As a psychologist, I feel we’ve been given lies about mental health. There is a “mental health crisis,” we are told. The need for mental health care has skyrocketed in the past two years, and services are currently overwhelmed. 1.6 million individuals are on waiting lists, and another 8 million need help but cannot even get on these lists. People of all ages, including children, are coming to emergency rooms in a state of hopelessness and death want.
But there’s another perspective on this emergency that doesn’t center on the medical establishment. The fact that so many of us are hurting seems inevitable, doesn’t it? Since we now reside in a terrifying and unknowable universe, of course, it does. Our faith in those who are supposed to protect us has been shattered by news about police killing women and strip-searching children, while at the same time we struggle to keep up with rising living costs and lingering effects of loss, disease, and solitude.
As a clinical psychologist who has worked for the NHS for ten years, I have seen firsthand how we are failing individuals by personalizing their problems as mental disorders or psychological issues and depoliticizing their suffering. Can someone who doesn’t know how they’ll feed their family for another week expect to benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is meant to address “unhelpful” thought patterns over the course of six sessions?
A black man’s experience of racism in the workplace will not be resolved by taking antidepressants, and labeling survivors of sexual abuse with a psychiatric disease (in a world where two women are murdered in their own house every week) will not make them any safer. Bullying and online violence are common in today’s schools, and despite the popularity of mindfulness practices, they aren’t benefiting youngsters who are dealing with poverty, peer pressure, and exam stress.
We wouldn’t give a plant the diagnosis of “wilting-plant-syndrome;” rather, we’d take action to improve its environment. People are told there must be something wrong with them if they can’t function under intolerable circumstances, and yet they are still expected to keep going. to keep going, to keep making things, without letting ourselves feel the pain.
As part of the movement to normalize discussions about mental health, “mental illness” has been recast as “an illness like any other,” with its origins in “faulty brain chemistry.” A chemical imbalance in the brain is not the actual cause of depression, according to recent studies. Suggesting we have a permanently damaged brain only serves to further marginalize and shame us. The most damaging aspect of this myth is that it directs our attention inward, away from the situations that actually cause our distress.
Antidepressants and individual therapy can be quite helpful for some people who are struggling with depression. However, I am concerned that a medicalized, individualistic view of mental health simply covers the underlying causes of violence with bandages. The status quo is preserved because we are urged to conform to established systems.
As a society, we fail marginalized people most when we medicalize, label them as dangerous, and respond with violence to Black people’s understandable emotions of hurt at living in a structurally racist society. Individuals of African descent are disproportionately targeted by our nation’s mental health services, which are disproportionately prone to use Tasers, section, restrain, and over-medicate black people.
The United Kingdom has a lot to gain from studying liberation psychology. It was established in the 1980s by the Salvadorian activist and psychologist Ignacio Martin Baró, who believed that “mental health problems” should not be treated in isolation from the larger social structures in which they occur.
People’s past and present-day encounters with oppression are fertile ground for the development of suffering. Instead of forcing people into a white, eurocentric, and individualist conception of therapy, liberation psychology views them as potential social players in the process of freedom, valuing their own lineages, creativity, and experience. Collective social action takes on the social, cultural, and political roots of suffering.
When considering how the UK epidemic has disproportionately impacted the mental health of the poor, this theory makes perfect sense. Does this imply that affluent white males never feel pain? Naturally, they do. The myriad ways these structural problems manifest in people’s lives is still a mystery to us.
Such are the ways in which colonial violence against immigrant families manifests itself within households and on bodies, or how the stresses of individualism and capitalism can lead to isolation and substance abuse.
I am not advocating that individuals in need join the picket line. Disabling, even, pain is real. However, those of us in the helping professions, such as those in mental health, play a crucial part in bringing about societal change by assisting individuals in need. Therapeutic social activity treats both individual and community suffering.
Therapy should not focus on changing individuals’ “mindsets;” rather, it should aim to dismantle systems of inequality, such as those that exist on the basis of race and class, as well as those that govern access to housing and economic opportunities.
Recent research has shown that universal basic income reduces “crises of anxiety and sadness.” Some of my most meaningful contributions as a clinical psychologist have been outside of traditional therapy sessions, such as when I advocated successfully for safe housing for queer, black, and brown facilitators in organizations like Beyond Equality, or when I worked with them in the community to stop gender-based violence.
One real-world example of such a group at work is Psychologists for Social Change. Investment in youth and community-led initiatives like healing justice London and 4front are two examples of preventative social change that are needed. Through fostering social connections, social action, and creative problem-solving, they aim to alleviate trauma in underserved areas and pave the way to a future free of violence.
Obviously, I recognize the need of working with clients one-on-one as part of my job, so please don’t take what I’ve said here as a criticism of such services. However, therapy should be a place where oppression is discussed, and where the goal isn’t merely to alleviate misery but rather to understand it in the context of a world where such a response is necessary for survival.
Finally, I hope to live in a world with reduced demand for mental health professionals. People who accept and celebrate each other’s craziness. Where we risk (sometimes literally) showing our nakedness by turning to one another in our shared, understood, and oftentimes untidy suffering.
Although the pandemic showed us that major changes might occur rapidly, fundamental reform will take time. But change won’t happen until we make it happen, and our distress may be a sign of strength, revealing the areas in which we can band together to challenge the systems that are causing so much pain.
Like a plant, we need to take stock of our surroundings. What the sun provides in terms of safe, inexpensive housing and easy access to the environment and inspiration may be the water, while the universal basic income could be the sun.
A person’s diet could consist of nourishing relationships, a strong social network, and ample social services. In order to alleviate our suffering, it would be best if we could change the unjust social norms that are creating it. If we want to make it through the day, we should all take advantage of the resources available to us. The reality is harsh. But wouldn’t life be a little more bearable if we could change the soil, get some sun, nourish our intertwined roots, and spread our leaves out?