Politics and Mental Health: Providing Care During Times of Social and Political Unrest
The political and social climate of recent years has brought new challenges to mental health professionals. More people are experiencing mental illness, stress, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms. They struggle to cope with the influx of information in the news, the political divide in their own relationships, and worry for the future. Therapists must adjust to help these clients while also meeting their own mental health needs.
During this time of upheaval and unrest, mental health workers are more important than ever. The work you do is always essential for complete wellness, but when the world seems to be falling apart, more people may turn to you for help.
As a mental health professional, you need to understand the impact of political and social unrest on stress and mental illness, adapt your care, and also care for your own needs.
From the pandemic to social justice and political divides, almost everyone is struggling.
The Impact of Political and Social Unrest on Mental Health
Mental health professionals may see more patients than usual during this difficult time. The unrest that people see on the news, on social media, and even in the streets of their own communities can trigger underlying mental illness or worsen existing symptoms.
For the healthcare worker, it is important to understand this relationship. A recent study confirmed what most therapists already know: politics can be harmful to health. The statistics, collected from more than 800 Americans, is sobering:
- Nearly 40 percent of people say that politics has caused them stress.
- More than a quarter felt depressed when their candidate lost an election.
- Nearly 20 percent have lost sleep over politics.
- Fatigue is also attributed to politics, with 20 percent reporting feeling tired because of political news.
- Relationships suffer too, with 29 percent of people reporting losing their temper over politics and 26 percent feeling hateful toward those with opposing political views.
- More than 20 percent of respondents say political disagreements have damaged friendships.
What Underlies This Mental Health Impact?
The facts are clear and show that current events can trigger negative emotions and worsen mental health. But why? Everyone is different and responds to these events in different ways and at their own pace. Therapists must try to understand each patient’s experience, how the events impact them, and how they process them. There are several reasons that upheaval harms mental health:
- The Cumulative Effect. Our degree of resiliency in the face of current events is directly proportional to the number of stressors we are managing.
- Fear. The pandemic has triggered a lot of fear for the future, fear of the unknown, and specific fears for one’s own health and that of vulnerable loved ones.
- Economic anxiety. Job loss, or fear of job loss, and the unknown impact of the pandemic and political unrest may have on the future of our economy, can take a toll.
- Uncertainty. Fear of the unknown is powerful. The beginning of the pandemic caused more fear and distress because no one understood how bad the disease could get, how far it would spread, or what the repercussions would be. The political state of unrest triggers this same sense. We don’t know where exactly it will lead or how bad it will get.
- Stress. The constant access to news, opinions on social media, speculation about the future, and personal conflicts over politics cause a great deal of stress. The American Psychological Association surveyed Americans and found that 77 percent cite worry over the future of the country as a significant source of stress. The contentious political climate causes stress in 68 percent of people.
- Discord. The current political climate in the U.S. is one of extreme division. The divide goes right through families, friendships, and intimate relationships. It may lead to arguments, bad feelings, and even completely broken relationships.
All of these factors can trigger mental health symptoms in your patients. Those with more of a stake in current events may struggle even more: people of color, immigrants, frontline health workers.
How You Can Help Your Clients
You already have an advantage in helping clients during this difficult time because we are all experiencing it. Empathy is not a challenge when you too may feel anxiety and stress over current events.
- Diagnose. Whether it’s a new patient or someone you have worked with for a while, changes in symptoms and current events warrant an evaluation. Some people may experience the onset of depression for the first time, while others, like health care workers and first responders, may even have new trauma disorders.
- Motivate healthy coping. A study following the 2016 election found that 60 percent of adults were drinking, eating, and smoking more. Talk to your patients about healthy coping mechanisms versus destructive self-medicating. Ask them to be honest about their unhealthy habits and how they use them in response to emotions. Provide more productive tools.
- Discuss triggers. What most triggers your clients’ symptoms? For many, it’s talking politics with others, watching the news, or being on social media. Talk about how they can limit those activities as they begin to recognize how they impact their mental health.
- Remain neutral. Any talk of politics and social issues in the current climate can stoke strong emotions and responses. Even when you have a patient on the other side of the political divide, keep your emotions in check and remain neutral for the session. From an ethical perspective, you may be able to challenge problematic views by exploring their personal experiences.
- Provide resources. Therapists help their clients to the extent they can. If you have reached your limit with a particular client, or simply feel they could benefit from other services, provide those resources. This could be a support group, a residential treatment program, or even a different mental health professional.
You may get to the point with a client where you feel you cannot maintain a professional relationship. The ethical thing to do is to recommend a new therapist for them. You can only do so much, especially during this difficult time when a patient’s experiences, beliefs, and ideas may trigger your own mental health issues.
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Getting Care is Not Running Away
Impress on your patient that taking time out of their lives for treatment is not the same as running away from the problem. People who care deeply about social and political issues feel compelled to act. They want to be involved, to do something that effects change. Taking a mental health break from it all may feel selfish or like they’re turning your back on what they stand for and believe in.
As a care provider, you must help your clients see that their wellness matters. They can remain passionate about social justice or a political cause, but they can’t do anything if they are not healthy and whole.
Getting professional treatment, even if it means taking a month or two away from current events, will help them aid their cause. They will be more resilient, better able to cope in tough situations, and better able to contribute.
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
Everyone is impacted by the ongoing political, social, and public health issues. Because you are a mental health professional does not exempt you. As an empathetic professional, you may struggle even more than the average person. When you see people suffering, you want to help. And then there is the issue of seeing more troubled patients than usual. It can all be wearing on your own mental health.
Don’t neglect your care. See a therapist you trust. Take time off work or cut back on sessions. Reevaluate your coping mechanisms and lifestyle habits. Do what it takes to stay well, for yourself and for your patients who need you now more than ever.
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