How Politics Helps Keep Me Sane – And How It May For You, Too

 

So, I’ve written extensively about mental health, depression, my book, etc. But, if you’ve followed this blog for long enough, you’ve probably seen me allude to my full-time career. I want to talk about it for a second – and talk about why I think that getting involved politics and governance is actually really good for your mental health.

My full time job is to serve as a Pennsylvania State Representative, where I work for 65,000 people who live in the City of Allentown and South Whitehall Township. I’m a Democrat, and involved in a slew of issues, but mainly working in education and mental health.

One of the more common things I get when I discuss my long-time issues with anxiety & depression is, “IN YOUR LINE OF WORK!?!?!”

I mean, yeah. To quote Finley Peter Dunne, Politics Ain’t Beanbag. And there are times where the hard parts of this job – the negative mailers, the nasty comments – they get to you. They weigh on you. And when you combine the normal stresses of this abnormal job with a mental illness, it can be ugly. I should note something here: If I hadn’t had years of therapy, and medication, I’d never be able to cope with the stresses and requirements of this job. I’d have never been able to hold it, and I hope do well at it, as I hope I have.

That being said, I firmly believe that politics has been good for me and my mental health, and if you are similar at all to me, you may feel the same.

Why? A few reasons.

First and foremost, politics & government gives me a chance to make a difference. I firmly believe that, with my type of depression, I feel worst when I am hopeless, helpless, and out of control. That includes a variety of things in my life, including the health of my loved ones or the state of the planet around me. Being in government, I firmly believe, is one of the most noble and powerful callings that there is. It also gives you a modicum control over one of the most powerful entities in the country. As a result, this job let’s me have a say in the direction of resources and state authority towards what I believe to be just pursuits. That acknowledgement, alone, is often enough to help combat the helplessness I feel as a citizen of a country and planet for which that I am deeply worried.

Second, it gives my mental illness meaning. On those bad days – where I’m sitting with my hands in my head, plagued by some very silly demons – I can’t help but wonder, Why me? Yes, there’s that tendency to stew in your own sad juices if you have some sort of mental illness. Being in government and politics – helping people – is the perfect antidote for that self-indulgent question, because I know I’ve helped people by telling my own story.

To be clear, government isn’t required to find meaning. But I get to be someone who is part of a good story – how mental illness is being viewed by our society, and how those views are evolving. I’ll take that.

Third, I can speak with authority. One of the biggest challenges we have in government is people don’t believe us. Much of that we bring upon ourselves, so I get that. However, it’s hard for people to ignore you when you speak on an issue which personally affects you in a deeply personal way. As humans, we are built to better understand stories – personal stories – and when I tell mine, I think that people are inclined to listen. I can speak with authority on this issue. Honestly, that helps me sleep at night.

There’s more, of course, but I’d say those are the biggest reasons I’ve found government to be helpful to me when it comes to dealing with my own depression. This is just me – your mental illness may have helped motivate your career choice, and if that’s the case, I’d genuinely love to hear it.

How mental health is – and isn’t – figuring into the 2020 Presidential race (yet)

One of the great thrills of my political career was when I had the opportunity to meet Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. This was in 2016, about two and a half weeks before the November election, when he was Senator Clinton’s running mate. I spoke at the rally and got to shake his hand, but in the brief time we had together, I told him how much I appreciated their campaign releasing a mental health plan, as that was an issue important to me. He said thanks and agreed – he thought it was necessary.

My own political experience has made me realize that mental health is a deeply salient issue in politics – and one which can have a very serious political impact, and one which is often underestimated. I’ve used these statistics before and I will say them again: 1 in 5 Americans actively suffer from some sort of mental illness, and one in two will over the course of a lifetime. This means that virtually everyone in this country knows someone – or is someone – who suffers. For those reasons, and many more, I wish that more people spoke about mental health. We need to do a better job of addressing this issue, particularly given the way rates of mental illness are rising.

As you may know, there are now north of twenty Democrats running for the Democratic nomination for President. These candidates have a wide, wide range of plans and proposals for what they would do if they occupied the highest office in the land. But, as politics is my life, I got to thinking: Of the candidates, who has any sort of mental health plans, and who doesn’t? The answers of the major candidates:

No specific mental health plan

Actually has a specific mental health plan:

  • Former Congressman John Delaney: Hey, we found one! Among the highlights are enforcing mental health parity, expand access to at-risk populations and increasing reimbursement rates.
  • Andrew Yang: Yang specifically calls for better integration of physical and mental health, anti-stigma campaigns and an increase in access to mental health resources.

A word of caution: It’s still early. Really, really early. As in the first Presidential primary is about seven months away, and the Presidential election itself is slightly less than seventeen months away. The Clinton/Kaine mental health plan which I referred to above didn’t come out until October 2016, so there’s plenty of time left. It’s also worth noting that mental health care is likely in many of these candidate’s healthcare pages, not it’s own subheading – a mistaken, in my opinion.

Still. Kind of a bummer. I was hoping that more elected officials would be willing to specifically highlight mental health.

More in the future, I hope!

 

How to stay hopeful in a world filled with darkness

This week:

I spent most of Saturday crying on and off. It’s almost impossible not to. You keep reading and hearing how the world is coming apart at the seems, how things are getting so much worse, how toxic the political environment is.

Everything does seem hopeless. I get that. But it isn’t. While world events are overwhelming, and the darkness does often seem to be closing in, now, more than ever, those of us who are capable of having and expressing hope have an obligation to do so.

If world events seem overwhelming to you, here are a few ways you can try and draw some hope.

First: Concentrate on the good in the world, not the evil.

As it happened, the day of the Pittsburgh shootings, my family and I were going to an open house at a local Mosque. I did this Facebook live video while I was there:

The conclusion is this: Evil is loud. Good is soft. But there is still more good than evil. In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shootings, hundreds rallied for peace. Pittsburgh blood banks put out a call for help after the shootings and were overwhelmed with donors. First responders did their job that day, heroically running into the Temple, and likely saving lives while doing so, even while four of their own were injured.

The world may seem broken, but that’s because evil screams and gets more attention. Don’t concentrate on that. There is so much good in this place. You don’t even have to look very hard.

Second: Find what you can control, and do something about it.

One of the hardest lessons for me in government and politics has been learning the limits of governmental power. And no, I don’t mean that in the sense of wanting government to be able to do more. I mean acknowledging that there are simply some things beyond our control. You get into government and politics because you want to help people, and then you realize that you can’t save everyone.

What all of us can do, however, is make a difference in certain areas, and that’s what I am referring to. What are you good at? What are you passionate about? Concentrate on that, not on all the evil in the world. Find where you can make a positive, tangible difference in someone’s life. For me, that’s been mental health and other areas of government and pubic policy I am passionate about. For you, that will almost certainly be something different, but find what it is and go for it.

Don’t give into the hopelessness. Find where you can make a difference, and make it.

Third: It’s okay to unplug and take care of yourself.

You can’t do good without taking care of yourself. Unplug for a few hours or a day or two. It’s okay. Don’t feel guilty. And if that guilt becomes overwhelming, remember: You’re no good to anyone if you burn out.

Fourth: Draw solace from the fact that there are millions of others like you.

I’ll refer you back to the blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago: Millions upon millions of Americans are deeply worried about the world in which we live. That doesn’t change the world, no. But it does create a base of people who agree with you – that things are scary, and that we have to work to make the world a better place.

Finally: Remember the arc of history.

Despite it all, humanity has made more progress in more areas than any of us could have ever dreamed. Progress is not inevitable. It zigs and zags. But, with the concentrated effort of a dedicated world, it does come. Concentrate on that, focus your efforts on the forward momentum of humanity, and we will be okay.

Is Donald Trump bad for your mental health? And what can you do about it?

 

Alright, let me start by admitting that I really debated writing this one.  I’m a politician, and a pretty progressive/Democratic one at that, so as you can imagine, I am pretty much diametrically opposed to…err, everything Donald Trump stands for.  As a result, the last thing I want to do is to be accused of “bringing politics” into a mental health discussion, something that I legitimately think happens too often.  I’m going to do my best to stick with legitimate, reputable sources as I discuss this issue, and try to approach it from the most objective angle possible.

The short answer to this question is yes, the President of the United States can be damaging your mental health.  That, of course, depends on a variety of factors.

Let’s start in my favorite place, Twitter:

Well, that was stressful.  And yes, there are plenty more.  I will say that, in my personal life, I’ve repeatedly joked that this election turned me from an elected official into a therapist: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with who are suffering from Trump-related anxiety.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, 24/7 crisis lines found themselves overwhelmed with calls from frightened individuals.  Then there is this Daily Dot article, which led with the subtitle, “If you’re a liberal with a history of depression or trauma, this presidency could be more damaging than you thought.”

Well, crap.

From the perspective of a therapist, there’s no doubt:

Several patients with histories of sexual abuse and self-image concerns told me that they experienced significant increases in anxiety. One reported that the constant news coverage triggered memories of her past sexual abuse, and another suffered frequent crying spells and difficulty sleeping.

Quoting multiple therapists and psychiatrists, the article notes that many clinical professionals have had patients tell them that they are experiencing additional anxiety, worry and depression as a direct impact of Trump’s rise to the Presidency.  This effect is particularly pronounced for members of threatened classes, such as people of color, the LGBT community or other religious minorities, many of whom are already more likely to suffer from mental illness.

Then there is this survey, conducted by the website CareDash.  The data below is copied directly from the survey:

  • More than half (59%) of Americans are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results. The national survey findings mirror an online poll of CareDash newsletter subscribers which found that 55% of respondents are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results.
  • Nearly three-fourths (71%) of people 18-44 are at least somewhat anxious because of the November election results.
  • Half (50%) of Americans are looking for ways to cope with the negative political environment.
  • Over one-third (39%) of Americans are avoiding social media to reduce their anxiety around the political comments.

Another survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that 52% of Americans believed the 2016 elections were a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.

It seems pretty clear: Yes, Donald Trump has had a negative effect on the nation’s mental health.

So, all of this begs the question: What can you do if you are suffering from Trump Anxiety?

This Lifehacker article and this article from Psychology Today lay it out pretty nicely: Don’t just worry.  Channel that worry into something real and tangible.

  • Ask yourself some key questions about what you can and cannot do.
  • Get active in politics or other social causes – ones that you care about – that will help you reestablish a sense of control in your life.
  • Stop reading the news all the time.  There is a difference between being informed and being obsessed.
  • Connect with others; family, friends and people who, like you, are under serious stress.
  • Exercise!
  • Write down your anxiety.  Don’t just let it be free-floating – write what is troubling you, and use the information you gain from that writing to fight back.

The elections, and the aftermath, have been extremely stressful to some.  If you are one of those people, know you aren’t alone.  If you aren’t, I hope this entry gave you some perspective: There are real people who are truly suffering as a direct result of the election and its aftermath.

As always, I’d love your thoughts in the comments below!