Social Solidarity and Our Mental Health
by Anita Frankel MA, MFT
In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement saw a new generation encamping in public spaces to protest the status quo. Like the Tea Party before it, Occupy was a populist movement. It challenged the prevailing media focus on government spending, and redirected the national conversation toward the increasing inequality of wealth. It also demonstrated the power of social media to amplify and propagate new grassroots occupations overnight. And it allowed even the smallest groups of participants to take heart from the daily real-time images of others like themselves all over the country.
Unlike the Tea Party, which for the most part morphed into an anti-immigrant, white nationalist movement and eventually found its home with Donald Trump, Occupy welcomed anybody who felt abandoned by the decisions of corporate and financial elites, and by the politicians who refused to challenge them.
The prolonged occupation of public places gave many participants an experience of social solidarity, despite the diversity of their chosen targets: unending wars, unsustainable student debt, the soaring cost of housing, the outsourcing of good jobs, continued discrimination by gender, ethnicity and skin color, the ongoing spectacle of environmental degradation, and so on.
Occupy did not last more than a few months, but in that time it spread to 900 cities throughout the world. While it did not develop an ongoing organization, it planted some durable seeds.
Now six years later, an Electoral College victory has elevated to the White House an abusive, self-aggrandizing autocrat who has promised to fight for the common person, but whose actions seem to belie that promise. For hundreds of thousands of Rust Belt citizens who saw their well-paid, union-protected jobs disappear, Trump was the populist strongman pledging to bring good jobs back. The rest of his platform was of less concern to them.
On the other hand, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant initiatives and the promise to repeal Obamacare have stunned and frightened millions of people, most of whom voted for Hillary Clinton, the winner of the popular vote. Since Trump’s inauguration, we have witnessed the rapid growth of a resistance movement many times larger than Occupy. As we watch it grow, it seems to embrace people of all generations, including some living in Rust Belt cities. It has formed in opposition to xenophobic rhetoric, unconstitutional executive orders on immigration, and cabinet nominations of people who, in several cases, oppose the mandate of the agencies they are being called upon to lead.
This current movement is at present a remarkably diverse and decentralized network, powered by social media and encompassing a grassroots population of several million – petition signers, Congressional office callers, town hall participants, and the hundreds of thousands in each major city who turned out for the Women’s Marches on the day after Trump’s inauguration.
One of the qualities of the Resistance (the R is sometimes capitalized) is the intersection of many different social movements, as represented by the watchword “Indivisible.” Women, people of color, Muslims, Latino immigrants, low-wage workers, gays and lesbians, defenders of the environment are often ready to join in meetings and demonstrations when any one group is targeted. There is a spontaneity to all of this, which provides great photo ops for the reporters covering it.
Immediately after the election, several of my youthful clients expressed to me their feeling that something very dark was taking place. They came in with stories of interrupted sleep, persistent anxiety, and a sense of confusion as to whether they should be paying more attention or less attention to what was going on in Washington. I suggested that they are not alone in their fears, and that being in touch with others who feel similarly, and maybe even joining in some kind of action together, could be a useful strategy for regaining equilibrium and sense of possibility. Several of my clients came back from participating in the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles with tales of a joyous camaraderie among participants. Several hundred thousand people in downtown Los Angeles created an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity, at least for a day.
University of Minnesota psychologist William Doherty has written about a new concept of the healthy Self in the Age of Trump. He calls it the Connected/Committed Self, one that first of all works actively to maintain empathic connections with other people. Durable relational connections nourish our sense of self-worth, even as we confront obstacles that threaten to diminish it. Yet, the Ideal of the Connected Self can be captured by the forces of consumerism and packaged as “a consumer desire… encouraging us to feel entitled to the best possible relationships that require little maintenance and offer high rewards.” And so, says Doherty,
…[T]he Connected Self must have an ethical dimension. It must embrace commitment, by which I mean sustained investments in something outside oneself, to relationships and causes that transcend us, extend us, challenge us, and require continual struggle to balance and manage.*
There are many new venues for activism in the greater Los Angeles community. On a daily basis, social media adds new links to the latest petition and postcard drives, and appeals for calls to elected representatives. For those with the time and energy to do more, there is something undeniably energizing about attending and perhaps speaking up at town hall meetings, and/or joining one of those peaceful demonstrations with a forest of homemade signs. All these activities put to productive use the heightened vigilance that comes with anxiety, and can be a powerful hedge against depression. Ultimately, acts of resistance are also acts of citizenship – Which may just be what it takes, to make America psychologically safe again.
*Doherty, William. “Psychotherapy’s Pilgrimage: Shaping the Consciousness of Our Time.” PSYCHOTHERAPY NETWORKER, January/February 2017. p. 29.
Anita Frankel MA was formerly a public affairs radio journalist and producer. She is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can call her at (323) 661-0297, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2017 by Anita Frankel