What is this election doing to America’s psyche?
We have a bully in our midst, therapists and school counselors say, traumatizing the most vulnerable of us. That bully is the presidential campaign, including the so-called “Trump Effect.”
Throughout his campaign, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a wall between the United States and Mexico, a ban against Muslims entering the country (since revised), and other “tough talk” that therapists say is creating mental distress among many Americans. Most recently, a videotape recorded by Access Hollywood showed Trump discussing women in lewd terms, which he later characterized as “locker room talk.”
“I had two female clients in tears after the conventions in August,” Minneapolis marriage and family counselor Kirsten Lind Seal said. “It really, really troubled them. And now with this new round of tapes, the deep disparaging of women and the casual dismissing of it as locker room talk, it’s worse.”
And as sexual accusations against Trump continue to emerge in the media, therapists say the pain intensifies.
“What I’m seeing with my clients, particularly with women who experienced sexual abuse when younger, is that they are being re-wounded, re-traumatized,” said Atlanta licensed professional counselor Susan Blank. “They can’t escape it. It’s all around them, written large on the national stage.”
Those feelings of emotional dismay are echoed in a survey of American adults, said University of Minnesota psychologist William J. Doherty, who commissioned the nationally representative survey of 1,000 people on behalf of Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism. It’s a group of more than 3,000 therapists worried about the effect of “Trumpism” — which they define as an ideology, not a person — on the American psyche. The survey was taken in September, before the Access Hollywood video surfaced.
“We found surprisingly high levels of emotional distress related to the campaign,” Doherty said. “Sixty percent of American adults report emotional distress, and 90% said their distress was much greater than in previous presidential campaigns. We also found two-thirds more distress related to the Trump campaign than the Clinton campaign, although there is some distress related to Hillary Clinton.”
In a survey taken in April, schoolteachers and counselors across the country described what they are hearing from their students, especially those of color or members of other minority groups. They call it the “Trump Effect.”
“One of my students who is Muslim is worried that he will have to wear a microchip identifying him as Muslim,” writes one teacher anonymously surveyed by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I have had Muslim students called terrorists,” another said.
Another told this story: “One of my students gestured at the other brown students in the room and said, ‘If Donald Trump become president, you’re OUTTA HERE!’ And me. Because I’m Mexican.”
The ‘Trump Effect’ on children
“I’m very worried about the Trump Effect,” Teaching Tolerance director Maureen Costello said. “I’m concerned children are coming to school every day terrified, anxious, disappointed, fearful. Feeling unwanted.
“They aren’t recognizing this is just one guy and that history shows periods of discrimination will pass. They only see there are a lot of people who don’t like them and don’t want them here.”
Though the unscientific survey of 2,000 teachers was conducted months ago, Costello said she monitors teacher concerns via webinars, Facebook and daily emails and finds the worrisome trend continuing, in both schools and local communities.
“Children are getting into heated debates, which are sending them to counselors and principals’ offices,” Costello said. “They are repeating things they hear outside.
“We know about a 10-year-old who had an adult come up to them and say, ‘after Trump wins, you’ll be gone,’ ” she added. “It’s a form of trauma in a way, and it can have very long-lasting effects. I’m very worried about that.”
Adult women and minorities hit hardest
It’s not just Trump. The survey by Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism showed Clinton’s campaign is also causing emotional stress, though less than her opponent. Only 16% of those surveyed were distressed by Clinton’s bid for the presidency, compared with 27% who found Trump disturbing.
Trump produced more stress, especially among women, blacks, Hispanics and millennial adults, than Clinton did, with most feeling anxious, depressed and helpless.
Doherty was surprised by the results among millennials. “My guess is that millennials are more accepting of differences, more open to gay rights, gay marriages, and more multicultural. And they may be particularly troubled by Trumpism and what it stands for.”
Counselors Blank and Seal said the survey results echo what they are seeing in therapy sessions with clients.
“What I’m seeing in my practice is overwhelmingly directed toward the fear that Donald Trump is unleashing in our country,” Blank said. She told the story of one client, a gay man in his 50s who was married five years ago in Vermont and again recently in Georgia when the laws changed.
“Now, he describes his feelings as like the movie ‘Jaws,’ ” Blank said. ” ‘Just as I felt it was safe to go back into the water, Trump arises,’ he told me. He tells me he fears his hard-won human rights can be overturned by this man and the hate he is preaching.”
“What can we do to help our clients?” Seal asked. “I tell them to budget their media time, particularly social media. Go on a media diet of some kind, talk to friends and then take action. Go door-knocking for your candidate.”
Blank agrees. “First, give them a platform to discuss their fears and anxieties and reduce alienation from friends and families. Second, tap into that anger and outrage and give them a direction, to empower them and give them something to do.”
Costello says teachers are using similar techniques to help students cope.
“We encourage kids to be more critical consumers of media, including social media, and to make good decisions,” Costello said. “For the younger kids, teachers are not looking at the candidates in the classroom, focusing instead on the process of voting, reasons for voting.”
But in middle and high school, teachers can’t do that, said Costello. The students are too exposed.
“So instead, teachers are focusing on the rhetoric and analyzing it,” she said. “On the positive side, the kids are engaged, talking about what is on the news.
“The downside is that they have seen the ‘Access Hollywood’ video.”