have fruitfully begun to question the whole concept of “normal,” societally and professionally. There are dangers and opportunities. But one thing is clear: The personal is not only political–it is also psychological.