When you look at the news, there’s pain and violence on every broadcast. But is this something we should help our clients process?
Patrick Dougherty would say yes. And he has some clear, helpful guidelines for how to bring up difficult and divisive political and social issues in therapy.
It’s one way we can help clients become more regulated and healthy as they interact and engage in their sphere of influence.
Patrick Dougherty, MA, LP, is a licensed psychologist, teacher, and author. He’s worked with collective trauma since shortly after serving with the Marines in Vietnam and working in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
With all the upheaval in the world – from refugee and immigration issues, to mass shootings and terrorism, to the growing nationalistic movements and beyond – we are all impacted.
Many of our clients feel overwhelmed by these issues and events, but they don’t process the emotional and social impact these events have on them.
And it leaves us with collective anxieties, despair, and traumas that are recognized but unprocessed.
While we are at an unprecedented moment in the history of the world, we also have unprecedented tools to respond to collective trauma. One such tool is our understanding of neurological regulation. Because many of these issues/events happen between people, one way clients regulate is when they connect with a deeply attuned other.
But to best serve our clients, we have to attend to our own anxieties, fears and griefs about these issues. We are, after all, both citizens and therapists, often impacted by events at the same moment our clients are.
So how do we do that? And how do we help our clients process their fears about global events?
Here are three ways for therapists to bring up social/political concerns and invite clients to talk about them in therapy:
- Write a short letter explaining your concerns about the impact of current world events on the mental health of individuals.Put the letter in the waiting room where your clients will have a chance to read it before their session. I have liked writing this letter as it helps me focus my thoughts.
- Ask your clients at the beginning of the session how they are doing with the recent events in the world. This felt awkward for me initially, but it became easier and felt more relational than the letter in my waiting room.
- Write an email to all of your clients. This can be especially helpful at times when there is an event that you are sure is having an immediate impact on most people. It also helps them begin to understand that these events can affect their mental health.
I have found that I need to be quite directive in these conversations, as for some clients it is easiest to talk about social/political issues through opinions or diatribes. For that reason, I developed some clear guidelines:
- I ask them what impact the social/political issues are having on them emotionally and socially. Most recently, I have found not a surprising but an alarming amount of fear, anxiety, and despair, with several clients curbing some of their normal social activities.
- If they start going into opinion or a rant, I stop them quickly, and ask them to come back to the more personal impact of current events. I remind them that we are concerned about the emotional and social impact of these issues in their lives.
- At times I will join them, as a fellow citizen, when the grief or trauma of an event is fresh for both of us. That it is not just “therapeutic” but human and relational to do so.
Through these discussions, I’ve found that the majority of people who are not rattled by current events are civically engaged in their communities. So now I ask a question I would have been very uncomfortable asking prior to this:
“Do you think there is any civic engagement you could or would like to do that would help you respond to your feelings of ____________?”
As therapists, we know that when we feel vulnerable it either draws us closer to others or pushes us away. Our clients need us to be aware of how these issues impact their lives and be a deeply attuned presence to their vulnerability.
In doing so, we can help them regulate their nervous systems and live an engaged and conscious life in this chaotic and changing world.
Do you talk with your clients about how global events impact them? If so please leave a comment below and tell us how you do that, and what response you’ve gotten.