This week The New York Times featured an article by Richard Brouillette, entitled Why Therapists Should Talk Politics, discussing the role of politics in the consulting room. Brouillette makes the point that:

psychotherapists are playing a significant role in directing this blame inward. Unfortunately, many therapists, because they have been trained not to discuss political issues in the consulting room, are part of the problem, implicitly reinforcing false assumptions about personal responsibility, isolation and the social status quo.

Critical Therapy

We couldn’t agree more.  And that is precisely why four years ago, we created the Critical Therapy Center with the belief that traditional psychotherapy helps, but does not produce the much needed transformational change. We believe therapy should be transformational and empowering, moving individuals to action.

Historically good therapy is considered to be a-political and the therapist’s role is at most, supportive and at least that of a blank slate. Yet, those practices of therapy as Dennis Fox, Tod Sloan among others, (2009; Sloan, 2000) point out serve the status quo and lead individuals to believe that their personal problems are just that – personal. Instead of integrating the personal within the political, therapists are trained that ideology and politics have no place in the consulting room.  Yet, the feminist movement has taught us that the personal is political (Hanisch, 1969). Psychological science and practice is no different. Ideology is always already present in the clinical room. We just pretend to be neutral. Worse, by being neutral we are unconsciously or tacitly promoting and accommodating the neo-liberal ideology, the status quo.

Freud believed that analysis is based on both verbal communication between the patient/therapist and unconscious communication. If the therapist’s ideology is partly unconscious, can we assert that our ideology always already comes into play in analysis/therapy (Varchevker, 1989)? When adopting an objective, apolitical, asocial stance, the therapist is silently siding with the dominant discourse of oppression and fails to address patients holistically as individuals and as members of society.

To ignore politics in therapy, is to ignore a big part of a person’s life. Issues such as: poverty, sexual harassment, family leave, access to healthcare (including mental health), work-life balance (to name but a few), are good examples of how politics and mental health are interconnected.  Clinically, in our current culture, good therapy is seen as a place where one separates the psychic from the social; and those therapists who talk about the social are seen as “political.” In this fashion, dominant culture encourages people to go to therapy, to work on their issues, rather than form social alliances and rebel (Layton, 2004).

Feelings of guilt for being poor have replaced the fight against social injustice. And the anxiety that one is not good enough has pacified people so that they not only work longer hours in their jobs but often work equally hard at remaking themselves. (Salecl, 2009, p. 179)

Salvadoran psychologist Martin-Baro (1994) believed that the role of a psychologist is not to explain the world, but to change it for the better. He challenged psychologists and mental health professionals to engage with the sociopolitical challenges and movements around them, rather than understanding them from the perspective of scientific spectators. He believed in de-ideologizing everyday experiences, and as a social psychologist he did this by advocating for participatory research. In the therapeutic setting this translates by admitting that the therapist cannot be neutral. The critical therapist enters the clinical hour with a preferential option for the oppressed and the marginalized and is always mindful of the ways power is refracted (for example) through race, class, gender and religion, and questions how it interacts with the therapeutic process. S/he receives and explores the patient’s experience, particularly the avoided and dissociated aspects, by returning it to the patient as data and dialoguing about it.

A Spanner Wrench stuck between cog gear wheels.Critical therapy leads to individual and social transformation. The understanding by a patient that her/his oppression is partially constructed by social inequality is the first step. It is the role of the therapist to facilitate the continued interrogation of the notion of social inequality, revealing how the personal is political, and how the patient’s liberation and empowerment is related to and depends upon that of others. As a result of this process the patient becomes not only an agent of personal change but of social transformation as well. Through her/his practice of liberation and empowerment the patient begins to create safe spaces for others while helping them to explore healthy personal and social identities. Critical therapy makes possible different kinds of relations to others and those relations invite others to explore their own liberation and empowerment.

In critical therapy, the consulting room becomes the place where patient and therapist begin to look at social conditions as part of psychological problems, and together they can focus on internal problems as well as social transformations. To be clear, our work is not about forcing our patients to be political activists, but about asking them questions regarding their personal feelings, as well as about society and the world we live in. To make them aware of the social conflicts they struggle with every day and how their story fits into the larger picture. Perhaps, the biggest lesson they will learn is that they are not alone. In this manner, practice becomes revolutionary.

Aside from offering therapeutic comfort and therapeutic insights, therapy also becomes a performative practice where patients actively reflect on their own power and relationship to the ongoing project of an unfinished democracy. It is precisely this relationship between democracy and therapy that is hopeful and empowering.

 

References

Fox, D. Prilleltensky, I. & Austin, S. (Eds.). (2009). Critical Psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.

Hanisch, C. (1969). The Personal is Political.

Layton, L. (2004).  Dreams of America/American Dreams. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 14(2): 233-254.

Layton, L. (2004).  Relational No More: Defensive Autonomy in Middle-Class Women. Ann. Psychoanal. 32: 29-42.

Martin-Baro, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Essays, 1985-1989, A. Aron, & S. Corne (Eds. & Trans.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sloan, T. (2000). Critical Psychology: Voices for Change. New York, NY: St. Martin Press.

Varchevker, A. (1989).  Psychoanalysis and revolution in Latin America: Marie Langer interviewed by Arturo Varchevker. Free Associations 1: 44-59.

Salecl, R. (2009). Society of Choice. differences 20(1):157-179.

Read More...

Fall is upon us, marking the end of summer and the beginning of another season. Reflecting back, this has been an interesting summer, as discussions about work-life balance, vacations, family leave and mental health surfaced in the news. These conversations ultimately require us to ask ourselves what type of world do we want to live in? What do we value? And how do we put those values into practice?clock-598837_1920

Debates over paid family leave were at the forefront this summer as Netflix announced its new policy on family leave (that actually left some folks behind), Anne-Marie Slaughter released Unfinished Business, a book which grew out of her 2012 Atlantic essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, and various articles discussed the benefits of vacation, including Time Magazine’s cover entitled Who Killed Summer Vacation? These issues continue as the DC City Council is considering a family leave policy that would require employers to offer as much as 16 weeks of paid family leave, and the presidential debates are tackling some of these topics.

Perhaps these issues at first may seem less important than income inequality, mass shootings, police brutality, and lack of health care, to name but a few. They might not even seem related to mental health in particular, yet they are essential overall to physical health and quality of life: two of the main ingredients affecting mental health. They are also embedded in talks regarding income inequality and privilege. Without paid family leave, it is extremely difficult to raise a healthy child, while also trying to maintain a close relationship with one’s partner, family and friends. Without time off, it is impossible to be a healthy productive person. Both of these issues affect all of us, with special hardships to low income wage earners, part-time workers and single parents. These groups are also disproportionately populations of color, and the lack of paid leave has negative consequences not only on families, but also communities, children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

Chronic stress takes its toll, in part, on our body’s ability to resist infection, maintain vital functions, and even the ability to avoid injury. When someone is overworked, tired and stressed, they are more likely to become ill, or have an accident. Slowly their sleep suffers, and mentally there is more irritability, depression and anxiety, which in turn leads to less socializing, more isolation, loneliness and eventually depression. The benefits of vacations goes beyond personal well being, extending to family and relationships. Research conducted by Purdue University Professor Xinran Lehto shows that family vacations contribute positively to family bonding, communication and solidarity. Vacations promote what is called the “crescive bond” ( a shared experience) by fostering growing and enduring connections. Shared family activities create memories, that promote positive ties.

Currently, the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t require companies to give their workers paid time off. Worse, even when workers get paid leave, they seldom take it for fear of losing their jobs or becoming expendable. Multiple hours-worked studies conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the OECD found that the average American worker works longer hours than any advanced country. The US is also the only industrialized nation not to offer paid maternity/paternity leave. As a result, US has been condemned for human rights violations by Human Rights Watch and ranked last in breastfeeding support by Save the Children. It should come as no surprise that currently the top selling drug in America is an antipsychotic/antidepressant called Abilify. By medicating ourselves, we become convinced that we are the problem, rather than expand the inquiry to a bigger question namely: how much is our depression enhanced or even triggered by our environment and society?

The lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. persists despite abundant evidence that it benefits children’s health and development. The strongest evidence comes from Norway, where paid maternity leave led to reductions in later high school dropout rates.  Studies examining paid leave across a range of countries found that it reduced infant mortality, and increased health benefits for both caretakers and children. One study released in May 2015 in Social Science and Medicine shows that the benefits of paid maternity can have long lasting effects. The study found that paid maternity leave following the birth of a first child appears to have positive benefits on women’s mental health late in life.

As Slaughter’s points out in her book Unfinished Business, our lack of paid parental leave hurts women and men. Throughout the book she reinforces the unavoidable conclusion: the way we construct work in the US is not working for either men or women. She also points out how family leave is connected to women’s roles in the workplace and how they are valued. Yet, family leave is not a woman’s issue (as some politicians, reflecting patriarchal values, might have us think); it is a society issue, it is a family issue.

This summer Netflix’s policy on family leave caused a ruckus when shadow-198682_1920the company announced it will allow new parents up to a year of paid time off. Yet, further investigation revealed that this policy would affect only a small handful of workers. For the vast majority of workers, Netflix’s policy mirrors the rest of the country when it comes to paid family leave. Just 12 percent of people working in the private sector get the benefit at work, but even that is skewed by income. Low-income and part-time workers are less likely than their higher-income and full-time peers to get paid parental leave. Professional workers are also a lot more likely to get it than people in service jobs, yet they also have to fear how that leave will be perceived at work.

As therapists and mental health professionals we know that safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments are the foundation for a healthy and happy life. When families are able to care for each other it creates healthier individuals and growing communities – the foundations for a happier society. Since the personal is always political, social workers in particular learn that there are many ingredients contributing to health, not just family/personal life, but also policies and systems that affect and shape that everyday life. The benefits of paid family and vacation are key to healthier, happier individuals and families, that in turn will benefit society and employers. When paid leave policies are present, people are healthier, they use less sick time, they need less health care, and their children do better in school.

Yet, let’s leave aside the research on how being kind to families and to ourselves would benefit employers, business and productivity and for a second think of the the type of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in a society where work is the only priority? Where work is necessary to daily survival that we have to medicate ourselves to make it through? Or, do we want to live in a world where work is a part of life and we get to play, dance and live in flourishing communities? Whether or not we have children is not an issue. Whether or not you are a woman is not the issue. Whether or not you like your job is not the issue… The issue is this: our way of life is hurting us and leaving us depressed, lonely and heavily medicated. When do we put a stop to the madness?

 

Read More...

Last week, on Wednesday June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old gunman by the name of Dylann Roof shot dead nine people attending Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The shooter was detained Thursday morning during a traffic stop in North Carolina. Friends reported that Roof (who is white) had said that he wanted to start a new civil war.  In a photo posted on Facebook, he posed wearing a black jacket that prominently featured the flags of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and apartheid-era South Africa, from when the two African countries were ruled by the white minority. There is little doubt that the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina was caused by racism and hatred.

We at CTC express our deepest condolences for the victims and their families, and our thoughts go out to Charleston. We understand this shooting to be an act of terrorism, reminding us, yet again, of the legacy of slavery, racism and hatred.

We are deeply disturbed by the fact that many (including some news commentators) are trying to link this act of violence with mental illness, despite the fact that studies show no link between mental illness and violence. Further as most research shows, people suffering from mental illness are often the victims of violence, not the other way around. Worse, this erroneous link between violence and mental illness, stigmatizes those struggling with mental health issues, and therefore prevents them from seeking much needed services.

It is not mental illness that led Dylann Roof to choose a black church which stands as a historical symbol of black resistance and progressive politics. Just like it is not mental illness that made him kill only black people, reloading five times and leaving a witness behind to testify as to his racist message. Dylann Roof is a product of racialized rhetoric, bigotry, institutionalized racism and hate. To dismiss his actions under the label of mental illness is to perpetuate that racism, and to stigmatize people who are often already stigmatized by our society, and underserved by a health care system that attends (/covers via health insurance) to physical problems while limiting services for mental ones.

Left with deep hurt and few words, we have complied articles and videos to share with you about this tragic event.

 

Articles:

Saloon - It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males
Washington Post – Shooters of color are called “terrorists” and “thugs.” Why are white shooters called “mentally ill”?
The Nation – Charleston’s ‘Mother Emanuel Church’ Has Stared Down Racist Violence for 200 Years

 

Read More...

Haymarket Sculpture

Happy May Day!

Today, most of the world celebrates International Workers’ Day with commemorations, demonstrations, and vacations. However, absent from this celebration is the United States, which is ironic, since the day has American origins. On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago, many of them immigrants, walked out of their jobs, striking for an eight-hour work day. A few days later, at a labor rally in Haymarket Square, in Chicago a bomb exploded, killing 11 people. However, the Haymarket strike is reminiscent not only for the struggle of an eight hour day, but rather for the struggle of livable lives. For the struggle to be able to live and work, play, and love, to enjoy leisure and communities, and celebrations, so much so that work can be a part of one’s life, not the meaning of one’s life.

Most countries celebrate the memory of that struggle on May 1st. The United States, in particular worried about the political threat of anarchists and socialists at the time, consciously refused to celebrate Workers’ Day.  Further, President Grover Cleveland decided on another day to celebrate workers and proclaimed the first Monday in September as Labor Day in 1894.  Although there have been attempts to revive May Day, most U.S. unions, like the American Federation of Labor, did not pursue the cause. Further, in the 50s at the height of the red scare and left-wing radicalism, Congress passed a bill calling on President Dwight Eisenhower to proclaim May 1 as Loyalty Day, three years later proclaiming it Law Day, which we celebrate to this day.

Today, around the world, May Day has become not only a focal point for demonstrations in support of workers’ rights but also against the grievances of the day, whether political, economic or social.

It may come as a surprise to some, that CTC, as a psychotherapy center is blogging about May Day, as the connection between workers’ rights and mental health might not be apparent at first. However, one needs to be mindful that issues such as: exploitation, low wages, immigration, and work-life balance, to name but a few, are mental health issues because they affect the individual’s well-being, and the overall quality of life. We cannot talk about a well-balanced person, or society, without economic and political freedom.

Counseling people from all walks of life, including some who have lived through extreme cases of trauma and exploitation, namely working with survivors of human/labor trafficking, gives us a unique understanding about the effects of exploitation on the human psyche. But, one does not have to think of labor trafficking to think about exploitation. We at CTC, hear stories from folks having to work two or three jobs in order to support their families. We hear from the workers in the corporate world about the gruesome hours they spend slaving away, and the toll it takes on their mental health and the overall quality of life, including their families. We understand parents who unable to take (enough) maternity/paternity leave, miss their infants terribly. And we discuss the struggles parents face when trying to manage a full time career with a full time family. We talk with couples who are growing apart because they hardly see each other.  It is through these stories that we can begin to question the way our society values people, families and the well-being of each individual. What does it say that we consume, we buy, we spend, but we hardly have time to meet our friends and enjoy each other’s company? What does it say about our society that we need to pop pills like Adderall in order to be productive at work, and we fear that at any moment we could lose that job?

In her book White Collar Sweatshop, author Jill Andresky Fraser writes how American workers have become on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even as salaries and benefits decreased. As she documents, despite evidence to the contrary, our culture sends the message that working longer and harder will lead to great achievement.

Imagine instead, as Kathi Weeks, advocates in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries, creating an “anti-work” rhetoric that recognizes the social, economic and personal value of the things we do in our off-hours. A culture that sees each and one of us as individuals with lives beyond work. Where, things like childcare, washing dishes and caring for our loved ones would be viewed just as valuable as working on Wall Street. To this end, she advocates for implementing policies like a four day work week and a universal basic income. The concept of a four-day workweek is not new, as it was initially introduced in the 1950s by American labor union leader Walter Reuther. Some research has shown that a four-day workweek increases productivity and job satisfaction and helps retain all talented workers. In fact, evidence shows that countries that work less are happier.

Whether we advocate for more leisure time, better wages, better benefits for families and individuals, or we envision different solutions altogether, we hope this May Day, as you celebrate the struggles that came before us, you continue to question the status quo and dream of a different world. A world more just, more caring towards one another, a world where we can enjoy our families, and friends, and work enough to enjoy its rewards, without feeling trapped.

Happy May Day! Happy Workers’ Day!

 

Read More...

This post is part of CTC’s Reflections from our Clinicians series. These series consists of blogs written in the first person narrative, meant to reflect our values of independence while ensuring a broader diversity of topics, styles and opinions.

 

New York, April 19, 2015

This weekend while attending the New York City Anarchist Book Fair I was asked whether or not I am an anarchist.  As always my reply was no, however the more the person, who ironically was also not an anarchist, talked about things such as the effectiveness of cooperatives, and human nature, the more I begun thinking how much I indeed hold in common with the anarchist tenants.

From my understanding anarchism is not a dogmatic system, as someone very dear to me often reminds me.  Rather anarchism is a practice based around a set of ethical positions and principles – the rejection of hierarchy and oppression, and the embrace of solidary, mutual aid, and non-coercive relationships.  As David Graeber states:

At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts. Most of all, anarchism is just a matter of having the courage to take the simple principles of common decency that we all live by, and to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Odd though this may seem, in most important ways you are probably already an anarchist — you just don’t realize it.

I agree with these ideals of anarchism, yet I get stuck at the implementation of it all. Meaning, how would it work politically? Maybe that is not a fair question, yet it lingers on my mind.

Like my anarchist friends, I also oppose inequality and exploitation, reject a capitalist economy, and aim for a society that is free, diverse, healthy, and beautiful.  I have some knowledge of Noam Chomsky, Peter Kropotkin, and Emma Goldman. And, I have witnessed the success of cooperatives – which many anarchists consider a promising feature of any post-capitalist society – but only in those instances where people truly care for each other and are genuinely interested in the community.  I have also witnessed the total anarchy (pardon the pun) that can occur in those cooperatives and other collective ventures.  And I also get impatient with the process of democratic decision-making, especially when things move so quickly in today’s world.

The more I sat with these thoughts the more I begun to realize perhaps whether or not I call myself an anarchist is not that relevant. Instead perhaps I can clarify my positon that is outside ideologies which carry names that incite knee jerk emotions, because we’ve been so indoctrinated for or against them.

As a psychotherapist I have listened to countless stories of pain, greed and the horrors of what humans can do to other humans.  I have also seen the potential for change and witnessed the love, and compassion humans can show towards other humans. In fact, the more I work with people, the more I am convinced of our possibility for both good and evil. I think within every one of us we have the potential for destructiveness and hate, as well as love and collaboration. Yet, there are instincts, if I can call them that, that are cultivated based on the society and environment we grow-up in.  In that sense the anarchists have a point, if we create more egalitarian relationships without coercive force, the more likely we are to be more compassionate and caring towards one another. Eric Fromm believed in this view of what he called the sane society, a society organized in small groups where people would work collaboratively, sharing control of their working conditions and the distribution of the fruits of their labor. Fromm believed that in this society people would be actualized and live to their fullest potential. But, unlike Fromm who believed that in such society violence and destructiveness would disappear, I, in line with the Kleinians, believe that those instincts will persist.  Based on Klein’s theory, I believe,  that through the sublimation of these impulses of violence and destruction, rather than disavowing/disowning them that we can repair and reconstruct.

Perhaps my experience as a psychotherapist over the years, has made me more of an anarchist that I am willing to admit. And if that means seeing the potential goodness in all of us, and caring for each other while aspiring towards non-coercive relationships then you can call me an anarchist any time.

Silvia

 

 

Read More...