Mental Health Professionals Warn Trump Is Making America Anxious Again
Therapists and social workers are concerned about rising anxiety levels and the destructive Trump effect
When I finally went to sleep on on election night in 2016, I was convinced, as was the internet, that Hillary Clinton had it in the bag and was going to become our first female President. I remember coming down the stairs and seeing the headline Donald Trump 45th POTUS and having my entire being slump and sit down right there on the stairs. I was grief-stricken and furious all at the same time.
It was like the five stages of grief from Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s “On Death and Dying.” All at once, I was right back to the first stage: Denial. After a few minutes of turmoil in my head, I became anxious and full of anguish as I began to come to terms with the fact that this was not a nightmare but a harsh reality. It would come in waves of grief over the next few weeks and months, denial and disbelief followed by anxiety and profound stress as I worried about my future, my family, and the people that I cared for.
It’s now a year later, and if anything, things are worse for many Americans.
Fear and uncertainty are primary drivers of excess stress. When we perceive that we have little or no control, our stress system can go into overdrive. For some groups, anxiety has already begun to skyrocket in the Trump Era. Will my family be able to get the health care we need if we lose our insurance? Will our family’s breadwinner be deported, even without a criminal record? Will a social safety net that we depend on for the basics of food and shelter be shredded??—?Trump’s Era of Anxiety Is Harming the Nation’s Health, Psychology Today
I spoke with mental health professionals who were able to give examples of how the anxiety and anguish now permeate their patient’s lives. Many preferred to be interviewed anonymously to protect not just their identity, but the privacy of their clients. Each of the clinical practitioners I interviewed told a similar story of rising anxiety levels, specifically for women and minorities, that will have long-lasting repercussions on our societal and personal health.
Trump Triggers Both Women And Minorities
The first woman interviewed is a therapist in Sausalito, California who has been in practice for over 30 years. Her client population includes a split of 50% men and women between 20 and 80 years of age. Her field of practice is individual and couples therapy and she holds 2 degrees: a Ph.D., and an RNCS (Registered Nurse Certified Specialist). She says since Trump was elected, 80 percent of her clientele has expressed anxiety and depression.
“My clients are high functioning people who had stable moods managed through various tools. The 80% increase occurred when Trump was elected. Of that 80% probably 50% are focusing on their lives and using some form of denial. The rest continue to remain involved with what is going on and experience significant anxiety and depression.”
Like many, the morning after the election when people discovered Trump was POTUS, her clients expressed “feeling punched in the stomach.” For the women clientele, if there was any sort of violation sexually in their past, they were terrified. This would become a common thread across the practitioners I interviewed.
Trump’s election resurfaced the impotence and vulnerability of when they were violated, and made many women concerned regarding past gains made to protect victims. The thought that Trump, a sexual predator, had power made them feel anxious and generally unsafe.
In her practice, anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white male felt unsafe and had concerns for his or her families’ safety. Both men and women alike were threatened by the hatred and polarization which now felt like the new normal.
In order to help her clients overcome some of this fear and anxiety, she said she had to take several different approaches. In her practice, she discusses how having a man who many feel is mentally unstable, doesn’t speak the truth, and doesn’t represent American values cannot be ignored. There is a nagging feeling we are not safe regardless of what we do.
“Included in the stress tools, I have added spending time with like-minded people, taking action to fight for what is important, become involved. Anxiety and depression flourish when we live in our head. Action, making a difference, good conversations with people who understand and have similar concerns helps. Medication is an option if necessary.”
Some of her clients also find it helpful to stay active and to feel as if they are making a difference in protecting the rights of others. And while they may still struggle with anxiety, they have also experienced the positive effects of connecting with other like-minded people and taking on new challenges and endeavors as activists.
“People are still looking for ways to cope with these difficult, scary times. My clients are living their lives with awareness, and some of them additionally are fighting for the values they believe are vulnerable. We are in uncharted waters with no land in sight.”
Activism Can Combat Anxiety
The other practitioner I spoke with is a licensed clinical social worker also in CA. She works with adults, couples, and teens and has been in practice for over 20 years. After Trump’s election, she said she saw a huge increase in anxiety specifically among teens, young parents, and individuals living in the country on work visas.
The anxiety was triggered specifically by helplessness and uncertainty surrounding job security and travel security. For her younger clients, there was a combination of despair and anxiety initially, which then led to activism. She tries to help her clients channel those helpless feelings into action but also encourages them to get basic exercise, adequate sleep, and use meditation.
Fascinating new poll: Women have made 86% of the activists anti-Trump calls to Congress. The resistance is female. https://t.co/Z73PBJ8JYg
Also worth adding that it's not just women. It's _middle-aged_ women. Fully half are 46-65:
For most, getting involved has been hugely therapeutic. She says they are volunteering for local campaigns, or even running for office at the city council level. They are writing postcards, letters, emails, and making as many as five phone calls a day to Senators and representatives. She says that the activism has helped to improve mood but they are nowhere near where they were before the election, which in her field is referred to as baseline.
“By far the most difficult dark part of the current administration is living in fear of the unknown.”
Worries About Healthcare Compound The Problem
Gary is a therapist at an outpatient clinic in Philadelphia and has worked as a social worker for more than 30 years. Gary also runs Surviving Today LLC, which provides counseling services online and has a very diverse population of patients. His patients are as young as 8 years old all the way up to an 84 year old.
After the election, the anxiety and anguish from his clients peaked. Gary specified that prior to Trump being elected, politics rarely came up. Now, discussions of political issues have increased 60–70% since Trump took office. For his patients, the anxiety centers around an uncertain future under Trump. They also express anxiety about loss of services and funding both for healthcare and mental healthcare.
Another surprising source of stress for his patients is Trump’s instability and the impulsivity of his behavior, including inappropriate remarks and lack of diplomacy. Many worry for their safety and their families with such a volatile POTUS who might be failing at running the country or bring us to the brink of war.
Gary said to help his clients cope, he works on mindfulness techniques and cognitive therapy, but he also mentioned that activism contributes a great deal to encourage feelings of empowerment. The hardest part for Gary’s clientele since this administration took office is the nuclear button and the fact that such an unhinged POTUS has the codes.
At-Risk Communities Suffer The Most Under An Uncertain Future
Amanda lives in Tennessee and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Independent Studies with a concentration in Business and Behavioral Therapy Studies and has worked with at-risk kids and adults throughout her career. Her clientele includes primarily foster kids, at-risk youth, and adopted children.
In the last year, the disruption of government and the uncertainty in the country has caused rising fear and anxiety for at-risk populations. Never knowing when and if a certain rule will change or if their friends will get deported keeps anxiety high and allows depression to seep into their everyday lives that are already filled with uncertainty. Without knowing their future, at risk and foster kids begin to lose hope and can’t develop a plan to escape the hard life they currently have.
This also holds true for the adults Amanda works with. They are making decisions about kid’s college funds, retirement, or everyday issues, such as medical care. But when they can’t count on these items being set in stone for long periods of time, the fear of the future becomes a dark cloud, and their anxiety increases. This stress spreads to the children, other family members, spouses, and even co-workers. All of these concerns are magnified tenfold for undocumented families.
Therapists say in general, unpredictability is not good for children, and the anxiety of adults can affect children directly. Amanda tells parents to help their children during this tough presidency by teaching them about voting, how to become involved in the community, and spending time with younger children they can be role models for.
As a regional adoption and foster manager, Amanda is concerned about the recent elimination of adoption fees on taxes in the GOP tax bill and how that may hurt foster children and place more stress on adoptive families or discourage those who might adopt children from taking on the task. Uncertainty about insurance and medical care also complicates decisions for foster and adoptive families. It makes it more difficult for high-risk children who have mental or medical disorders to find placement.
“Foster kids. This group really worries me. Many are on the edge of breaking down and any stress can set them back months and even years in their progress.”
Frightened children act out, and those who have experienced previous abuse are especially susceptible to high levels of anxiety. This can drive a cycle of behavioral issues among wards of the state, particularly among children and teenagers of color.
Amanda says her most anxious population is the elderly. They don’t know how taxes will affect their retirement and investments or if changes in the ACA will put home care out of reach. How will they pay for medications and major medical procedures? If their benefits are decreased, where will the extra money come from? Anxiety among the elderly is so elevated, Amanda is concerned it’s causing increased health issues from the worry and stress.
When asked to quantify what she’s seeing among the at-risk population she works with, Amanda said she’d estimate the stress levels have increased by as much as 80%–90%.
She encourages children to get involved, finding groups they can join and become active in school government. She also encourages them to keep a journal and make goals for each day, placing hope in the future, however uncertain. Amanda also encourages all ages to find a spiritual time to meditate or relax at least several times a week. She advises the elderly to make a will, find an accountant, maybe downsize and to start moving money to safe investments with professional help.
Amanda says no matter what age a person is, to decrease anxiety, it’s important to find a way to have some control over our lives. Finding something that makes a person happy, in control, and confident, are important first steps to controlling anxiety and getting through a tough spot in life. While all these things have helped avert total breakdowns in most cases, Amanda said that the stress, anxiety, and anguish of this current administration presents worsening symptoms with each passing day Trump is in office.
In August of 2017, The American Psychology Association did its yearly survey, Stress in America: The State Of Our Nation. 59% of the 3,400 respondents said they believed the country was at the lowest point in history that they could personally remember. This included people who had lived through World War II, the Vietnam War and September 11th. Anxiety was felt most among Democrats but was fairly pervasive in Republicans and Independents as well.
The advice from the mental health community is clear. Keep talking, get support, and stay involved. Finding like-minded individuals is also crucial because social support systems make a huge difference in coping with life’s stressors.
No matter how long a Trump presidency continues, the rising tide of anxiety among Americans shows no signs of abating. We’ll need to ensure that the health of our nation and our loved ones continues to be a priority to ensure a safer, happier, and more prosperous America for all. Undoing the damage of this administration may take decades, but if a Trump Presidency has taught us anything, it’s that we’re stronger together.