The Challenges Facing Psychotherapists in the New Political Climate

May 10, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

In an online event held on April 18, adjunct professor and Dean of Admissions at Ackerman Institute for the Family Walter Vega and Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry in Social Work Katherine Shear discussed the psychological impact of recent political changes in the United States.  How should psychotherapists respond when their clients want to talk about politics and/or appear to be suffering from politics-induced anxiety?

Walter Vega, a 2004 alumni of CSSW who has built his clinical social work practice around a commitment to serving families, particularly in communities of color, discussed his experiences of working with families impacted by the travel bans and threats of deportation, something he said he takes almost personally as the first-born child of a single mother from Honduras, who was undocumented for many years.

Professor Katherine Shear, who is a world expert on grief and complicated grief, assessed whether the post-election anxiety some of us are experiencing can be likened to a grieving process.

You can watch the full event here:

NOTE: We recommend clicking on “CC” for subtitles/closed captions as the audio quality of the original is uneven. We also apologize for the glitch in the recording from 10:5516:16.

Related resources:

  • Slide deck from the event (PDF: 31 Pages)
  • Brochure for Center for Complicated Grief Clinical Training (PDF: 2 Pages)
  • Resources suggested by chat participants (PDF: 1 page)


On November 8, Donald J. Trump was elected to the office of President of the United States. Many voters—even pollsters—were shocked. Not only had Trump defied pollsters’ predictions, but his campaign, which had kicked off with a speech in which he labeled immigrants from Mexico “rapists” and “criminals”, had aroused fears about what kind of country the United States would be under his leadership. In the ten days following Trump’s victory, there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation across the nation. The majority of these incidents were anti-immigrant but a number of them were also anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBT, and anti-Muslim. Just after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order banning entry for 90 days by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as halting refugees from Syria for an indefinite period. (He updated the order in early March.)

During the buildup to Election Day, mental health professionals around the country, especially those working in Democratic strongholds, reported noticing high levels of politics-induced emotional distress in their clients, particularly those who felt marginalized to begin with and were now worried they could be targets of attack. Since the election, we appear to have entered the political age of anxiety, as the New York Times has put it, with two thirds of Americans saying they are stressed about the future of our nation, according to a recent American Psychological Association survey. Also in that poll, an increased number of people reported that the anxiety surrounding politics—brought on by acts of terrorism, police violence toward minorities, and issues of personal safety—is adding to their stress levels.

At the opening to Columbia School of Social Work’s online event covering this topic, Walter Vega told Communications Director Mary-Lea Cox Awanohara that that one of his most difficult post-election moments had occurred the very next day, November 9. On that day, he had met with a client from the Dominican Republic who is in the United States under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (it allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit). Understandably, his client was feeling frightened; would she now be deported?

Awanohara then asked Vega what his own worst moment had been since Trump’s election. He responded that, in addition to re-living his childhood fears at having his undocumented parent deported, he struggled with talking to his eight-year-old daughter—how could he help her make sense of a “big bully” having been elected?

Vega and Awanohara went on to discuss whether those who had not voted for Trump were feeling collective grief over this turn of events. Vega said he definitely felt as though many people, himself included, were experiencing the loss of hope of what this country could have become had it continued to make progress, while Cox-Awanohara suggested that people might be mourning the loss of the country they thought they knew.

“We grieve when we lose something that we care about,” explained Dr. Shear in her solo portion of the online event, and loss requires “adaptation.” Once we adapt to the changes brought about by a loss, grief finds its place in our lives and we start being able to envision a brighter future.

In the case of the election, Dr. Shear said, some of us may be mourning the sudden loss of a community that shares our values. We must now revise our relationship to that community and figure out ways to move forward, whether through political activism, volunteering, or some other activity we think can influence positive change, she said.

The event culminated in a lively discussion between the two clinicians, one a leading practitioner and the other a leading researcher, on topics ranging from the ways trauma from political change can manifest itself in therapy sessions to the importance of “active listening.” While noting that some therapists may wish to skip over politics-related discussions, both speakers agreed it is important to listen, acknowledge, and validate the client’s feelings. Also, listening doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the client—that is not the goal here. They talked about how psychotherapists can prevent their own politics from influencing the session and about possible self-care strategies for therapists who are finding it stressful to handle clients while also processing their own post-election angst.

A wide-ranging Q&A ensued between the two speakers and their audience, which at its peak surpassed 200 people. Topics included:

  • handling clients whose political views differ from yours.
  • building what Dr. Shear calls a “sherpa-like therapeutic alliance” with clients: the point being to help clients design a pathway and point out any obstacles that stand in their way.
  • whether likening post-election trauma to grief means we are advocating for acceptance: what do we really mean by “acceptance”?
  • figuring out what to do should U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials invade a clinical setting.
  • assisting clients who are afraid of losing their health benefits if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled.

Many participants left the Adobe Connect room feeling empowered, with a clearer view of the current political reality and with an idea of the best tools for adapting to loss and change.

We offer thanks to our two speakers and to the hundreds of audience members who sparked a lively discussion of this timely and important (and ongoing) topic, and to the online team for making the event possible.

Check out the other events in the CSSW’s Online Event Series: