Four years ago, Americans gathered at airports to protest President Donald Trump's newly enacted Muslim ban. A year ago they observed his trial in the Senate after he was charged with disability and abuse of power. Three months ago some collected emergency kits and made security plans with their neighbors to prepare for possible electoral violence by his supporters.
And three weeks ago they watched these supporters storm the U.S. Capitol to discard the results of a democratic election and keep Trump in power.
Now Trump has finally stepped down, despite his constant threats that he would not. But the effects of four years of racist rhetoric, incitement to violence and outright chaos on the American psyche remain.
Trump supporters broke windows and broke in the Capitol to prevent Congress from confirming the 2020 election results. Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images
The past year has been particularly difficult for many, including a pandemic, the police killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Trump administration's violent response to the racial justice protests that followed. "It created an environment where you are constantly in a state of fight or flight," Lauren Carson, founder and chief executive of Black Girls Smile's mental health nonprofit, told Vox.
The group saw a lot of stress, fear, and feelings of being overwhelmed among the black girls and women it serves, as well as its own staff, Carson said. "You work on two percent every day, day after day – or negative percent."
Some of these feelings have also been reflected in nationwide polls, with stress about the future and political climate in the country increasing significantly after the 2016 elections. And in 2020, 68 percent of Americans said the elections were a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 52 percent in 2016.
Like the effects of Trump's policies, that stress does not ease overnight, especially when the conditions that led to his choice – systemic racism, paranoia against immigrants, and the widespread dissemination of misinformation – are still a reality.
But Carson and others are working to help people take care of themselves and address the trauma of the past four years, even as some of their greatest stressors – if not Trump's presidency itself – persist. Nowadays, "a lot is coming to light that, as a society, I believe is forcing us to work on real change," she said. There is "a lot of real pain and real pain, but hopefully there will be a healing opportunity."
Trump's presidency has been traumatic for many Americans
The problems Trump brought to light – racism, xenophobia, and transphobia to name a few – certainly didn't start with him. But from the moment he announced his campaign in a speech denouncing the Mexican people as rapists, he made such attitudes within traditional party politics clearer than ever.
His rhetoric helped encourage a wave of hate crimes across the country against Muslim Americans, immigrants, and a range of other groups that the president had demonized. Meanwhile, his constant tweeting with all caps, his fondness for staff who enabled his worst impulses rather than scrutinized, and his return to campaign-style rallies shortly after his election resulted in a relentless news environment in which Americans frequently and incoherently the president were exposed to abusive thoughts several times a day. In the first three years of his presidency, Trump tweeted more than 11,000 times – 5,889 of these tweets "attacked someone or something," according to the New York Times.
While Trump was able to energize a core of supporters with his mix of bravery, defiance, and racism, his presidency was quite simply frightening for many others. In the American Psychological Association's 2016 Stress in America survey, 63 percent of Americans said the future of the country was a "major source of stress," and 56 percent said they were stressed by the current political climate . In the 2018 version of the survey, those numbers rose to 69 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning even coined the term "Trump Anxiety Disorder" to describe the stress many people experienced in the weeks and months after the 2016 election. "People tended to experience things like rumination, worries about what's coming next," Panning told Vox as they waited for every new tweet or action from the president.
An American Islamic Relations Council protests President Trump's proposed ban on Muslim travel in New York City on January 25, 2017. Bryan R. Smith / AFP via Getty Images
Meanwhile, Trump also subjected people in America and around the world to the language and tactics used by abusers, said Farrah Khan, a gender justice attorney and manager of the office for sexual violence assistance and education at Ryerson University in Canada , across from Vox. This includes lighting gas lights (for example when he claimed that the official deaths from Covid-19 were fraudulent or that the virus would "go away on its own") and flogging (his perennial anger tweets about "PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT"), and Taking revenge on people for alleged mistakes (his attacks on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer after criticizing his administration's Covid-19 response). In a relationship with an abuser, "you are constantly hypervigilant about what he'll do next," said Khan. Under Trump's presidency, this hypervigilance extended to the millions of Americans who were affected by him and his policies.
Of course, these effects were not evenly distributed. While the whole of America had to put up with Trump's tweets, many immigrants, LGBTQ people, and blacks, indigenous peoples and other people of color faced real threats to their families, well-being and lives. Thousands of children have been separated from their parents on the U.S.-Mexico border, and lawyers have still not been able to locate the families of more than 600 children. Trans people have faced an onslaught of regulations removing their protection from discrimination in healthcare, home, education, and more. In at least 41 criminal cases – including an attack on a Latinx man in Florida and threats against a Syrian-born man in Washington state – Trump's name has been cited in relation to violence or threats, according to an analysis by ABC News. The network did not find any criminal cases with such direct links to Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
And last year, when the country faced a pandemic (which Trump referred to by a racist name) and a long overdue reckoning with racism and police violence (to which the Trump administration responded by gassing protesters), the administration made its mark The American mentality of health and physical well-being have only gotten more acute. This is especially true of black Americans who have struggled with the deaths of Floyd and others and know what ongoing police violence – as well as the pandemic and economic crisis – mean to them and their families, Carson said. "During that time, we were definitely seeing a lot of overwhelming, a lot of stress, a lot of fear," said Carson.
"Trump has exposed people in America and around the world to the language and tactics used by abusers."
Those feelings came to a head for some with the January 6th uprising at the Capitol. On that day, Trump urged his followers to "go down to the Capitol" and "show strength" against "bad people". Then he praised the rioters as they occupied the Capitol. Some held Confederate flags and other racist symbols and called them "very special". The uprising and the way it was treated contributed to the trauma that black Americans felt, according to Carson. "Even the way we have seen 'protests' against 'riots'," she said – "these depictions are really damaging to the mental health and wellbeing, especially of black women and girls, because it is a clear sign that that we don't "matter. "
President Joe Biden has begun to reverse some government measures against marginalized groups, such as the Muslim ban and the ban on trans people serving in the military. Just as it will take more than a few weeks to reverse the effects of Trump's presidency, it will take time for the trauma of the past four years to heal.
For some, it's not even forgotten that Trump isn't a president. "People are still talking about," I can't believe we actually did it, we actually got him out, "Panning said. And for many people, especially in communities that Trump was targeting, his presidency" had one direct impact on how we felt safe, "said Khan. It will take time to rebuild a sense of security, and right now," people are not okay. "
Rest, treatment, and action can help people recover from trauma
For some, the first step in rebuilding that feeling is simply to acknowledge that the last four years – and the last year in particular – have been traumatic. "We have to expect that there will be a lot of emotional upheaval," said Panning, and those emotions will "take some time to take hold." People experience trauma symptoms from muscle tension to panic attacks to intrusive thoughts and just deep sadness, Khan said.
For black girls and women in particular, depression and anxiety are "widespread during this time," Carson said. They fear not only for their own health and safety, but also for "our brothers, our fathers, our children". "It's very difficult to see the sunshine, it is very difficult to see joy, it is very difficult to be happy," said Carson.
To counter this, Carson and others emphasize the importance of self-care, which can take many forms. For example, Black Girls Smile offers online storytelling, journaling, and crafting workshops designed to help black girls and young women “recharge, refresh, and renew,” Carson said. The group has also started offering therapy grants to help black girls and women obtain professional psychiatric care. Groups like the Audre Lorde Project, Trans Lifeline, the Okra Project and the Anti-Violence Project also provide support and resources specifically for trans and queer people and communities.
Anyone worried about their mental health can also take an online assessment like Mental Health America's to see if they have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other conditions that could benefit from treatment, Carson said. People should also keep in mind that for color communities, "many symptoms in our communities are very different from those in the cis white male community," she added. For example, black women may experience social anxiety because of experiences in predominantly white schools or the workplace, as well as PTSD and other effects of the trauma of racism. "We need to look carefully at the things that we may experience," said Carson.
When people take steps toward healing, it is also a time when we can see major changes in the country's mental health system. This includes childcare, flexible hours, and other support to make therapy more accessible to all Americans, Carson said. This includes a greater focus on community mental health: "Too often we focus on just one individual, and in many cases the entire family or community is affected."
Supporters of President-Elect Joe Biden celebrate on November 7, 2020 on Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC. Oliver Douliery / AFP via Getty Images
And part of recovery as a society is addressing the forces that led to Trump's election. "The problems uncovered during Trump's presidency have not magically disappeared now that Biden is president," Panning said. "What Trump has done is politically motivate a lot of people to be vigilant and understand how our government works and who tends to benefit from it."
Today "there is still a lot of anger, frustration and resentment," she added. And a healthy way to deal with it is to "put that into action".
Activism can be a way to heal Said Khan. For example, artists across the country have created street art to commemorate George Floyd and protest against police violence and racism, and activists Kenda Zellner-Smith and Leesa Kelly have collected some of the works of art from Minneapolis and St. Paul to preserve them and hopefully exhibit it. "There has to be a room for blacks by blacks where this art can be available for healing and reflection, a reminder of what happened to keep the movement going," Kelly told ABC.
But in addition to acting, Khan warned, people need to take time to rest. "As activists, we are sometimes taught to just assert ourselves," she said. "I ask people to slow down and take care of us and our communities."
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