Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin Editors’ Note: For an Early Career perspective on this topic, please also see: Alexander, A. (2018). Social justice, advocacy, and early career practice. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(1), 51-55.

Clinical Impact Statement: This manuscript describes some ways in which mental health clinicians can involve themselves in urgent sociopolitical issues. Some ways to become active and make a difference include networking with fellow professionals and in our local communities; utilizing our skills in group facilitation to design dialogues on political issues; and teaching and training fellow professionals in bystander intervention.

The day after the 2016 election dawned cloudy and rainy in Washington, DC. As I awoke from a few hours of fitful sleep to drive to work, I felt shocked, disoriented, and confused. The long election season had intensified political divisions, information silos, alternate worldviews, extreme partisan attacks, and disrespect and disgust for the other side (Kaplan, Gimbel, & Harris, 2016). How was my job as a training director for students of clinical psychology relevant to what was happening in our country? That afternoon, I was scheduled to lead 40 first-year doctoral students in a meeting to prepare them to apply to next fall’s practicum. I was supposed to support and encourage my students—but I was feeling awful. I wandered into the offices of several fellow faculty members for support. I also reread our five Ethical Principles in the APA Ethics Code: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, Fidelity and Responsibility, Integrity, Justice, and Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity (American Psychological Association, 2017). As I read, I was reminded that in this confusing time, what psychology stands for—what we as professionals stand for—was still worth standing for, even fighting for.

But what I had been doing professionally—Director of Clinical Training, and a small private practice—no longer felt like enough. I needed to do more, at least for a little time each week. But how and where to get involved? What could I, as a psychologist, contribute towards healing sociopolitical divisions? I started by asking one of my communities, my graduate school’s alumni listserv.

Fellow alums, In the aftermath of the election, with all the fears, anger, and divisions going on in our country, I want to do something to contribute to healing the divides. Our skills in listening, facilitating groups, and helping people to understand their reactions to others and learn from a process of dialogue, seem to be very much needed. How can we help most directly in these times? …What have others been doing and finding useful? Let’s support one another in skillful action. (D. Sacks, personal communication, November 17, 2016)

I didn’t know what to expect from my post, but I was heartened by the ensuing lively online discussion; six alums ranging from 1981 to 2014, and living in New Jersey, Connecticut, and DC, soon joined me for an impromptu conference call.

We shared several reactions to the current situation post-election: fear, vigilance, anger, sadness, hopelessness, grief, paralysis. Some expressed a need to escape “echo chambers” so as to understand why Trump’s supporters voted for him. Some expressed a desire to build skills in conducting dialogues, whether among groups of more like-minded people, or, more ambitiously, across the political divide. Most expressed concern and alarm about what Trump’s election would mean for advocacy around important psychology-related issues such as climate change, immigrants and refugees, race and justice, and police violence.

And we had many questions for one another. How could we as clinicians “work on ourselves” vis-à-vis our own reactions to the political atmosphere, as well as the reactions of our patients? How could we help current clinical psychology students? Could we promote dialogues around post-election feelings and concerns, in families, schools, religious organizations, psychology organizations, advocacy organizations, training programs, supervision/consultation groups?

Since the call, I have continued email and Skype exchanges with three of the participants, each of whom has defined a personal-professional path of activism. And I have tried two avenues of activism myself: reflective structured dialogue, and nonviolent active bystander training.

Bridging Divides?

Encouraged by the warmth and mutual support on the conference call, I resolved to attend a three-day training with Essential Partners, a Boston-based consulting and training organization working to foster constructive dialogue. Its consultants had a compelling history and a powerful methodology. In the 1990s, when controversies over abortion in the Boston area had culminated in deadly shootings at a Brookline medical clinic, they had facilitated a dialogue between leaders of pro-life and pro-choice movements, leading to lowered tensions and a growth of respect and civility in relationships between opposing sides. Reflective Structured Dialogue had subsequently been utilized in schools and universities, faith communities, and civic groups, in the United States and internationally (Chasin et al., 1996; Herzig, 2014). In the training, I learned and practiced how to design and facilitate conversations in which participants from various “sides” in a conflict can share their personal lived experiences, address deep concerns, acknowledge their uncertainties, listen to others with curiosity and respect, and find strength and new possibilities for working together (Essential Partners, 2018).

I returned to DC enthusiastic to convene dialogues of my own across the political divide. At first, I saw signs of interest. Van Jones had been holding his “Messy Truth” conversations (Jones, 2016, 2017). There was a spate of newspaper stories and online guides about how to discuss politics with family members over holiday dinner tables (e.g., Showing Up for Racial Justice, 2016). In late November and December, I noticed a distinct upsurge in interfaith activities, and attended a “walking pilgrimage” in DC from a synagogue to a church to a mosque featuring prayers on the theme of “Choosing Unity Over Extremism.” I joined some 300 singers from various congregations in a musical rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In January, I participated in a workshop on connecting across differences that exemplified the benefits of structured political conversation (McMahon, Likanasudh, & Solomon, 2017).

On my campus, there was much interest in convening a post-election discussion. In late January 2017, the clinical Student Government Association announced “an open discussion about how the mental health field may be impacted; our personal experiences post-election; our hopes and fears; and where to go from here – collectively moving forward as psychologists in training.” I met with the student and faculty organizers to help refine ground rules: “Allow others to speak. Say what you feel. Share the time with others. Treat each other with compassion, and a non-judgmental attitude. Listen deeply. Be respectful of others’ statements whether you agree or disagree. Focus on the topic.” Over 40 students and faculty attended. Individuals spoke solemnly, thoughtfully, seriously, sharing personal stories and beliefs. Some of the themes included fears about increased discrimination, divisiveness, intergroup polarization, violence, and deportations; concern over rollbacks in mental health and other services; and a disregard for facts in public conversations. This forum was a step towards a campus culture more open to hearing one another’s personal stories, which I have come to understand is a crucial, perhaps the crucial, ingredient in changing people’s beliefs about “other” people. Nationally, many of my faculty colleagues in other programs of the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology (NCSPP) report similar sorts of discussion forums on their campuses.

Nonetheless, my efforts to convene a more formal, sit-down dialogue across political divides were unsuccessful. Why? As I reached out to friends, relatives, and neighbors, I found several “liberal” individuals willing to participate, but I failed to enlist a co-sponsor from any conservative group. Republican party officials did not answer my email inquiries. I had a telephone exchange with one Trump-voting neighbor who was willing to talk to me about his opinions, but unable to make time to meet. Another neighbor wrote me long emails complaining about how liberals in the community had for years said offensive and insulting things about his religion and politics; he had had enough, and was planning to move to a community more compatible with his views. And a local businessman well-known for his philanthropy also turned down my invitation, fearing that if his political convictions became publicly known, his business would face a boycott. On the plus side, I met a notable champion of bipartisanship, former Congresswoman Connie Morella.

Around the country, others were making some efforts to bridge divides, including the Bridge Alliance, Living Room Conversations, Better Angels, Hi From the Other Side, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. I discovered a rich literature discussing political, economic, and social divides in the United States (Anderson, 2016; Haidt, 2012; Murray, 2012; Putnam, 2007; Wagner, 2016). Overall, it seemed to me that that serious dialogue would occur only when significant numbers of people experienced the conflict as carrying too high a price. In 2017 at least, I observed that people were more energized by continued conflict: on the left, by “resistance,” and on the right, by a feeling of triumph.

Becoming an Active Bystander

During the first week of January 2017, I got a notice forwarded by Dr. Luisa Saffiotti inviting people to a training-of-trainers in Nonviolent Active Bystander Intervention. I had heard Luisa, a former President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) speak eloquently to students on my campus about PsySR and liberation psychology (Watkins & Shulman, 2008). That snowy Saturday, I showed up at a nearby church social hall which turned out to be buzzing with activity. Sixty articulate, energetic people from various communities gathered in a big circle. Kit Bonson and her colleagues from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition introduced the training, along with its audacious objective: to train between 1,000 and 2,000 people by January 19. We trainers were asked to pair up with a co-leader, find large meeting spaces throughout the DC metropolitan area, and lead trainings for residents and visitors to town for the Women’s March on January 21. I was ready to be asked to do a lot, and energized to be part of a large group effort.

Why Nonviolent Active Bystander Intervention? At that time, there was a nationwide spike in hate speech and incidents of harassment in schools, on the street, on public transportation, in stores, and on university campuses (ProPublica, 2018). Nonviolent Active Bystander Intervention Training is a 3-hour, hands-on workshop that gives participants skills to respond to a situation happening in a public space when someone is being targeted, especially based on a perceived difference from the “attacker” (race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.).

Many psychologists wonder how they can do more to help with the vital sociopolitical issues facing us now. So many people—immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, kids in school, and others—are seeing more harassment, bias incidents, and hate crimes. Nonviolent Active Bystander Intervention Training helps ordinary citizens prepare themselves to actively, yet safely, respond to such incidents—to stand up for others, and make a difference. Psychologists are especially well suited not only to learn the techniques, but to teach them to others on campuses and in our communities. These trainings will increase our collective capacity to spread nonviolence and create unity.

What kind of problematic situations call for active bystander intervention? Some examples:

  • A man harassing a woman with a hijab on public transportation
  • Verbal attacks on the street (from a moving car or a pedestrian)
  • A person harassing a Latino man who is speaking Spanish with a store clerk
  • A woman at a bar (or social situation) being pressured or maneuvered for sex
  • Scenarios at a demonstration: activists being cat-called by opposition; witnessing civil disobedience; harassment going through a security checkpoint.

In these situations, bystanders are often unsure of how to get involved, feel intimidated, don’t want to make a situation worse, or are unsure how their help will be perceived by the victim of the attack. We also know that the “bystander effect” suggests that the more people are around, the less likely anyone is to take action. But when one person acts, others often follow. This training focuses attention on de-escalation, not confrontation. Active bystanders are trained to focus on the person being attacked, not the attacker, and implement solutions that bring an incident to a close peacefully and quickly. The training is grounded in the same principles of nonviolence that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi used as the basis of their nonviolent protests. That is, we do not hate people; we work to change bad behavior and unjust systems.

At the end of our training-of-trainers, Luisa and I worked together and offered the training on January 20 at the Washington School of Psychiatry, an institute providing post-graduate education to mental health providers and the community. We had 41 attendees—part of a larger effort that trained 1,700 people that day.

After the January training, Luisa and I discussed where else we could offer it. On August 2, 2017, NCSPP and George Washington University’s PsyD program co-hosted a morning training, and APA Division 48, the Division of Peace Psychology, hosted an evening training. A combined 22 trainees attended the sessions. One of the attendees subsequently offered the training in her community in Michigan. At last count, bystander intervention training has been provided to over 2,500 people. Training materials are offered online, at no charge (Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, 2018).

Bystander intervention is one of many ways to fight hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center urges people to join with churches, schools, clubs, and other civic groups; show active support for victims of hate crimes; educate ourselves about hate groups, hate crimes, and bias incidents; hold a unity rally; pressure political leaders to take a stand; teach inclusion and acceptance at our schools and university campuses; and examine our own biases and stereotypes (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018).

Many psychologists think that advocacy or social justice must be big. My personal journey of action and learning has been more like a series of small actions—with, I hope, ripple effects. There are many ways to become more active, based on one’s skill set, personality, location, and social and organizational connections.

Cite This Article

Sacks, D. B. (2018). Ripple effects: One psychologist’s post-election journey. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(1), 16-21.


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