Recently, I read three articles in one day on the increasing anxiety about our presidential race:
“The Epidemic of Worry” by David Brooks in the New York Times;
“The Age of Fear” by Neil Strauss in Rolling Stone; and
“An Election Sends America to the Couch” by Lesley Alderman in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.
Since none of these intriguing articles were written by mental healthcare professionals, I decided to do a little of my own research and also ask colleagues for their opinions. Putting that all together, here is what I found out.
Surveys, such as a recent American Psychological Assn. (APA)/Harris poll, suggest that over half of Americans of any political persuasion are feeling too stressed about this election. In our workplace, perhaps three-quarters of psychotherapy patients on the average are mentioning election-related anxiety. The anxiety of patients often relates in particular to uneasiness about the future of their healthcare insurance, fear of the unknown, and triggers to past abuse of any sort by authority figures.
Here is one particularly powerful response from a colleague:
“I have not experienced this degree of concern and anxiety in my patients since my years in prison psychiatry. Many patients are relating (and dreaming about) their fears and seeking scapegoats. Whether sending their bleating bullies or nefarious mothers into the wilderness, terrified of uncertain outcomes and seeking reassurances. Several exacerbations of PTSD symptoms which had been quiescent for years and a couple who have returned to church. Definitely an unsettled epoch . . . I know a doctor (not a psychiatrist) who has a full size cardboard cutout of Sarah Palin in his waiting room left over from the last election. I think we have to be very careful to avoid things like this.”
In response to this quote, another colleague wrote me:
“Aw heck. Why not just set up two (Nerf) dart boards in the waiting room, one each on opposite walls. Potentially very therapeutic, don’t you think? And if your practice is big enough, you could sell polling data.”
Indeed, some colleagues have told me that they hear even more anxiety in colleagues than in their patients. Of course, we may be just as concerned about potential changes in healthcare reform and reimbursement.
Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that this anxiety will abate after the election on Nov. 8. No matter who wins, the anxiety and uncertainty might even increase. What, if anything, can we do to mitigate this anxiety in our patients, staff, and communities?