Conservative Psychologist Wanted

Perceived unwelcome, many conservatives opt out of treatment.

Posted Jul 16, 2020

Political inclusivity is not a strength of the mental health profession, and ideological biases have implications for clinical practice (Silander, Geczy, Marks, & Mather, 2020).

When I began writing for Psychology Today in March of 2016, I had no idea how politics would shift to define every element of our culture in the coming four years. Many conservative graduate students from across the U.S. have contacted me with frustrations of navigating their university climate where they are stigmatized, mischaracterized, and afraid to contribute their views to discussions. Some faculty members across the U.S. have contacted me with the same issues. My advice to quietly navigate the climate was usually something like, “Don’t dwell on the politics—remember you have a common passion in psychology, science, etc.” or “Lay low until you get tenure.”

Answering questions and providing mentorship to conservative students and faculty across the world has been one of the most rewarding and unexpected parts of my career. However, I did not anticipate the large number of conservatives who would contact me for mental health advice. I am a researcher, not a clinician. Most who contacted me are people who are not in academia. It was easy to be optimistic and offer support to the academics, having tiptoed through that career minefield myself. Guiding everyone else to treatment proved more challenging and revealed a huge blind spot in mental health.

Here, I will try to speak for the conservatives who have reached out to me. I hope to do so in a way that honors their courage to seek help. They view the mental health profession as filled with social justice activists who will judge them harshly for their values and will try to change their conservative value system. They most often cite family and religion as the values they fear will be judged or changed.

Regardless of political affiliation, clients are often reluctant to seek mental health assistance for fear of stigmatization. Whether or not a particular counselor will do so is hard to predict, but counselors are trained to be as objective as possible. However, if a person believes they will be persecuted for their beliefs that are not part of why they are being treated, they will not go to treatment. That means conservatives with mental health issues may not seek treatment if they believe politics will become a central issue in their counseling sessions. Construal, or how a person perceives a situation, is a foundational principle of social psychology (Mather & Romo, 2008; Ross & Nisbett, 1991), and clinical social psychology is a perspective that integrates this (C. Hendrick, 1983; S. Hendrick, 1983; McGlynn, 1987).  

Counselors should not publicly identify their political beliefs to better serve this population, as that would take away from the impartial nature of their work. Instead, the mental health community should commit to welcome conservatives for treatment and assure them they will not be stigmatized.

Here is an example of a modified response I have given to a conservative seeking a conservative counselor:

“I don't know if I will be able to find a conservative counselor. If you are religious, it is sometimes easier to find a conservative religious counselor. But even then, it can be challenging. Over the years, I have asked many counselors about politics being relevant to therapy. Uniformly they all say that politics do not matter in how they apply their trade. As a scientist who studies biases, I know that is not true. However, I am genuinely convinced that good counselors actively work to control those biases. Some counselors will hold politics against a client, and you want to watch out for those counselors. You can always try it out for a few sessions and switch to a different counselor if you are not on the same page. A big part of therapy is developing trust in that relationship between the client and the counselor.”

If politics are at the root of a person’s issue (i.e., someone's politics are causing distress in their relationships), then politics does come into the equation. In this politically-charged climate of the 2020 election and the COVID-19 global pandemic, politics are at the root of many stresses. This is evidenced by the fact that I have been contacted by people seeking conservative psychologists much more frequently in the past two weeks.

The field of psychology needs to do a better job of welcoming conservatives who have mental health issues. Politics should not be a barrier to entry into mental health treatment.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Hendrick, C. (1983). Clinical social psychology. A birthright reclaimed. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1, 66-87.

Hendrick, S. (1983). Ecumenical (social and clinical and x, y, z…) psychology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1, 79-87.

Mather, R. D., & Romo, A. (2008). Automaticity and cognitive control in social behavior. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead.

McGlynn, R. P. (1987). Research issues at the social, clinical, and counseling psychology interface. In J. E. Maddux, C. D. Stoltenberg, & R. Rosenwein (Eds.) Social processes in clinical and counseling psychology (pp. 14-25). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (1991). The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Silander, N. C., Geczy, B., Marks, O., & Mather, R. D. (2020). Implications of ideological bias in social psychology on clinical practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice.