Mental Health Matters: Election 2016 exposes deep fault line (opinion) |

Mental Health Matters: Election 2016 exposes deep fault line (opinion)

Andrew Whyman
File photo |

By the time you read this column the election will be over, the winners and losers tallied and recorded.

Finally. At long last. One of the most nasty and divisive political campaigns in recent history is finished. Back to work, to business as usual.

Not so fast. This political season has exposed a fault line, a deep rift in our nation and our populous. Thanks largely to Donald Trump, we have discovered an abyss that needs exploration.

Our divide is not about Republicans and Democrats, red states and blue states. No, it is about what it means to be an American in a rapidly changing world.

“The fabric of American society has been shredding for decades, but it took Donald Trump to expose the poisonous divisions in America — the rage, anger, and despair festering in the hearts of so many.”

The fault lines are not political, but demographic and institutional — a country that is increasingly brown and black. Rich and poor. Educated and not so much. Religious and secular. Urban and rural.

The fabric of American society has been shredding for decades, but it took Donald Trump to expose the poisonous divisions in America — the rage, anger, and despair festering in the hearts of so many.

Sebastian Junger, author of a slim volume, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” speaks to our common plight.

Junger’s thesis is that modern, monetized America has not only failed to provide happiness, a sense of wellbeing, or contentment, but has eroded our common purpose, and undermined tribal or communal virtues which are central to our survival.

Junger believes that in sustainable societies loyalty, a common purpose, and a sense of belonging are necessary virtues. He marshals evidence, recalling that in frontier society 200 years ago a surprising number of Americans joined communal Indian tribes, but almost no Native Americans joined individualistic Western society.

He notes that large numbers of modern American soldiers develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorders not so much because of the trauma of war, but the trauma of returning home to an America that offers stigmatizing disability benefits rather than a job and inclusion.

Junger presses his point about social isolation, noting that  lack of social support for returning veterans is twice as reliable a predictor of PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself. He cites research; “PTSD  is a disorder of recovery, and if treatment only focuses on identifying symptoms, it pathologies and alienates vets. But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing.”

Communal values emphasize the common good, self-sacrifice,and our universal longing for intimacy. Doing for others, particularly at one’s own expense, brings us closer together.

Junger maintains that an overarching emphasis on individual rights and on the accumulation of property comes at a cost; there is less interest or room for investment in the common good, the well- being of the group.

Citing anthropological research he says that, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: Our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”

He remarks that during catastrophes, i.e., floods, earthquakes, fires, etc., people come together, and act for the common good. There is more sharing, more sacrifice. People look out for each other. Tasks are shared, food is shared. There is a heightened sensibility, a feeling of great purposefulness, a sense that life really does have meaning.

When we reward individual success above all else, the commons suffer. Public space is depleted, while personal space expands. Those aspects of modern life which reflect values of common purpose, shared experience, shared space, providing for others, suffer; public parks, public schools, public libraries, public pools, public beaches, public squares, public monuments,  public assemblies, you name it, if it’s considered “public” it’s undervalued and underfunded.

If we reward individual success above all else, when the factory closes, when the job disappears, we blame ourselves. We have no place to go, no pillars to support us. That’s when depression, suicide, and drug addiction escalate.

Which takes us back to this election season, and likely beyond. Rather than emphasize honest differences of opinion, competition in the arena of ideas, plans or programs that can bring us together as a people, we venomously vilify our rivals.

We revel in reviling the competition, we believe that our power comes not from inclusion of those with whom we disagree, but from excommunicating them, from denigrating and disgracing them.

Failing to understand that we are social animals, that bonding, closeness and intimacy are sustenance, that we exist only in our relationship to others, we lose that which makes us most alive.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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