Sunday 17 December 2017

Mind matters: Brexit and Trump herald the arrival of political depression

Political depression, sometimes called 'politics-related depression', is an entirely recent phenomenon, largely since November 2016. Stock image
Political depression, sometimes called 'politics-related depression', is an entirely recent phenomenon, largely since November 2016. Stock image

Patricia Casey

'Alt-right', 'social-justice warriors', 'deplorables', 'fake news', 'alternative facts', 'non-binary', 'safe spaces', 'triggering', 'Snowflakes', 'microaggressions', 'Brexit'. These are among the new words that have emerged in fashionably progressive culture in 2016. Until recently, only cocooned media commentators had heard of these. Now they are commonplace, even in low-quality magazines, but they have also found a special niche among the social-media savvy twitterati.

Psychiatry has not escaped either and the term 'political depression' is now mentioned in some quarters, particularly this year. Articles are being penned about it in magazines and agony aunts are offering advice on how to deal with it.

Initially, I assumed that it was a manifestation of the depression that assailed those directly affected by national catastrophes, such as the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers and the carnage that followed, or perhaps the changes in mood that mass migration brings to those fleeing persecution and possible death in their home country. Perhaps it refers to the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939 that engulfed the US, Ireland and Britain. It turns out, I was completely wrong.

Political depression, sometimes called 'politics-related depression', is not associated with such cataclysmic events at all. It is an entirely recent phenomenon, largely since November 2016, when the presidential race in the US was won by the most unlikely and widely disliked candidate, Donald Trump. There were harbingers of this a few months earlier on this side of the Atlantic when, also against the odds, the British voted to leave the EU and the nation continues in a state of shock.

Therapists and their patients are struggling to cope amid the national nervous breakdown that is the 2016 election result. Across America, therapists relate that people are coming to see them because of the palpable gloom and fear that they are experiencing since the election.

Michelle Goldberg, writing in Slate magazine, said there is a new sense of menace in "Donald Trump and his zealots". She spoke to therapists who say that the election is casting a shadow over everything, and that most of their clients raise it during sessions. Some therapists reported that they are trying to help their clients while not succumbing to overwhelming demoralisation themselves.

Some people, who were not in therapy, reported physical symptoms of anxiety - chest pain etc - to Goldberg, which were attributable to the Trump election.

Writing in a publication of a different hue, Mia Zaharana and Henry I Miller, of the National Review, asks if political depression is real. They say that "psychologists characterised this mood disorder as being commonly marked by nightmares, insomnia, digestive problems, and headaches, with anxiety, jitteriness, chest tightness, and a hallucinatory sense of slow-motion doom".

Sufferers may describe feeling demoralised and powerless, and even a sense of unreality. "People have been missing work and school. They have seen relationships impaired and a decline in daily functioning". According to these writers, some therapists have even suggested psychoanalysis as a means of delving into their parental relationships in order to understand their unconscious feelings for Clinton and Trump!

In this scheme, Clinton is the cold unloving mother and Trump the domineering, persecutory father. Exploring these, according to the psychoanalysts, will help victims of political depression understand the underpinnings of their emotional state.

At a cost of $200 per hour, psychoanalysis seems extreme when dealing with an election results. Medication, on the other hand, smacks of 'pills for every ill' and the medicalisation of politically uncomfortable realities. Cognitive therapy has the same connotation.

Some of the crisis measures used by some universities such as "cry-ins" with hot chocolate and tissues (Cornell University) and play-doh sessions (University of Michigan) are degrading to adults, as they are amusing.

Perhaps more sensible and practical measures should be considered. How about taking ownership of what's happened and committing to vote next time? Or joining a political organisation and becoming active in it? How about turning off the endless news bulletins and getting off Twitter and other social media that reinforce the negativity?

Political dissatisfaction is not a malady in need of treatment. Let common sense prevail and it will all be over in four years at most.

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