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Dejected voters find themselves in an even bluer state

Times Staff Writer

For last week’s election losers -- Democrats and other Kerry voters this time around -- it’s all over but the tears.

The quadrennial exercise of electing a president has always had its vanquished partisans, nursing their disappointment and political wounds and plotting a comeback at the next polling. But after an election campaign marked by bitterness, high energy and a sharply divided electorate, those who tend to Americans’ mental health are worried about the emotional state of the losing side. Beyond the tears shed over an election lost, they see anger, uncertainty, paralysis and downright denial among defeated Kerry backers. They see a depth and breadth of grief that many say they have never seen before.

“I would actually use the word despair. That’s what I sense” from several patients who have come in since the election, said Beverly Hills psychologist Cathy Quinn.

Republicans and Democrats alike are trying to move on after President Bush’s narrow victory, putting the angry campaign rhetoric aside and returning to the challenges and compromises of real life. And most, say psychologists, will succeed.

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But this year, say mental health professionals, moving on may prove harder for many Democrats and other Kerry supporters who found themselves caught up -- some for the first time -- in this year’s hard-fought battle for the presidency.

Many psychotherapists expect more Americans to find themselves stuck in the mire of postelection grief, loss and blame. They’ll lie awake at night fuming over things that might have made the election go differently. They’ll ponder revenge, threaten to move to Canada, post screeds on Internet blogs and chat rooms.

Call it a severe case of postelection blues. Their election- induced funk could last a couple of days -- or well into President Bush’s second term.

Quinn predicts that the divisive election will drive large numbers of those who have never sought psychological help into offices like hers. And for many already struggling with loss, anxiety or depression, and who found themselves on the losing side Tuesday, postelection blues will make their emotional health even more fragile.

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Some defeated activists, such as photographer and actor Tony Sears, are feeling the loss in deeply personal terms. “I felt,” said Sears, his voice cracking, “like someone had died.” As he watched Kerry’s concession speech, added Sears, “I just was very sad for what might have been.”

Dr. Justin Frank, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist, describes these feelings as “acute grief reaction.” Frank is the author of “Bush on the Couch,” a psychological profile of George W. Bush that is highly critical of the president. Reflecting upon his Democratic patients, Frank said, “People are feeling helpless and paralyzed and sad.... Several of my patients said they were feeling like they felt after 9/11.”

Again and again, mental health professionals cite reactions to the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001, to capture the mood of grief and loss they are seeing in many patients who counted themselves among the losers in last week’s election.

“People are in absolute post-traumatic stress and total despair and pretty much believe American society is permanently destroyed,” says Renana Brooks, a Washington, D.C., clinical psychologist whose practice was flooded with calls on Wednesday morning. “That’s what I’ve been hearing all day.... It looks to me like a worse trauma than 9/11.” Brooks is a also a presidential scholar at the Sommet Institute for the Study of Power and a critic of President Bush.

Many of the sufferers are licking their political wounds quietly, in neighborhoods and workplaces alongside colleagues, whether Republicans or independents, who are feeling elated by President Bush’s victory. In Democratic strongholds throughout the country, from Los Angeles to New York, others are nursing their misery among lots of company. A T-shirt seen on a New York City rollerblader suggested the extent of the collective angst: “Bush Wins: Upper West Side Put on Suicide Watch,” it read.

Professional counselors and self-help gurus are recommending that those who are feeling despondent forge ahead, choosing activities that bring pleasure and a sense of empowerment.

“It’s really understandable if they want to crawl under the bed, and they can crawl under the bed for a while,” said Irvine psychotherapist Jill Boultinghouse, who counseled many clients following the election last week. “But we really don’t want them to stay there. We want them to return to their normal lives, to have a renewed sense of energy, to concentrate and focus again, to return to eating and sleeping.”

It was advice offered last week by President Bush as well. Asked in his first news conference how his father, one-term President George H.W. Bush, had reacted to his son’s reelection, the president said he and his father have learned not to hold on to the bitterness of past defeats. “Life moves on,” Bush said Thursday. “Life is bigger than just politics.”

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But in homes and workplaces across the country, some on the losing side of last week’s election are finding it hard to take such advice. In fact, they’re finding it hard to concentrate, to complete tasks and to face those on the other side of the political divide. In the days following the election, they stayed home, ate lunch at their desks and avoided TV and newspapers. In the coming weeks, psychologists fear that the hardest hit among them will snap at their spouses, leave projects undone, decline invitations to socialize and let their message machines fill up.

“I had a client who wanted to watch Fox News while we were working together, and I had to walk away,” says Kate Schmidt, a 50-year-old personal trainer from Eagle Rock. In the wake of the election, Schmidt said she was “just palpably, physically ill” and battling a storm of emotion. “I’m not a fearful person, not hysterical. It takes a lot to bother me,” said Schmidt. “But this is really upsetting me. I’m trying to figure out things to tell myself to calm myself down, and it’s hard.”

Brad Levenson, a 44-year-old state prosecutor from Silver Lake, said the election results had left him feeling rudderless, isolated and -- worst of all -- powerless. Levenson said he was anxious, distracted and sad. After the election, he tried to avoid colleagues who were strong Bush supporters by staying in his office when he could. This defeat, said Levenson, has shaken his sense of effectiveness.

“There’s been so much made over having your vote count, sending in money, phone banking, that you start to think, ‘It really does matter what I do.’ And then you vote, or give, or work a phone bank, then you find that it seems like it doesn’t. It feels now like it didn’t really matter -- that someone played a better game.”

Mental health professionals said that sense of powerlessness, if it settles in and takes hold, is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of postelection blues. When it is combined with fearfulness about the future -- an emotion stoked by much of this year’s campaign rhetoric -- psychologists said it can create a destructive brew.

Psychologist Alan Hilfer of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., notes that the combination of fear and helplessness has had an enduring effect on many of his patients who experienced the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Some, he said, will no longer travel into Manhattan, drive over bridges or go into tunnels.

Similarly, Quinn, who has practiced in Los Angeles for about 20 years, says some patients have never quite recovered from the earthquake that rocked Southern California in 1994. She likened their sense of powerlessness to comments she’s been hearing from clients in the days following the election.

“When something stunning like [the 1994 earthquake] happens, we have to believe we have very little control over our environment.... Something as stunning as that increases anxiety levels,” said Quinn. Among people who had invested a great deal of effort and hope in the election and were disappointed, she added, some will descend into an anxious and possibly angry kind of hopelessness.

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Some at risk of postelection depression and anxiety may embrace fraud as an explanation, or subscribe to conspiracy theories to help protect themselves against their feelings of helplessness, said Hilfer. For these people, it may be easier to attribute election results to nefarious misdeeds than to confront the limits of one’s ability to influence a future in which one feels a strong stake.

As an early reaction to loss and grief, anger is also common. And those stricken by last week’s election results should feel free to vent, say psychologists.

“They’re allowed to be angry. They’re allowed to be frustrated ... ,” said Hilfer. “And they should talk about it. But they need now to move on.”

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Times staff writer Daniel Costello contributed to this report.


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