Angst grips Brazil as election ramps up

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Elections everywhere can provoke moments of anxiety. But in Brazil, where violence, insults and fear of the future have made Sunday's presidential vote a source of mind-bending polarization, psychiatrists' couches are getting heavy use.

Brazilians, or at least those who can afford it, were already keen believers in psychoanalysis. But shrinks have reported a rise in mental unease caused by the electoral climate.

Admar Horn, a Rio psychoanalyst and member of the Brazilian Society of Psychoanalysis, said 80 percent of his patients expressed problems linked to the election. "That's huge," he said.

"My patients have an anxiety that is rising because they are faced with the unknown," Horn said, evoking the "dangerous ambience" and, for some, "a terrible fear that an extreme-right regime will return."

The country's polarization -- between far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, nostalgic for Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and his leftwing rival Fernando Haddad -- has cut through social bonds.

"There are longterm friendships that are coming apart, big conflicts appearing in families, in workplaces," Horn said.

Clinical psychologist Antonio Alberto Rito said his appointment book was full of "all these new patients coming with anxieties and a lot of fear."

"In 20 years in my clinic, this is the first time I've seen this," he said, blaming a climate in which both Bolsonaro and Haddad voters express a "negation of the other, a very strong hate."

"One patient even told me that if I vote for Bolsonaro she'll never come back!" he said.

Symptoms include mood swings, insomnia, nightmares and bulimia, the psychologist said.

Horn said he was seeing allergy and digestive problems, and a resurgence of "panic attacks that had been previously treated."

- Group therapy -

Fernando Rocha, another Rio psychoanalyst, said his patients have developed phobias -- particularly members of the LGBT community who feel singled out by Bolsonaro's past anti-gay remarks.

"These people had found their place" in society, but now "they have started to be afraid to go out into the street, to be assaulted."

"Almost all my patients are worried about what's going to happen to them. They are nervous and sometimes even depressed," Rocha said.

In Sao Paulo, free group therapy sessions have been held for residents who need to overcome "electoral anxiety," the newspaper O Globo reported.

Participants say the heightened emotions make it difficult, even impossible, to discuss the elections rationally within families, in their workplaces, or with their friends.

And yet talk of elections is everywhere in Brazil.

It is so consuming that university students report finding it difficult to study.

"I read everything I can on Bolsonaro. I'm no longer able to read a book," one told O Globo.

A flood of political messages -- and disinformation -- on cellphones is causing students facing exams to disconnect so they can concentrate.

Andre de Souza, a lawyer in Rio, told AFP he received around 500 messages a day on his iPhone, all for or against one of the two candidates.

- 'In Bolsonaro's head' -

Epoca news magazine asked psychoanalysts to "get in Bolsonaro's head" -- and some have tackled the assignment with gusto, brushing aside the usual professional reluctance to engage in armchair analysis.

Some described the 63-year-old former paratrooper as having an "authoritarian personality" with evident "cruelty" tending toward "paranoia" and narcissism.

One psychoanalyst judged him to be "megalomaniac" with a "messianic dimension."

With his law-and-order rhetoric, Bolsonaro wants to be a sort of father figure to Brazilians, one who engendered fear and who demanded submission in exchange for protection, the analyst said.

For Rocha, the Rio psychoanalyst, Bolsonaro's rise corresponded to the Freudian theory of crowd behavior, in which people's super-ego is replaced by an idealized leader.

That phenomenon, he said, is "utterly primitive, like himself."