On My Mind: Politics and mental health


Once a month, Dr. Charles Silberstein, psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, will write a column that directly addresses issues Islanders have with mental health.

In 1961 Milton Mazer, M.D., left his elite psychoanalytic practice in Manhattan and came to Martha’s Vineyard as its first psychiatrist. In Manhattan he saw about seven patients each day. Here, he started Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, wrote the seminal study of Vineyard life, “People and Predicaments,” and influenced the lives of thousands of people. According to his son, Mark Mazer, Milton was a deeply political man. He joined and later left the American Communist Party, and one of the things that he loved about the Vineyard is that every day he sensed the interplay of politics, community, and mental health.

Milton would have been fascinated by the political times in which we live. As all of the Island therapists with whom I have spoken tell me, there has never before been a time when the goings-on in contemporary national politics have had such an impact on their professional and personal lives, and on those of their patients. And as political sands seem to be shifting so rapidly, the resulting emotional turbulence is pervasive. Many feel terrified that we are on the verge of environmental disaster, that Western civilization is ending, and that fascism is on the rise. Some awaken each morning with a sense of dread, and find themselves with a constant ache in their bellies, on the verge of panic. I think of a friend of mine, a contractor who told me that before the election he would watch the political shows at the beginning and end of each day, repeatedly checking the polls on his cell phone at work. He has not turned on the TV since election morning, finding it too painful to watch much of what he believes in get destroyed. And then of course there are the individuals who have faith in the new administration, who feel ostracized and shamed, who often feel that President Trump expresses views and ideas that they share but are forbidden to voice in Martha’s Vineyard’s largely liberal circles.

Emotions around the election run deep. I think about two people I know, one a lifelong conservative, the other a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, both with fairly advanced dementias. Neither know the year or the month, or can tell me where they are geographically. Both would be unable to name their grandchildren. On Inauguration Day, the liberal threw her food and said, “Not my president.” The conservative, though he could not remember the name “Trump,” happily told me, “This is a great day. This man will create jobs and do wonderful things for America.” Political sensibilities must be encoded in a deep and enduring place in the psyches of our neighbors and ourselves.

In preparation for this column, I spoke with several friends who are local therapists. For some of our patients who have a history of early trauma, the election and change in presidential administrations are particularly frightening. Some people who were bullied and humiliated early in their lives and experience the new administration as authoritarian are feeling retraumatized. Their sleep is more fitful, often disturbed by nightmares and thoughts of impending doom. Tears come frequently, sometimes at unexpected times. Some immigrants, especially those who left frightening events in the their countries of origin, are having similar symptoms.

This sense of danger is not limited to liberals or Democrats. A young woman who was a Trump supporter was bullied in school. Now, like other people who were bullied or had overbearing and shaming adults in their early lives, she feels that she is re-experiencing those early traumas when she expresses her political views at work or in her social life and finds her views met with scorn and anger. The fabric of friendships and families is frayed by situations like this.One off-Island woman called her therapist in distress. “I don’t see how I can stay married to my husband anymore,” she said.

Here are some of the things that local therapists are telling me they suggest to help. Laura Schroeder, LMHC, and others report that they encourage their patients and clients to adjust their news exposure down to a level that does not trigger overwhelming emotions. It is hard to overcome a trauma if you are in the thick of it, yet for some it is difficult to stop watching; they fear that if they are not up on every detail as it unfolds, they won’t be prepared should catastrophe strike. Unpleasant news that gets repeated over and over again can be particularly debilitating. But some people who do reduce their news exposure are adjusting well by spending more time reading, connecting with nature, or exercising. As Laura said, “Sometimes it is our job to help people find distractions from their pain.”

Another therapist told me that the marches in Washington and Boston were a turning point for many clients. “Protest can be reassuring. It counteracts the helplessness, makes you realize that you are not alone and helps create the sense that there are solutions.” She added, “Hillary could have been the first woman president; the feeling of betrayal and loss may be difficult for men to fully appreciate.”

Julia Kidd, LICSW, shared a similar perspective: “It is important to be aware that the emotions people experience in relation to the political climate resonate with personal issues.” For example, she notes, those with narcissistic parents will be triggered by what they view as a lack of empathy in the country’s leadership. People of color will be triggered by racism. People who have felt marginalized or victimized will be triggered because those unhealed traumas are activated by events like the immigration ban.

But the emergence of complex feelings presents opportunities for healing wounds with roots pre-Trump. “We cannot heal as a nation,” says Julia Kidd, “until individuals, on both sides, are understood. There is pain in each of us that is connected to the pain in others. My goal is to help people identify and heal past wounds, thus contributing to a healing in the collective.”

Tom Bennett, associate executive director of Community Services, also talked about the collective distress of the divisive 50/50 split, or in the Vineyard’s case, 75/25 split, in the electorate: “It is disturbing to all of us when we are at odds with friends and neighbors. We need to create more open, safe dialogue so that our community can heal.”

For many people, avoidance of politics gives relief. And so I wondered if any of the therapists that I spoke with find that seeing so many people who are in distress about the state of the world makes them feel bombarded in a way that drags them down. The answer was, solidly, that our work does the opposite. There is comfort in helping other people put their pain into the perspective of past traumas. Also, for many of us who see people with different political orientations from our own, there is a reassuring sense of our common humanity, and it is helpful to empathize with other perspectives. Part of our problem as a nation is that we have become increasingly polarized. Listening, empathizing, and helping feels like an antidote.