I am fascinated by this article in The New York Times: Why Therapists Should Talk Politics. Think about it. If you’re depressed or disillusioned with the state of the world (or your country), shouldn’t your emotions be situated in a sociopolitical context?
Those who are unemployed or underemployed are frequently frightened, angry, weary… and if the situation persists for months and even years, won’t many turn their anger inward and lose confidence? Act out? Blame themselves? Accept the blame of others? Won’t they see their relationships deteriorate, as well as their dreams?
Shouldn’t a shrink be willing to converse on social and economic issues, or at least to allow the subject matter to peel away from the usual inward therapeutic themes, and out into the societal light where the causes may better belong?
This is the premise in the opinion piece that appears in a regular Times column called “Couch.” It’s a thoughtful read, an excellent read, and I wonder if there aren’t millions of us functioning through an increasingly debilitating disillusionment about our country’s values, worsened by the display of hatred fueled by this election year.
How could we not be livid, concerned, or depressed?
Richard Brouillette LCSW writes:
Typically, therapists avoid discussing social and political issues in sessions. If the patient raises them, the therapist will direct the conversation toward a discussion of symptoms, coping skills, the relevant issues in a patient’s childhood and family life. But I am growing more and more convinced that this is inadequate…
Why is this inadequate?
Because social issues that significantly alter our lives not only leave us dealing with the consequences, but the residual sense of powerlessness that leads us to shoulder the blame. And blame is unproductive.
When people can’t live up to the increasingly taxing demands of the economy, they often blame themselves and then struggle to live with the guilt…
This is no different at the social level. When an economic system or government is responsible for personal harm, those affected can feel profoundly helpless, and cover that helplessness with self-criticism. Today, if you can’t become what the market wants, it can feel as if you are flawed and have no recourse except to be depressed.
… these changes in the workplace have been slowly taking a psychological toll, though in a more diffuse, less detectable way than with any one traumatic event. To a degree that they may not be aware of, people feel less hope and more stress; their self-regard is damaged; they believe they are fated to take what they can get; they exist in a state approaching learned helplessness.
Right on point, don’t you think?
And it isn’t just the guilt that people struggle with. In addition to the tangible (material and logistical) impacts, certainly, extended unemployment, underemployment and extreme financial stress will shred confidence in skills and self-worth; undermine identity; lead to physical as well as mental health problems; and encourage us to isolate ourselves, though we know that isolation worsens depression.
I look back on my 30 years of working life and consider myself as well as the people I know. I see salary levels that have effectively remained stagnant for decades, administrative support that has been stripped away, the increasing daily pressure of “downsizing” or “reduction in force” or “rightsizing” that has ratcheted up stress levels, the ever-tighter time constraints and larger loads for employees, and the contingent / portfolio workforce that we’ve seen explode in the past decade, as independent (contractor) status pushes insecurity and stress to new heights.
There comes a time when people can’t take it anymore… Unfortunately, many therapists, because they have been trained not to discuss political issues in the consulting room, are part of the problem, implicitly reinforcing false assumptions about personal responsibility, isolation and the social status quo.
The social status quo. That’s an interesting expression. I am reminded of how the barrage of social media can skew our perceptions and make us feel inadequate. I am reminded how frequently we face, fight, and ultimately accept “lousy” as good enough. We have rebranded mediocrity in everything from customer service to relationships. I don’t know about you, but I find mediocrity depressing.
Listen. This is not a defense of deflecting responsibility. Of course our attitudes and actions can assist in spurring us on or holding us back. And yes, I have my positive mantras, and I understand my role in life’s daily ups and downs. Moreover, one-on-one, most of the people I encounter are decent and polite, perhaps brandishing a bit of bravado, but otherwise like so many of us — fearful in some ways (but not all) beneath the swagger or mask, and fearless when it comes to protecting our families.
Yet when we’re living not only with the knowledge that the game is rigged for so many, but with a growing and uneasy sensation of futility in trying to fight it, isn’t that when we must be able to say it aloud? Isn’t that when we should dig deep and fight harder? Isn’t that when politics — at every level — cannot be ignored?
I don’t normally cite so much text from a single source, as among other things, it’s bad form. But I hoped to catch your interest, and I urge you to read this Times Opinionator column in its entirety. As you do, keep in mind the vast ripple effects that flow from political action (or inaction), that we are deeply affected by politics in our personal lives, that ignoring what’s happening around us changes nothing, and that we are not always personally responsible for the difficulties we face.
A positive attitude may help but it will not conquer all, it can only be sustained for so long and with support, and the reality of social and economic issues dictates far more about our quality of life and emotional well-being than we may like to admit.
Can we factor this reality into how we deal with each other and likewise, civil discourse — and not just on the psychiatrist’s couch?
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