'If there was ever a time in our country when we need more mental health professionals, this is it,' the American Counseling Association said.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) used a Saturday graduation speech to demean graduating seniors, mock mental health professionals, and spew racist tropes about the coronavirus pandemic. His words are now bringing him widespread criticism.
In his speech, Sasse said psychologists are just employed "just to help people forget high school" or "research hamsters who get lost in mazes." He added, "if you are headed to college, do not — do not — major in psychology."
Sasse also belittled graduating seniors, congratulating them on "not on graduating high school, but on making the journey down the stairs from your bedroom to the living room and putting on something slightly more formal than sweatpants."
He concluded by reiterating racist tropes about China and the coronavirus pandemic, promising "a serious reckoning with the thugs in China who let this mess spiral out of control by lying about it."
Dr. Anne Talbot, the immediate past president of the Nebraska Psychological Association, said Monday that she viewed the speech with a "mixture of dismay and shock," She said Sasse has met with the organization to discuss the importance of mental health issues, so she was "simply shocked he would say the kinds of things," adding that it was "disheartening."
The community of Freemont, which includes the high school Sasse gave his speech to, is especially in the need of counselors, Talbot said, because residents are currently facing the coronavirus pandemic a year after the community was devastated by flooding. She added that Sasse's comments about psychologists were "almost mean-spirited to say" to a group of students "graduating in a community that has been pretty devastated by those events."
Lynn Linde, chief knowledge and learning officer for the American Counseling Association, said Sasse seemed to be "attempting a very light-hearted tone." However, she recognized that "a lot of my counseling colleagues were very offended" by his remarks.
"We are in a mental health crisis," she added, referring to the needs people have during the coronavirus pandemic, "and I don't think that there are enough people to provide services to anybody who needs it, and then to have somebody say, 'well, don't go into this profession.' If there was ever a time in our country when we need more mental health professionals, this is it."
The Nebraska Counseling Association wrote a letter Sunday calling the speech "tasteless and demeaning to our field and more importantly, our seniors."
Sandra L. Shullman, president of the American Psychological Association, said that Sasse's comments were "disrespectful and harmful."
Shullman noted that psychologists "have been on the front lines helping medical professionals and patients as they struggle with mental health issues triggered by the stress of battling the novel coronavirus."
Sasse's speech was also criticized by local and national officials for its racism.
"You deserved better than the graduation remarks from Senator Ben Sasse, Michael Petersen, a board member of the Freemont school, wrote on Facebook to the graduating seniors. "The racism, implying that our graduates are fat and lazy, disparaging teachers, and attacking the mental health profession are despicable."
Chris Janicek, a Democrat running against Sasse in November, also criticized the speech.
"Ridiculing mental health care specialists, suggesting that the graduates are lazy slackers and using the platform to blame China for the pandemic we have now is beyond reprehensible," Janicek said, according to the Associated Press.
"It is sad that Senator Sasse would use a commencement speech — typically an opportunity to inspire the best in our graduates — to instead promote xenophobia and contribute to the rising anti-Asian sentiments in the country," Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, said in a Monday email. "Spreading fear of and anger towards China during the coronavirus pandemic does not produce more masks or tests to keep our families safe, but it has led to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes," she added.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Sasse's spokesperson responded to some of the criticism by saying, "Ben's proud of each of the graduates," and "Pretending graduates are too fragile to hear the truth is silly."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.