In Times of National Catastrophe Look To Art and Psychology

In Times of National Catastrophe Look To Art and Psychology

by Max Eternity

Every election creates winners and losers.  Sometimes the outcome seems relatively benign, and at other times the outcome of an election can become life or death for certain groups and individuals.

For the Seattle Times, Christine Clarridge penned an article on March 24th, in which the opening statement reads:

With the constant bombardment of information coming out of the Trump administration, local mental-health experts say a hefty number of their existing clients — and as many as 80 percent of potential new clients — are seeking help for postelection distress.

The article, entitled “Mental-health therapists see uptick in patients struggling with post-election anxiety,” represents a rapidly growing chorus.

Last November, an article entitled “The New PTSD: Post Traumatic Trump Disorder” headlined at AlterNet.  And elsewhere – another article asks “Should Doctors Treat Trump Anxiety?”

“It’s true that after every election, half of the population is thrilled and half is dejected,” says medical doctor, Danielle Ofri. “I’ve been a doctor through a number of Democratic and Republican victories, and there’s always a bit of political chitchat in the exam room postelection. Some patients are energized; some are down.”

Ofri was commenting in a January 19th article at Slate Magazine about all the newly traumatized patients who were exhibiting a host of symptoms she had not prior seen with the same group of patients—that she’s witnessing a disturbing medical trend onset to the lead up and immediately after Donald Trump:

Among my own patients, most of whom are immigrants, there is a palpable surge of distress.  In our visits, diabetes and heart disease are pushed aside as we use our medical time to address the fear that has infiltrated their lives. Worries about deportation and families being broken up occupy their minds, making it hard to concentrate on cholesterol levels and mammograms. Depression and anxiety symptoms are exacerbated. 

But this is different. These are real medical side effects, and they are occurring even before changes in the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court, immigration policy, and environmental legislation alter the landscape of our country. Add up the additional medications prescribed, extra ER visits, delayed procedures, missed work, plus the fallout from other illnesses being relegated to the back burner, and you have the makings of a major medical toll from this election.

In the final paragraph, Ofri says she found herself in totally uncharted territory; in a situation that “would be a first for me—changing my medical practice in response to an election. “  In consequence, it is now her belief that the medical community must take seriously post-election trauma, and the treatment of, saying doctors “must look for the medical side effects of the 2016 election and treat them as best we can.”

Ofri is just one of many healthcare professionals essentially observing the same thing.

In the Science of Us section of New York Magazine, a licensed psychologist in private practice in New York, Dr. Elan Golomb, states in an article published last December that:

My patients were in a state of shock and grief, like at the funeral of someone you love and did not expect to die. And I felt the same way as my patients. As a psychologist, I was trying to help others deal with a negative event that affects us all. It is like the therapist is taking on a parent role — but in actuality, the patient wasn’t a child. My patient felt like a child due to overwhelming fear, so I had to take on the adult role and seek a solution.

Adding that:

In fact, in many of my patients I noticed signs of regression, which means turning into the child you were when overwhelmed by similar stress. A man whose family attempted to suppress any hint of his individuality spoke of killing himself after hearing of Donald Trump’s election. In his mind, he had returned to nonexistence.

And within that same article, entitled “8 Therapists on Postelection Anxiety — Their Clients’ and Their Own,”, a psychotherapist and career coach, Anna Ranieri, says that she’s seening most are women of a certain age affected in a very “particular” way:

For women, I saw this particular sadness. Here was this issue that they were, of course, already aware of — that is, older women not being taken seriously — being acted out in the larger discourse of the country. They felt like this is another demonstration of how women of a certain age are dismissed. I work with people in Silicon Valley where the stereotype is, once you’re over 40, forget it. I think people have seen that there was some ability in most good organizations to recognize the value of someone who had been around the block a few times, whether it was a man or a woman. But on the other hand, this outcome raised women’s fears.

According to these medical professionals, it’s a mistake to assume that the result of every election is the same—that in a democracy real emotional and psychological terror cannot become an everyday reality…directly associated with Presidential power.  However, politically-induced emotional and psychological trauma requiring medical treatment is not unique to the US.

In Sweden, for instance, there is an illness that is said to only exist within its refugee community.  It a sickness called “uppgivenhetssyndrom,” which stands for “resignation syndrome.”  The syndrome primarily affects children, who the Swedish refer to as “de apatiska, the apathetic.”

“I think it is a form of protection, this coma they are in,” says Elisabeth Hultcrantz. “They are like Snow White. They just fall away from the world,” she says.

Hultcranz was one of several healthcare professionals interviewed in the April 2017 edition of The New Yorker, for an article entitled “The Trauma of Facing Deportation.”  The piece, written by Rachel Aviv, says in part:

By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the condition. In the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Bodegård described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” Nearly all the children had emigrated from former Soviet and Yugoslav states, and a disproportionate number were Roma or Uyghur. Sweden has been a haven for refugees since the seventies, accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation, but the country’s definition of political refugees had recently narrowed. Families fleeing countries that were not at war were often denied asylum.

The piece goes on to say:

In an open letter to the Swedish minister of migration, forty-two psychiatrists asserted that the new restrictions on asylum seekers and the time it took the Migration Board to process their applications—children could be in limbo for years—were causing the disease. They accused the government of “systematic public child abuse.” Opinion within the medical community converged on the theory that the illness was a reaction to two traumas: harassment in the children’s home country, and the dread, after acclimating to Swedish society, of returning.

Notwithstanding, and unfortunately, this situation and others like it bear much prior precedent.

Dagmar Herzog has a new book out about the legacy of Sigmund Freud, which examines the sociopolitical trauma of 20th century wars and atrocities.  The book is entitled Cold War Freud:  Psychoanalysis in the Age of Catastrophe, and in a March 2nd interview for the conversation began with Herzog talking about who Freud was, by saying “[Freud] was a medical doctor in the late 19th century, and he came up with a treatment modality for mental health problems that involved what he called ‘the talking cure.’”  It was Freud, she says, who “developed a set of techniques” that would help people “through this combination of remembering, free association, provocation, transference—all those things he thought that ultimately a greater self-understanding would emerge.”

Simply put, the field of psychology as we know it today would not exist were it not for Freud.

Herzog is a distinguished professor of history at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where her ongoing research specializes in sexuality, gender, theology, religion, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  She is the daughter of the late Fredrick Herzog –a renowned civil rights champion and professor of systematic theology at Duke University—and it is her belief that to understand the political driven psychological traumas happening today, much can be learned from psychoanalysis during the mid-20th century.

Saying that:

I think that the psychoanalysis that everyone wants to hate—nowadays many people hate it—because we’re in the world of pharmacology, and in the world of neuroscience.  People don’t even know what psychoanalysis is anymore.  That [US] psychoanalysis is only one kind.  

There actually were wonderful, wonderful other kinds that were deeply generous and utopian, and important—and provide insight in the present, also, for our current political catastrophe in this country, and elsewhere.    

In her new book, Herzog informs that upon the rise of Nazism in Europe, the psychoanalyst community became a diaspora.  To protect their careers, and their lives, many psychologist fled Austria (and Germany) to Latin America, England and the United States.   Consequentially, she says, several interpretations of Freud emerged.  Some became more radicalized toward sociopolitical liberalism, while others subscribed to sexually-repressive, social conservatism.

When asked in her interview to specify one of the key points made in her new book, Herzog says:

I want the book to explain the move into [psychoanalytic] conservatism in the first half of the Cold War, and then after the switch-point of 1969, I want to document the beautiful, generous alternative versions that were created and can still happen today.

A unique problem emerged after the fall of Nazi Germany, Herzog says, when survivors of the Holocaust started to demand reparations in lieu of what had been taken from them, including their mental and emotional health.  This dilemma, known at that time as Holocaust Survivor Trauma, is addressed in her book; interwoven with her research on the origins of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Speaking to this, Herzog said in her interview:

After Jews were either murdered or driven out of Germany, and many of the European lands—massive numbers were killed in Poland and the Soviet Union, and other places [because] Nazis took over almost the entire continent with few exceptions—people afterwards, either family members, or alternatively, people who had fled themselves and survived camps or survived in hiding, wanted their property back.  And so there were, of course, all these legal arrangements that the successful—the winning Allies—engaged in in negotiations with various Jewish communities to try to do some kind of reparations, but that was for people who actually had property that they could demand back. 

There were also people who had emotional damages.  They had nightmares.  They had apathy.  They had difficulty concentrating.   They were trembling.  They were easily startled.  They basically couldn’t manage their lives.

Herzog says that at this time, during the 1950’s there was no such thing as a PTSD diagnosis, but that after many legal fights between lawyers and survivor activists, there was a law that was passed for survivor compensation, if a person could show that their economic survival, in whatever [Western] country they lived in, got evaluated by a doctor to prove they were in fact suffering.

Sigmund Freud for Life Magazine (Image: Wikipedia)

However, she says “the grotesque fact is that the vast majority of the psychiatrist who had been appointed by the Western governments to do these evaluations were ex-Nazis.”  So a lot of excuses were given to deny claims, Herzog says, with doctors accusing Jewish survivors of pretending to be sick, and just wanting easy money.

Fortunately, Herzog says, there were a few courageous individuals who didn’t give up, and who were connecting the dots between the symptoms of Holocaust survivors with the almost identical symptoms of Prisoner of War (POW) survivors.

By this time, Herzog says, survivors of Hiroshima were coming forth with the same massive trauma symptoms, and the Vietnam War began.  And that culmination of suffering people became the ultimate link for the creation of a PTSD diagnosis.

This was incredibly good news, Herzog say, for so many who had been suffering for so long.  Sadly, she says, new catastrophes have continued on.  And when asked why massive catastrophes created willing by humans continue to occur, she answered saying:

Why do people submit to something against their interest—why do people go toward an authoritarian government?  And the answer people have given for that is that human beings are split within themselves. 

What I learned in writing this book is how powerful a force aggression is in people’s lives, and the combination of innate aggression in human beings coupled with systematic attempts of making people stupefied–misunderstanding what’s really going on–causes disaster.  (See Naomi Klein’s book:  The Shock Doctrine)

So, I actually think that there is a pleasure in cruelty, and I think there are people who enjoy it—that people are scared now, and that’s heartbreaking. 

There are people who are glad that we’re doing deportations, and I am just ashamed and horrified.

“When people are poorly governed,” Herzog say, “they tend to go for the more ugly [cruel behavior] sometimes.”

With that being so, how does one move beyond trauma and crisis at a time when it seems all around?  Surely, there are many solutions, and according to Pamela Hayes, one of the really effective solutions is art therapy.

Hayes is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in California and a Registered and Board Certified Art Therapist with the American Art Therapy Association (AATA).  She is also an artist, renowned speaker and educator, having taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). recently spoke with Hayes by phone to gain insight on her art therapy expertise, and how she’s seen it heal deeply traumatized and grieving individuals.

Here’s what she had to say:

































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