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How Donald Trump Affects Therapy Patients

President-elect Donald Trump speaks in New York, Nov. 9, 2016.
Evan Vucci—AP President-elect Donald Trump speaks in New York, Nov. 9, 2016.

Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an NU Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project

Many are reporting fear and anxiety

With an administration forming around President-elect Donald Trump, the mood in the psychotherapy space has transitioned from anticipation and worry to fear and despair.

The stage was set weeks ago with the release of a video of Trump using vulgar language to describe the ways he was able to use his power and authority to take advantage of women. His body shaming of Alicia Machado—calling her “Miss Piggy”—also distressed many vulnerable patients.

Several patients with histories of sexual abuse and self-image concerns told me that they experienced significant increases in anxiety. One reported that the constant news coverage triggered memories of her past sexual abuse, and another suffered frequent crying spells and difficulty sleeping.

One in five women will be the victim of sexual assault at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Women who have experienced a sexual assault have an increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Symptoms of these disorders can be triggered or exacerbated by environmental reminders, like news reports, about the traumatic event. While these reminders are often out of the control of the individual, they have the potential to have real negative mental health impacts.

Prior to the election, 52% of Americans reported that the presidential race was a very significant or a somewhat significant source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association, and this was true across party lines.

In the weeks since the election, many of my patients have come to therapy with anxiety, fear and worry. One patient said she felt a high level of “uncertainty” around what a Trump presidency would mean for her due to limited information about his policies. Another person reported days of often crying uncontrollably. Frequent checking and worries about the future are key features of anxiety disorders.

It’s obvious to me that this highly contested election is already having real mental health consequences. Several people who had not demonstrated overt distress prior to election night began wrestling with the question: what does this mean for me? They wondered aloud about changes in government funding priorities that might affect their job security and ability to get health care.

Patrick Magoon, president of Chicago’s Lurie Children’s hospital, recently told DNA Info that Trump’s statements to deport undocumented immigrants and require Muslim Americans to join a registry have created nothing short of a “public health crisis,” with calls to crisis and suicide prevention hotlines in Illinois having increased 200%.

Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tallied more than 400 hate crimes—four times the yearly average—based on direct submissions and reports on social media and the news. Anti-immigrant, anti-black and anti-LGTQ incidents were the most common. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, black freshman were added to a GroupMe chat—without their consent—entitled “Mud Men,” which contained racist imagery and racial slurs, and they were invited to attend a “Daily lynching.”

In Royal Oak, Mich., middle school students taunted minority students by chanting “build a wall” during lunch. Many of these hate crimes are reportedly happening in schools and on college campuses, leaving many to feel angry, afraid and unsafe.

On 60 Minutes, in response to these hate crimes, Trump told Americans “don’t be afraid,” and to “stop it.” But no matter your political leanings, the hostile societal climate resulting from the campaign doesn’t “Make America Great Again.” No one should be victimized by racist, misogynist language or behavior. Such hatred can have both immediate and long-lasting effects, reducing one’s sense of safety and belonging, which can one’s ability to be a productive citizen.

The President-elect needs to explicitly condemn and distance himself from these hate crimes, and those who feel targeted by such incidents need to keep reporting them and seeking help.

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