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Discussing Politics In Therapy: Disclosure And Validation In A Mental Health Context

Discussing Politics in Therapy: Disclosure and Validation in a Mental Health Context

November 9th, 2016 was a challenging day for a literal majority of the country. Those who voted for Hillary Clinton, those who voted third party and those who abstained from voting found themselves living in an impossible reality: Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States.There are many reasons those who were devastated by this election result found it more distressing than previous elections, including questions of meddling by a foreign country, sexual assault/harassment allegations levied against the President-elect and the bigoted, divisive tactics he used during the campaign. So when November 9th and the following weeks rolled around, many used their therapy sessions to process everything from dismay to a trauma response.

The role of a therapist, traditionally, has been to remain impartial, to refrain from disclosing political or ethical beliefs in order that the client might explore their own beliefs in the safety of an environment that does not provide its own impressions. This applies across the board when it comes to disclosure in therapy: we need neutrality in order to truly access our own thoughts, to parse and explore them honestly, to determine how much of what we think and feel has been determined externally (and what of that we would/wouldn’t like to take with us going forward). When a therapist inserts their opinion, this shorts the opportunity to feel into nuance.

However, following the 2016 election, the nature of the therapeutic process changed. Not only was it ineffective to remain neutral/refrain from disclosing with clients who were devastated by the election results, for many therapists it was impossible. My first client that day walked into our session and started sobbing; I was unable to stop myself from joining her. A later client told me that he was afraid for his safety; I expressed anger and fear on his behalf. For weeks, client after client told me about their fears and their pain and I responded with as much professionalism as I was able to muster, but my fears and pain showed through, and there was nothing neutral about the way I spoke about the upcoming Trump administration.

Now, I have always been a social justice-oriented therapist, which means that I do not pretend neutrality in the best of times. I believe that mental health stems from social and societal progress, the combatting of marginalization/oppression and awareness of/exploring privilege. My clients have mostly come to me with the understanding that we are largely politically aligned; I have a few clients who are conservative but none who support the current administration. But the election, and subsequent discussions of politics, changed the way I, and many of my colleagues, interact with politics and discussions about it.

Initially, I was concerned about the impact on clients. Would knowing some of my feelings and opinions lead to that less nuanced exploration space? Would I be an external pressure that clients felt they had to match, given that our dynamic, while highly collaborative, is still based on the assumption that I carry expertise on mental health practices? I cannot come to any rigorous academic conclusion because this is the approach I have taken, and all I have are the results reported from clients: that my joining them and disclosing my opinions about this administration has felt deeply healing, increased safety and is, for some, a point of pride. One client told me that he regularly shares with friends, “my therapist is traumatized about Trump too!”

So what does this mean for the future of therapy and disclosure in sessions? If we continue down the political path we are on, with seemingly endless impactful decisions and threats from the Trump administration, it seems likely that politics will feature regularly in therapeutic discussions. And when it does, I recommend authenticity.

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