Why the World Needs Citizen Therapists – Citizen Therapists for Democracy

Why the World Needs Citizen Therapists

William J. Doherty, Ph.D.

University of Minnesota and Citizen Therapists for Democracy

The boundary between the personal and public has ruptured in the age of Trumpism. A fixed, hard boundary was of course a fiction—we are always influenced by what’s going on in society, and our personal actions affect the whole. But therapists who felt comfortable in the mainstream of a democratic society could assume that our therapist “hat” and our citizen “hat” were separate. In our therapist role, we told ourselves, we are professional healers; as citizens, we follow public issues, support candidates, and cast votes. The main crossover was our advocacy for better mental health policies and reimbursement.

Feminist, ethnic minority, and LGBT therapists have argued for decades against this personal/political split in the therapy world—witness the big literature on therapy and social justice. But that perspective was relegated to the sidelines of the therapy world, confined to situations when the clients were part of an oppressed minority. For the most part, psychotherapy marched along with its traditional focus on the intrapsychic and interpersonal realms—in part, I think, because many of us assumed that we and our clients had personal lives adequately buffered from public turmoil and stress. Yes, occasionally an event like 9/11 burst that bubble, but it soon re-formed.

But after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, the bubble did not return. Many of our clients across social class and race are distressed by what’s happening to the country and are living with current anxiety, worries for the future, and the reactivation of past fears. This is occurring both for people immediately at risk, such as immigrants, and those less personally vulnerable who are watching the rise of hate, the disregard for the truth, and the flaunting of core democratic values such as a free press and respect for the rule of law.

In the face of these challenges, all the professions are facing a paradigm crisis: how do they go forward with business as usual when the democratic foundations of their work are being threatened? As an example, consider the soul searching among journalists now: they are having to call out systematic lying, not just reporting the shading of the truth or one take on the facts versus another.

For psychotherapists, the challenge is to integrate our roles as therapists and citizens so that we can help our clients do the same. We must take on the mantle of the citizen therapist in the office and community. Here’s a short definition of a citizen therapist: In addition to the traditional work of personal healing, a citizen therapist works with people in the office and the community on how to productively cope with public stress and become active agents of their personal and civic lives.

The citizen therapist sees the close connection between the personal agency focus of psychotherapy and the work of democracy understood not just as an electoral system but as collective agency for building a shared life in community (we-the-responsible-people). Therefore, the citizen therapist actively works to protect and strengthen democracy, and calls out threats to its integrity. Democracy and therapy need each other.

The era of Trump calls us beyond the personal/public split, a blind spot that has kept us from engaging in comprehensive care for people who bring to us their whole selves, private and public, intimate and civic.