In the Therapist’s Office, Trump Becomes a Hot Topic

Mental-health professionals see signs of stress from following news and politics.

Demonstrators at Los Angeles International Airport protest President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration on Jan. 29.

Photographer: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg

Anxiously checking the news? Obsessing over the president's latest tweet? Stressed about what's coming next?

Take a number. Experts in mental health are seeing high stress over the daily drumbeat of news—not surprisingly, especially among opponents of Donald Trump and people who feel targeted by the new administration. While many reported feeling anxious during the campaign season—more than half of Americans, on both sides of the aisle, were stressed—the feelings haven't subsided in the early days of the new administration, as some thought they might.

Millions of Trump supporters are, of course, jubilant. For others, the cascade of headlines can bring on "hypervigilance," the sense that "you have to stay on edge all the time, waiting for the next thing to drop," said Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association. 

"Many people were expecting and hoping for a different outcome," said Anthony Rostain, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. "But even if it didn't go their way," he said, they wanted it "to be settled and go back to normal." Therapists say the high anxiety levels remain.

About 60 percent of people who responded to a survey conducted by TalkSpace, an online-therapy company, reported dealing with some form of post-election stress as of Inauguration Day. A quarter of those in the TalkSpace survey reported feeling "very stressed," according to the poll of 1,000 people from around the country, conducted in partnership with HealthMap researchers at Boston Children's Hospital. 1 HealthMap is a team of software developers, epidemiologists, and other scientists. The exact number of respondents was 1,026 users of SurveyMonkey.

Some populations are particularly stressed. "To be a Mexican-American right now, how can you not feel degraded?" said Keith Humphreys, referring to President Trump's proposal for the southern border wall with Mexico. Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration.

"We're feeling very scared, emotionally raw, very vulnerable," said Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and director of the Muslim Mental Health Conference. "In everyone's minds, you are consciously and unconsciously looking for safe places right now," she said, noting that many Muslims feel the world at large is now unwelcoming. And she said many are feeling pressure from two directions at once: "The moderate Muslim is being targeted from extreme fundamentalists on one side and then being held responsible for the actions of those few." 

People are also experiencing "vicarious trauma," girding themselves to potentially become the next target, said Tamara Brown, a professor and dean at Prairie View A&M University's College of Juvenile Justice and Psychology. "An African-American man said to me, 'If President Trump can do this for the Muslims, what does that mean for me in an executive order tomorrow?' "

The divisions are rupturing families as people realize that values they thought were shared are not. "People are looking at loved ones with different eyes," Brown said.

Tara Well, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, is seeing "emotional contagion" that can be spread by social media. "An emotion catches, like fear or anger," Well said. This is amplified on social media, she said, noting a 2013 study that found that "emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions." 

Even some Trump supporters worry about how policy changes could affect them. For them, concerns about health care are front and center.

With talk of privatizing Medicare, a policy advocated by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Health and Human Services nominee Representative Tom Price (R-Ga.), resurfacing, "a lot of patients and geriatric individuals ask, 'What's going to happen to our health care?' " said J.R. Green, chief executive officer at Senior Life Solutions, which provides hospital-based geriatric outpatient behavioral health care in rural communities through 41 programs in 15 states. Many depend on Medicare and are worried—with reason, he said—that privatization could mean a significant reduction in the kind of care that's available. The president has said he opposes privatizing Medicare.

In fact, while 71 percent of TalkSpace survey respondents who supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said they were living with high stress levels, one in five Donald Trump supporters reported stress, too. All this unease or fear, evident in a raft of nationwide protests, is seeping into people's therapy sessions as well.

"It's across the board," TalkSpace co-founder and Chief  Executive Officer Oren Frank said. "It's definitely topic No. 1, because of the uncertainty and unpredictability." 

Mental health experts say stressed Americans should take the long view. "Humans are resilient," Penn's Rostain said. "We've solved problems before, and we'll solve this one."

(Corrects the characterization of the percentage of Americans dealing with post-election stress to respondents to the survey by TalkSpace and Well's description of emotional contagion.)
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