America’s Mental Health Is Hurt by Bad Debates (Op-ed)

The overwhelming public opinion is that the first general election presidential debate was a disaster. Over 80 percent of respondents to a CBS/YouGov poll said the debate tone was negative, and just 18 percent of respondents were “optimistic” after the debate.

I also watched the debate with dismay and concern — not just as a voter, but as a mental health therapist.

I watched two grown men, both with decades of perceived leadership experience at the highest levels, model not maturation and effective conflict resolution, but petulance and spite. President Trump and Joe Biden fed into fear and panic, not the bright future envisioned by President Obama’s hope or former President Reagan’s shining city.

Biden and Trump are justifiably focused on winning, but their poor behavior in September has real effects on the mental health of millions of people.

Good leaders set the stage with focus, inspiration and direction; Trump and Biden are setting the stage for a collapse of our entire political system. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong on policy. What matters is that neither Biden or Trump embodied strength and confidence — the keys to leadership that drives positive mental health in followers and constituents.

If our leaders won’t embody strong mental health, Americans must do it for ourselves. We must be internally strong by taking internal control of our lives instead of relying on external factors — such as pandemics, political leaders and economic circumstances — to give us the resolve and purpose to move forward.

The first step to personal control of our lives is the simplest: breathing.

By taking deep, cleansing breaths when we feel stressed or when we are meditating, our mind slows.

Overwhelming problems we are racing to solve often become challenges that can be overcome tomorrow instead of today. We think about the people in our lives more positively. We react with love and focus, identifying real problems and real solutions, instead of wildly swinging at windmills.

Second, teach yourself to express and recognize opportunities for gratitude in your life. The process I teach my clients is to focus on people — family, friends, neighbors and professional colleagues — instead of things, because human psychology more closely identifies with our fellow human beings.

The steps to expressing and recognizing gratitude are:

— Picture a person in your mind to whom you are grateful.

— Verbally identify that person by name and picture looking into their eyes.

— Verbally identify what you are grateful for in that relationship.

—  Take a deep breathe in, exhale.

—  Move on to the next person who comes to mind.

These steps require focus, slowing down the mind, and use of multiple parts of our brains and bodies. And they will increase your positive thinking and decrease negativity about your day, week, year and life.

Finally, recognize that you may be wrong by taking a posture of humility.

Trump and Biden refused to acknowledge where the other person was right about a policy or idea. We call those people ideologues because they are unable or unwilling to be thoughtful — to think deeply and calmly about an idea separate from their own emotions about it.

Deliberate thinking creates greater empathy and emotional connection — something we can all use more of right now.

No matter what politician you support and no matter what happens in November, you can strive to be a mentally strong person. Slow down, identify gratitude, and recognize that you may be wrong.

With these therapeutic best practices in place, you have a foundation for long-term internal strength and success.

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