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How psychiatrists can best help our country in the 2018 election

"Why are you always trying to tell me what to do?" a patient chastised her brother. She had a young son with learnin...

Posted: Feb. 2, 2018 4:41 AM
Updated: Feb. 2, 2018 4:41 AM

"Why are you always trying to tell me what to do?" a patient chastised her brother. She had a young son with learning disabilities and psychological problems who regularly fought with classmates and thus had no friends. For over two years, her brother kept offering suggestions about how to help his nephew. She would scream at her brother, thinking he was criticizing her parental abilities. Soon, they had trouble communicating at all.

I saw them as a psychiatrist, providing family therapy. "Why do you keep raising these issues?" I gently asked him. "Because it breaks my heart that he has no friends!" he said, his voice quavering with pain and obvious concern for his nephew. The mother started to cry, seeing that her brother was in fact trying to help, not hurt. They never argued about this issue again.

As a psychiatrist, I learned that addressing a conflict straight on -- in a safe environment that is fair and neutral -- can dramatically reduce it.

This approach can also benefit us as a country right at this moment, just in time for the midterm elections.

Instead of mental health professionals discussing Donald Trump's mental health and what we can do about it -- which is not much -- we should look to them to help us draw on family therapy techniques and other conflict resolution strategies to bridge the political divide.

Explicitly articulating a tension and then examining it together, rather than continuing to debate the topic itself, can almost always help diminish or eliminate the strain.

Many people feel frustrated and embattled against Trump and his supporters, and vice versa. But those who are frustrated only seem to speak to each other.

If instead we each conversed with one person who didn't vote in the last election and persuaded him or her to vote, or we each talked to someone who voted differently than we did, and we managed to bridge the gap between us, we'd have a much better country and world. These dialogues alone would reach across the political divide. They could help probe, expose and dissolve false information and myths. We may each end up becoming more aware of our own assumptions and biases, altering our own views and finding new paths forward to bridge the chasm in ways that can benefit our nation as a whole.

If nothing else, we can help move our country away from its current paralyzing political polarization. It doesn't take much effort, and it can have powerful effects. Undoubtedly, we all have extended family members, co-workers, in-laws, high school and college friends, and acquaintances who, based on conversations in recent years, didn't vote or staunchly oppose our own views. We could each make a list of these individuals, and then decide which might be most amenable to a conversation.

We could say to them: "I know we've disagreed at times in the past about how we look at the world, but I was wondering if we might be able to talk briefly, so we can understand each other better." We should offer to treat them for lunch, dinner, coffee or drinks. Once together, we could say, "I was wondering how you feel about what's happening to our country and world today. How do you think we can make the world a better place? What do you think the world will be like in 10 years? Twenty years? One-hundred years? What do you think the world should be like? How can we get there? What do you think the environment will be like in 20 years? What should it be like? How do you think we can help it?"

As we approach the 2018 election, billions of dollars will no doubt be spent jamming swing state TV stations with nonstop political ads. But a free, grass-roots approach, as described here, can most help our teetering, troubled country and world.

Some of the individuals we approach may be wary and refuse us. Or they may agree to talk but the dialogue proves unfruitful. Yet other conversations may lead to important reflections on these crucial questions. Two or three of us may need to speak with someone who didn't vote or voted differently than we did, to prompt reconsiderations of these issues. But we should all try. Even if only half of us succeed, we can, literally, change the world.

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