Photo Credit: Not Talking by Denis Moynihan via Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

by Brandon Haydon, LCSW

As a clinician, I’ve observed how election cycles tend to bring about unique client issues and features in therapy. Let’s dig into social work and politics. A brief review of social media, op-eds, and the blogospheres suggests the powerful impacts of the recent U.S. presidential campaign perhaps more than others.

Many therapists may avoid, deflect, or benignly neglect political material as it emerges in the therapy session, preferring to maintain the clinical focus on the intrapsychic and immediately relational realms.

However, as social workers, we have a unique perspective and obligation to acknowledge and contend with the political intersections of our clients’ lived experience. Social work is the application of psychology and sociology toward social concern and the support of disadvantaged and marginalized populations within society.

Our profession is based on the notions of inherent human dignity and worth, caring for individuals, families, and communities who are struggling within the socioeconomic order, and challenging the factors that perpetuate or inflict harm and oppression. We work, train, and commit to intervening with the factors and symptoms of oppression, suffering, and neglect in our society.

Social work ideals are inherently political.

Social work is an inherently political vocation.

Social Work and Politics: Here Are Some Tips I Follow In My Own Therapy Practice:

  • Don’t pretend it isn’t happening, or that the political world is separate from the psychic and emotional worlds. Social workers use the person-in-environment perspective and recognize that sociopolitical elements and atmospheres shape people’s experience – even if they are unconscious to those effects.
  • Invite clients to explore their feelings about the political climate and election, while also honoring their wish to keep therapy about whatever they wish/need.
  • Don’t impose personal political views. Use open-ended questions and with a non-judgemental attitude to invite clients to share their experience. Therapy isn’t a debate, it’s an opportunity to unfold safely and bravely.
  • Maintain unconditional positive regard while also being mindful to authentically share your reflections and reactions to strong, controversial or opposing views.
  • Keep to the purpose of therapy – awareness-building and guided healing. Help clients make linkages between the happenings and attitudes of the political world and the politics within their family, their social groups, and within themselves.
  • Help clients explore and connect to resources in the community that may benefit their coping. Resourcing is vital at times of great change, shift, and eruption both in personal and sociopolitical realms.

Community organizer and psychotherapist Richard Brouillette, in his New York Times op-ed piece “Why Therapists Should talk Politics” asserts that “an untenable or unjust environment is not always just a fact of life, and therapists need to consider how to talk about that explicitly.”

Indeed, consider that a longstanding, overarching feeling that one’s fears, frustrations, and struggles are being invalidated may even drive clients to respond unknowingly to the call of political figures who seem to speak most strongly and directly to those feelings.

Should Therapists Be Silent During Global/Political Distress?

Social work and politics: Brouillette suggests it as incumbent upon therapists to acknowledge that there can be a silence or muting on the part of mental health providers during times of global/political distress, and then recognize that opening and processing clients’ experience of political material is inherently therapeutic.

Supporting Your Clients

Finding ways to support the client in their feelings and identification within the political moment and landscape, while unpacking and metabolizing their experience of injustice, privilege, oppression, and even indifference can be just as vital to the therapeutic process as any deeply psychodynamic, cognitive, or behavioral interventions.

My Advice

I would further emphasize that political material in therapy can stir powerful reflections about personal agency, accountability in the broader narratives of society and politics, and the unfolding of one’s personal virtues and empowerment by bridging the relationship between forces of change in external political world and in the internal realms of personality.

Stages of Grief

As far as a theoretical framework, I also find the Stages Of Grief to be helpful in orienting to the feelings and processes clients may be navigating in their political experience.

The Five Stages are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The process of these stages is not linear, and clients should not be expected to traverse them in any certain order.

In fact, some stages may recycle throughout a person’s process, moving from depression to acceptance, then unfold some hidden or repressed anger, then onward to a renewed acceptance that includes more of their complete feeling states.

Again, I find that the clinical emphasis on open-heartedly unfolding a client’s story, validation of core feelings (underneath their beliefs and political opinions), cultivating safety, and connecting them to resources in the community to be solid practice guidelines.

Social work and politics: I find no better closing than in Brouillette’s suggestion that “patients become motivated to change the world around them as a solution to what had become internal stressors. This is an experience of not just of external but internal change, bringing new confidence and a sense of engagement that becomes a part of the patient’s character.