The complaints follow a recognizable pattern: anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, helplessness.
Mental health counselors around the Triangle are reporting a marked increase in patients experiencing stress and other mental health symptoms in the aftermath of last Saturday’s “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which broke out in violence and left a counterprotester dead.
The anecdotal reports locally are borne out by a increase in recent days in Google searches in the Triangle and in Charlotte for “psychologist near me,” suggesting people are struggling to mentally process last weekend’s political events. At the Charlottesville rally, a white nationalist protester drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring others. In the following days, President Donald Trump created a firestorm by failing to unequivocally denounce white supremacy, setting off another round of acerbic online commentary.
“I think it rises to the level of a mental health problem because it creates so much anxiety,” said Suzanne Luper, a psychologist at Triangle Pastoral Counseling in Raleigh. “People will come in and remark how difficult it is. There is a real chronic feeling of unpredictability, which creates instability.”
Therapists here say the nation’s political divisions, exacerbated by a nonstop news cycle and overheated online commentary, can become so emotionally unhealthy that some people need to learn coping strategies to regain perspective and stay focused on their jobs and families.
Pam Perkins of Perkins Counseling and Psychological Services in Wake Forest said the symptoms of emotional overload can be uncontrollable ruminating thoughts, heightened levels of adrenalin and hyper-vigilance. The N.C. Psychological Association on Friday issued a statement condemning bigotry and noting that exposure to discrimination can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
Locally, therapists counsel a wide range of patients: middle-class white teenagers, African-Americans, Jews, LGTB clients and the clergy. Some of the patients, especially those marginalized by mainstream society, feel personally threatened by right-wing protests; others worry about national instability and the country’s future. Some members of the clergy struggle with presenting the issue to their congregations, which include people on all sides of the conflict.
Teenagers and children present special challenges, because they may already be dealing with internet addiction and behavioral issues if they are regularly seeing a therapist, said Raleigh psychologist Doug Davis. They see adults in positions of authority arguing, lying and attacking others online and on TV, but lack the perspective of having lived in a more civil society.
“Charlottesville, as big a deal as it is, from an adolescent point of view, is just more of the same,” Davis said. “They’re like, this is the way things are now. It’s more of a sense of resignation.”
In the Triangle, several counselors said the distress this week is not comparable to the aftermath of last year’s presidential elections, when Trump’s win resulted in a rise of new patients seeking help. Rather, existing patients who had previously scheduled appointments are frequently bringing up the Charlottesvile violence in their discussions this week.
Therapists offer a range of coping strategies, depending on their professional experience and the type of client they are seeing. Here are some of their suggestions:
1. Turn off cable TV news and take a break from Facebook. This is the most common piece of advice therapists offer. Several said their clients’ troubles stem from prolonged over-saturation to online news, an unhealthy diet that includes sensationalized posts magnified by aggressive commentary from online followers.
“I encourage people at the very least to take a media-free day,” Luper said. “Clients often tell me this is the only media-free hour they have the whole week, just being here talking to me.”
2. Attend worship services and participate in volunteer activities to connect with other people.
3. Try relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation, listening to music, knitting, reading or some other restorative activity that takes your mind off trending topics.
4. Use cognitive behavioral therapy to consciously shut down unhealthy thoughts and redirect the mind to more constructive, creative endeavors.
5. Attend a vigil, community gathering or other event where you will encounter others and reduce your sense of isolation.
6. Talk to your children in honest and positive terms. Davis, who sees children and adolescents, directs parents to commonsensemedia.org, an online resource that advises parents on how to talk to their kids about complex social issues. The site’s lead story this week: “How Families Can Discuss Charlottesville and the President’s Response.”