After nearly two terms in office, state Rep. Angelika Kausche has had enough.

“It’s been a very, very stressful time. The climate has become more contentious,” the Johns Creek Democrat told Atlanta Civic Circle

State Rep. Angelika Kausche, House District 50

Her first year in office in 2019 was “like drinking from a firehose,” Kausche said. “I was very much overwhelmed–and, then, when I was just about to get in the groove of figuring things out, we got the pandemic in March 2020. Then everything got really, really crazy.”

Kausche, who has decided to leave her House District 50 seat at the end of the year, is among a wave of incumbent lawmakers nationally who’ve opted not to seek re-election due to the unrelenting political and pandemic stresses that have drastically changed the way local, state, and national elected officials do their jobs.

In California, more than two dozen state Assembly members and senators have opted not to seek re-election, or even called it quits in the middle of their term, according to Cal Matters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan publication that tracks California politics and policy. That doesn’t include legislators who’ve reached their term limit or opted to run for another office.

Incessant claims that the 2020 election was rigged, and then the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol have only intensified the pressures. A record number of Congress members and staff sought counseling in 2021 in the wake of the riot, according to Roll Call.

The exodus hasn’t gone unnoticed. Her Term, an Atlanta nonprofit that recruits progressive women in Georgia to run for public office, thinks making counseling services more accessible to candidates and elected officials could help.

Her Term announced a unique new initiative last week to provide therapy to women politicians grappling with stress. The group has vetted and lined up a dozen therapists to provide counseling either for free or on a sliding scale, depending on the therapist.  The service is available to both Her Term members and other women seeking or holding office.

“Everything is completely private between the [therapist] and the candidate or the legislator. We don’t get involved in the match-up,” said Her Term executive director Han Pham. 

Participating therapists have agreed to commit to the program through at least the end of the year, she added. “We wanted to make sure the services would go past the election. I think these candidates are going to need to unravel what they went through.”

Support to stay in office

Han Pham

Pham told Atlanta Civic Circle that it got her attention when she saw earlier this year that at least a half dozen Georgia legislators had decided not to run again, including many women. Since women make up only a third–80 members–of the Georgia legislature, Pham wondered how to provide the support they needed to stay in office.

A possible solution emerged during a Her Term team meeting in February. “I was talking to my team about all these women who were resigning, and I was saying it shows how hard this job is–which makes it hard to recruit people,” Pham recalled. 

When Robyn Hatch, a consultant for the nonprofit, suggested that therapy could be helpful, Pham set about enlisting therapists to make the idea a reality.

“We believe all people–women, men and non-gender conforming–are healthier, happier, more resilient individuals when they have the interpersonal support that therapy can provide as part of a total health routine,” Her Term’s April 29 announcement said.  

Before launching the unique initiative, Her Term’s staff talked to therapists, politicians and political advisers. A recent roundtable discussion with three female state senators cemented the need for such a service, Pham said. 

“It was a very open and raw conversation,” she said, where they talked about the pressures of juggling their personal and political lives. “It really takes a toll. One of the other main things is having to provide a security detail for themselves when they’re getting harassed online.” 

Kausche, for one, welcomed the idea of therapy for candidates and elected officials. When she took office, she said, “I wasn’t emotionally prepared for what I was getting myself into. I really had no clue.”

A counselor’s support could have helped her to better navigate the entrenched mores that often leave newbies bewildered and isolated inside the Gold Dome. Incoming legislators undergo an orientation program and are assigned a mentor, Kausche said, but that doesn’t fully help a newly elected official cope with the realities of partisan politics and personality dynamics–all while keeping up with legislative policies and trying to meet the diverse demands of constituents.

While Kausche has decided to leave politics so she can decompress, she recommended that other women seeking office should take advantage of Her Term’s therapy resources. 

“It may give them some guidance to help with stress management and the emotional management of being in this weird role,” she said, adding that serving in the Georgia legislature “is not like applying for a job and working in that hierarchy. This is really really different.”

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz called Her Term’s therapy initiative “an interesting idea.” 

There has been surprisingly little study of the psychological health and well-being of politicians, let alone any programs addressing the issue, the Emory University emeritus professor told Atlanta Civic Circle.

“It makes sense, given the kind of pressure and stress people are under running for or serving in office–especially when I think about the last couple of years and some of the threats against candidates and elected officials,” he said.

Attrition among elected officials isn’t unusual, Abramowitz added, because the hours often are long and the pay is low. “You tend to have a higher rate of turnover in these sorts of part-time legislatures,” he said. 

RESOURCES

Candidates and elected officials can email info@herterm.org to learn more about Her Term’s therapy initiative.

Therapists who would like to join Her Term’s program should fill out this form.

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