The Traumatizing Effect of the Trump Era on Women: ‘It’s Like a Form of Torture’
‘My flashbacks have increased, my nightmares have increased. My other symptoms with PTSD have increased over the last couple of weeks.’
Annie is a 53-year-old rape survivor living in Washington state. (Her name has been changed to not interfere with her job as a criminal prosecutor.) Like many women, she watched the hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
For Annie, the hearings were triggering: She says she was raped in college but had never told anyone.
“The primary issue is the overwhelming feeling of anxiety,” she told The Daily Beast. “I can’t concentrate, every time the story comes on the news, I just want to run out of the room and scream.”
Annie’s anxiety was so bad that she—and thousands of other women—called a sexual assault hotline for the very first time.
Annie is not the only one dealing with trauma after the Kavanaugh and Ford hearings. According to mental health professionals, the last month has been a trying one for women’s mental health.
“Almost all the women are showing up [to sessions] during this time as much more disorganized, much more symptomatic,” Christina Horner, a counselor based in Brooklyn, told The Daily Beast. “If they suffer from depression, or if they suffer from anxiety, [they’re] struggling more with debilitating symptoms... signs that [they’re] tapped psychologically.”
Annie said that it wasn’t Ford’s story that shook her but rather people’s disregard for her experience, from Trump to those around her.
“It’s the fact that people that I know—I work with law enforcement officers and attorneys and people who ought to know better—who are making these remarks like, ‘We have no evidence this happen. Why should this event ruin his life?’ It feels like I’m being punched in the stomach over and over again,” she said.
The same goes for Trish, a 42-year-old living in Kansas with PTSD from her sexual assault two years ago. Last week, the hearings triggered her depression so profoundly she became suicidal and had to be hospitalized.
“I just remembered what it was like not to be heard. To be silenced. To be shipped out of the state. Gotten rid of. Shut up. And a lot of that is what happened with Dr. Ford,” she said. “My flashbacks have increased, my nightmares have increased. My other symptoms with PTSD have increased over the last couple of weeks.”
These reactions fall in line with an emotional roller coaster of a cycle that Horner and other mental health professionals have seen play out over the last two years.
The hundreds of thousands of women who have taken to the streets in protest since Trump’s inauguration hinted at the level of impact Trump’s inauguration had on them. The emotional toll became an absolute fact behind closed doors.
And it’s not the first time that media coverage has deeply affected the mental health of sexual crime survivors. The National Sexual Assault Hotline spiked 33 percent after the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in October 2016 and therapists noticed a dip in the progress of survivors then, too.
In fact, Barry A. Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to find out what how his colleagues’ patients were reacting after and to the 2016 election—but couldn’t find an academic journal that would discuss it scientifically.
“Most therapists I know have noted most patients have brought politics into their sessions,” Farber told The Daily Beast, citing a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association which reported 57 percent of Americans found the current political climate as “a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”
At the time, there was no real documentation of closed-door therapy as it specifically relates to Trump, so Farber emailed 300 colleagues asking how much of their sessions invoked Trump in the space.
What resulted was a multi-paper anthology of the current findings (and subsequent case studies) of counseling in the Trump era, documented in an anthology Farber published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session.
In a paper titled “‘She’s woke’: The paradoxical effects of the 2016 election on an individual client,” Patricia M. Raskin, a psychologist at Columbia University, chronicled the impact of Trump’s appointment on a woman who had been sexually abused as a child.
“As a victim of abuse, [one of my client’s] had had a visceral reaction to Trump's candidacy, aware that he reminded her of inappropriate men she knew,” she said.
And that was not unusual in her practice. “There was no female client who did not discuss,” Raskin told The Daily Beast. “[And] it was not just Trump's election. It was Hillary's defeat and the misogyny around her campaign.”
According to Margaret Edwards, program director of counseling and wellness services at the Women’s Center at the University of Virginia, these responses are indeed part of a re-traumatization process. The victim-shaming that came with Kavanaugh’s appointment has likely had a serious psychological impact.
“Lack of understanding, when exacerbated by general lack of respect and empathy for others, reignites the worst aspects of trauma for anyone who has ever experienced it,” Edwards told The Daily Beast via email. “The physical suffering of a sexual assault pales in comparison to the feelings of being socially alone and rendered worthless and defective.”
Of course, re-traumatization isn’t exclusive to Trump or this moment. Raskin, who was also counseling during the Clarence Thomas hearings, says she saw the same phenomenon happen with her female clients to a degree after Anita Hill testified. Women felt compelled to share their stories in a wave that they hadn’t before.
“We all took it for granted that things were going to change—and they didn't,” Raskin said.
“To have our culture and so many people support a man who allegedly attempted rape and other things with other women—not only support him, but to attack Dr. Ford, publicly—I think that’s the biggest change with the current administration,” Trish said. “It’s now acceptable to do these things.”
Despite #MeToo, it’s this reaction that Horner fears may push survivors back into questioning their own stories, what Annie calls “overwhelming feeling of complete hopelessness.”
“Do I think all of hope is lost? No. We'll find ourselves on the other side, but I do worry there will be a collective apathy that sets in,” Horner said.“The notion that, I think, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you cry, how loud you scream, nothing works—it’s like a form of torture.”