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Mental-health therapists see uptick in patients struggling with post-election anxiety

March 25, 2017 | By Christine Clarridge

Puget Sound resident Marcus Searles considers himself an enthusiastic consumer of knowledge and information, but over the past couple of months, he’s had to turn off the news.

“It was everywhere, and it got to be too much,” said the 42-year-old.

Searles, who works as a title examiner for a Seattle escrow company, said the constant stream of political information was seeping into every part of his life.

He worried about his mother because she is an immigrant from Barbados; he worried about his young children who expressed fears of the new president, a worry that he said robs them of their childhood. He couldn’t focus at work and slumber eluded him.

For the first time in his life, he found himself seeking relief from sleeping pills.

“It was affecting me as a person,” he said.

Searles’ story is not uncommon. As news from the President Donald Trump’s administration saturates TV and newspapers, local mental-health experts say a healthy number of their existing clients — and as many as 80 percent of potential new clients, according to one clinician — are seeking help for postelection distress.

“I’ve had people come back to therapy because of this election,” said clinical psychologist Marta Miranda, who specializes in working with members of marginalized and oppressed communities.

“They feel that they are being targeted as members of a minority group, and they’re afraid,” she said.

At Sound Mental Health, spokesman Steve McLean said one clinician estimated that at least 80 percent of his new patients have reported election-related stress, anxiety and fear.

Established patients have reported fear because of increased street harassment since the election and increased fear over losing health care and housing benefits, said McLean.

Even among groups that do not feel personally threatened by Trump — and his partial travel bans, fights with world leaders, controversial Cabinet appointees, stated efforts to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, restrictions to abortion access and the repeal the Affordable Care Act — anxiety has been on the rise among people of all political leanings, therapists say.

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of Americans, including Democrats and Republicans, said in January that they were stressed about the future of our country.

In urban areas, such as Seattle, reported stress levels were higher than in rural or suburban areas, with 62 percent of city dwellers saying the election and its outcome were a “significant” source of stress. The survey also found that the percentage of people feeling stressed about their personal safety was the highest since the question was first asked in 2008. And the percentage of people reporting at least one stress-related health symptom, such as headaches, anxiety or depression, rose from 71 to 80 percent over a five-month period.

“I’ve seen lots of shock, fear and grieving,” said Seattle psychologist Samantha Slaughter. “I’ve had clients come in terrified and in tears about what they fear is going to happen. It’s been pretty hard on my caseload.”

Katie Gurwell, a licensed mental-health counselor, said election news, and the way it’s sometimes regarded as “fake news,” is starting to make some people question their reality. “People are even starting to wonder if they can trust themselves and their understanding of things,” she said.

That feeling of lost footing can cut across party lines, she said.

Slaughter said she does not have clients who say they are Trump supporters, but as a member of the Washington State Psychological Association and other professional organizations, she is in contact with colleagues who do.

“Some of them are worried, too,” she said. “They may still be very excited about him being elected, but they are confused about the protests, worried about riots and hesitant to talk about being happy,” Slaughter said.

Kayli and Tim Cox, who supported Trump and a third-party candidate, respectively, said they’ve been happy to see a political sea change. They are, however, aware that some of their friends feel differently.

Tim Cox said he’s sensitive to their anxiety and tension. “We understand they’re going through some stuff with this, and we’re there for them,” he said.

He also said he tells them, “We have checks and balances for a reason; this whole country was founded on not being controlled by abusive power and that if he gets that bad, we can impeach him.”

His wife, though, has another philosophy. She listens to people’s worries but refuses to let it affect her.

“Focus on yourself; do what you need to do and stay positive,” she said.

Just like before the election, some people are also struggling with a family divide. Katelynn Wilhelm, 30, has felt under siege since she marched in the post-inauguration Women’s March.

“My family got really angry at me,” she said. “My stepbrother, who has three beautiful children who were born under the Oregon Health Plan (the state’s Medicaid program), had the audacity to tell me to ‘Stop marching!’ and ‘Get behind the president.’

“It’s so frustrating because I have a job with health care, and in a way, I’m marching for him and his children.”

When dealing with kin, Slaughter advises people to send pre-emptive emails asking that politics be off the table, at least for a while.

“It’s important that we one day be able to have conversations about this, but maybe not right now,” she said.

The issue of trying to balance timing, sensitivity, honesty and awareness is at the core of the struggle for many, she and other therapists said.

“It’s very important that we be informed and not put our hands over our eyes,” said Jane Tornatore, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

She advises setting parameters and sticking to them. For example, a healthy option might be to read the front page of the newspaper to get informed about the day’s events and then stop.

“Hearing the same thing over and over, reading about it, gnawing on it, does not help,” she said.

Among the most useful tools Tornatore teaches her clients is how to understand the difference between the “circle of influence” and the “circle of concern.”

The first contains everything people have control over, which is simply their own thoughts and actions. The other circle encompasses everything else, including the president, the results of the election and family members’ opinions.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is there anything I can do about this? Can I march? Can I write a letter? Can I donate money?’ If the answer is yes, then do it,” Tornatore said.

Even if you suspect that your state and federal legislators have received all the letters from their constituents they could ever want, write it anyway, she said. You’re not doing it solely for them.

“When we take a step, even a little step, we feel less hopeless and more powerful. It’s good for our psyches,” Tornatore said.

SeattleTimes.com

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