Presidential Column

The News Makes Me Hurt: Clinical Considerations for Our Public/Political Climate of Stigmatization

By Michael W. Otto, Ph.D.

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In every National political election there are winners and losers, and those who do not win are faced with having to cope with the repudiation (by the majority of voters, or at least by the Electoral College) of some of their political values. This always happens, and depending on the vitriol of the election and associated policy issues, there are palpable and prolonged groans of dismay in either Red States or Blue States depending on the election result. But this year is different.

In the weeks following the Presidential Election in November, 2016, multiple media outlets reported a dramatic increase in hate-related incidents directed at a broad swath of our community: people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and women.  One source of this information was an assessment of over 10,000 teachers, administrators, and school counselors conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016). Respondents to this survey were clear – 90% reported that their school climate had been negatively affected, and 80% reported heightened anxiety and concerns about the impact of the election on themselves and their families. Specific examples include the following:

  • “I have seen open racism, spoken, for the first time in 23 years of teaching.”(response from a Middle School Teacher in Michigan)
  • “I have never directly encountered race-related harassment in our school until after the election this year.”(response from a Middle School Teacher in Wisconsin)
  • “There have been more fights in the first 10 weeks of this year than in the first 10 years of my career (this is my 11th year teaching).” (response from a Secondary Teacher in New York)

These incidents appear to be an aggravation of a general trend occurring prior to the election, with the FBI reporting a 6% increase in hate crimes in the latest (2015) yearly report available (https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2015). In addition, the present time is marked by a charged environment of oppressive and dismissive behavior. Consider the following: across the first weeks of April, media outlets reported new sexual harassment claims against Bill O’Reilly at Fox News. Just one day after reports that advertisers were fleeing the show in response to the allegations, President Trump provided a twitter defense of O’Reilly: “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.” The facts of the O’Reilly case are not publicly known, but what is known is that reporting sexual harassment is a fraught process, and organizational minimization contributes to negative outcomes (Bergman et al., 2002).

It is no surprise that leaders have an outsized influence on norm perception and subsequent behavior (e.g., Dijkstra, Lindenberg, & Veensra, 2008), and correspondingly, it is no surprise that public and repeated challenges to core values of tolerance and respect have a societal effect. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a stressful and hostile social environment. The result is chronic stress, with associated mental health problems, negative health behaviors, lower participation in positive health behaviors, and physical health problems (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). For example, greater teacher-based discrimination was found to predict increased substance use across high school years for African American students (Fuller et al., 2012), following the notion that discrimination motivates attempts at threat reductions, potentially through maladaptive coping strategies (Major & Obrien, 2005).

In an especially noteworthy article, Hatzenbuehler and colleagues (2009) addressed the titular question, “How does stigma get under the skin?” They examined self-reported discrimination events (Study 1) or experimentally-manipulated discrimination recall (Study 2) and found that rumination mediated the link between perceived discrimination and psychological distress. Rumination—the passive and repetitive focus on the causes and consequences of distress without engagement in active coping/problem solving—is bad for you.  Rumination is an established risk factor for the onset of major depression and anxiety, a predictor of the severity and duration of depressive episodes, and a predictor of suicidal ideation (Michl et al., 2013; Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008). Accordingly, in understanding the influence of discrimination on mental and physical health, rumination may be an important mechanistic target for intervention.

Rumination, and its dyadic equivalent, co-rumination, may also help explain why social support does not always buffer the effects of perceived discrimination (Meyer, 2003). Co-rumination involves excessively discussing problems and negative thoughts within a dyadic relationship (Rose, Carlson & Waller, 2007). Although rumination is associated with positive friendship quality, it is also linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression (as is intra-personal rumination). As such, the richly-empathic, “I know, right?” response may have the potential downside of encouraging a further attentional focus on negative events, without necessarily encouraging adaptive coping.

So what is the right response for those in distress in relation to the current political environment and the stigmatizing events on news feeds? On the practical side, limiting the dose, duration, or timing of this input holds potential benefit. For example, couples’ rules of no news feeds after 10:00 PM or no late night political talk shows may help attenuate emotional disruptions that occur when adaptive emotional regulation has waned for the day. Monitoring and intervening with adaptive behaviors such as adequate sleep and exercise also can enhance resilience (Asmundson et al., 2013; Walker & van der Helm, 2009).  For example, in addition to improving mood, regular exercise also aids cognitive control (Olson et al., 2017). Enhancing cognitive control is also an element of Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (RFCBT), which includes training in identifying triggers for rumination and applying adaptive alternatives such as mindfulness, behavioral activation, or active problem-solving. Initial clinical trials support the efficacy of RFCBT as a preventive intervention for depression (Jacobs et al., 2016) and as a treatment for residual symptoms (Watkins et al., 2011), and elements of this treatment may have similar value for the ruminations and negative affect induced by the climate of stigmatization we now face.

One issue with daily news feeds being a source of distress is that there may be no one-to-one target for assertive or problem-solving action. Aside from opportunities to vote, town-hall events, occasional protests, or check-book activism, there may be no clear local target for responding to publically-displayed stigmatization. This is where values clarification and subsequent smaller local action may have benefit: finding opportunities to underscore and act in accordance with core values in community settings as a bulwark against larger cultural issues. And, there is always the open-a-bar strategy: in an April 12, 2017, article in The New York Times, Robert Simonson reported on an individual who complained, “for the few weeks after the election, I couldn’t get out of bed…It was all I could do to read the news.” That individual subsequently opened a bar, named “Coup” (as in d’état), where 100% of the profits are going to “organizations that are either being defunded by the current administration or need money to fight the current administration.” This is active coping writ large.

Let me be clear: in this article I am not advocating for political action in favor of either Red State or Blue State perspectives, but I am advocating for helping those in distress due to the documented climate of stigma and oppression. In my comments I have emphasized perspectives based on a particular accounting of the role of rumination in influencing distress in response to stigmatization, and the role of adaptive action as an antidote to these effects. I am very pleased to say that a work-group consisting of the members of the Division 12 leadership in Section 4, Section 6, and the Committee on Diversity are collaborating on a broader statement on potential beneficial responses for intervening with distress linked to a public/political climate of stigmatization/oppression. When finished, this work will be posted on your Division 12 webpage. Look for it.