Psychologies Of Liberation: Individual Malaise Is Inseparable From Societal Malaise

Psychology interests me. Not so much individual counseling, or the academic canon of Wundt through Freud.  The psychology profession as it is currently known has no relevance to the concerns of the the place I wish to address.  I am interested in the possibility of psychology on a community level.  I believe the community level is where much change needs to happen to elevate the psychological well being of the Pine Ridge reservation.

I also believe psychological well being cannot be divorced from a person’s material conditions, the health of their community, or the psychological health or sickness of the surrounding society at large.  Holding personal pep rallies, throwing handfuls of pharmaceuticals at a problem, will do nothing to alleviate suffering if oppression on numerous fronts remains uncontested.

What is wrong with an individual almost always mirrors something wrong in the society that encases that individual.  This seems so obvious, but the psychology profession has spent a hundred years in denial, narrowing in focus, until it is taboo to speak of the ways community well being intersects individual mental health.  Modern psychiatry tends to isolate a person from their place in history, their community, and the broader society that has shaped them by either oppressing or privileging them.

Much of this individual emphasis is capitalistic in nature.  Like a song by the rapper John Reuben goes:

“Get on a prescription to deal with your depression.  Anxious, lazy, temperamental, obese, that’s what money makers like to call a disease.  And they’ll be looking for or creating new problems with profitable solutions to solve them.  But you won’t get any better, you’ll just come back for more.  Until your medicine drawer is filled with unreliable cures.”

I would like to think beyond individualized solutions that ignore a broader communal context.  I would like to drop the political and social agnosticism the psychiatry profession has adopted.  What is the value of coaching a person to think more positive, when they have no place to sleep at night, no food to eat, when they are quarantined in a poverty trap, marginalized, with various oppression always looming over their head?  For well being, all that needs to change, in addition to a mere overhaul of attitude.  It is time to no longer pretend the effects of the brutal arrangement of the world are invisible, but admit their very visible role in damage sustained to a person’s mental health.

The goal of all this is combating fatalism, promoting empowerment, people realizing things don’t have to continue in the same depressing status quo, and they can affect a change in themselves, their community, their world.

If any of this sounds abstract, I’ll assure that I’m coming from a tangible place. I don’t like these kids hanging themselves out here. I don’t like so many dying by the self-medication of alcohol because they can’t get help anywhere else. I don’t like the resignation and hopelessness to which many succumb.  I don’t like the cycles of abuse that get repeated in each generation.  I also think all that could be changed, if we got a little more creative with our psychological solutions.

Focusing solely on the individual, merely trying to reprogram them through pharmaceuticals and behavior therapy, does nothing but line the wallets of those who have managed to turn psychological health into a commodity.  If we admitted a person is enmeshed in a community, a society, a history, and psychologically this matters, so much change becomes possible on all of those frontiers.  A person can begin to move toward wellness in an integrated way.

There are blindspots in psychiatry.  A lot of us in Native communities are psychologically messed up.  Yet we are messed up in ways that psychiatry never thought much about. The trauma is so complex, and unique to the Native situation.  Applying one-size-fits all solutions formulated by Eurocentric worldviews alien to the situation never meets success. Nothing is quite what it seems on surface, whether its alcoholism or family dysfunction. It all has such deep roots in history, and such complexities. That complexity is where the individual focus of psychiatry fails. The wounds are communal in nature, and need so much more than a bottle of pills, or a pep rally.

Lets look at the process of how mental healthcare works in America.  A person goes to counselling, with problems, with depression, a million wounds, a million uncertainties and anxieties. Talking can do good. So can prescriptions sometimes. Yet talk and medication is often where psychiatry ends.  That can ignore a whole range of deeper issues at the root of problems.

For example, you could say many Native Americans are unwell psychologically. Suicide, addiction, abuse, depression, homelessness, are all found in exponential quantity among Native communities.

Yet the psychological institution seems ill equipped to help the specific unwellness of Native Americans.  Among many reasons, the treatment is far too myopic, refusing to see beyond the individual, to the interlinking community, broader society and history that played a role in that unwellness.

Among Natives, psychologists are often not even near the mark of the problems they hope to help solve.  They only look for a problem inside a person.  Sometimes the problem isn’t in the person, but in the institutions surrounding the person, or even society itself. To make any step toward healing, that larger context needs addressed, in addition to individual solutions.

I’m not saying the multifaceted individuality of a person and their situation should be ignored.  Just that most mental illness is bigger than the one sufferer.  There are conditions in broader contexts of community that contributed to that illness.  Blaming mental illness solely on the sufferer absolves society of any need to look at itself and be accountable for the ways people fall through its cracks, become shattered by its brutal arrangements of power.

Too often psychology serves as the gatekeeper of the status quo, trying to reconcile people to a meaningless, superficial, exploitative existence, rather than asking questions about the society that has defined health as being ok with that dreary existence. Sometimes maladjustment is good and logical, and the status quo is evil and deranged.  Much mental illness is a just response to the injustices of this society. Some feel those injustices so deep it pushes them totally over the edge of sanity, until they can scarcely do anything but scream to themselves, alienated from the entire system.

I am not sure I even like the terminology of mental illness. It too often pathologizes natural responses to suffering and abuse. It makes abnormal what is an entirely normal process of wrestling with the cruelties of existing in this world. It penalizes those who simply care, and are not deadened to everything wrong in society. I don’t think many of the so called mentally ill are sick — they just have a harder time than most coping with sicknesses in society itself.

For example, much of the abuse I have seen in Native communities stems from powerlessness. Powerlessness has a lot to do with dignity, or a loss of dignity.  I think in the face of all oppression, many Natives begin to feel subhuman, and utterly hopeless that anything can ever change.  They look out on their world, and see a mess of horrific proportion. Their people, their government, their own family, their entire existence, in a down spiral.  It provokes such anger, such sadness, seeing how wounded absolutely everything is, what we’ve lost as a culture, what we live with everyday.

Yet this rage and depression often has no outlet, no avenues to provoke positive change. The perpetrators seem too enormous to fight, and no one in the world seems to be on the Native side. So that anger, that sadness, turns inward, becomes resigned, leading to all manners of self abuse, family abuse, community abuse.

Much domestic and sexual abuse among Natives is a side effect of substance abuse. Yet even substance abuse is not the root, but another symptom. Because underneath that substance abuse is the very conditions that surround what it means to be Native.  A systematic, institutionalized abuse, that goes all the way down to the root of the colonial power structure.  It is helpful among Natives to address their individuality and specific problems. Yet anyone in position to work with those problems should realize, there’s typically a cord from that individual brokenness back to a huge collective wound.

Native Americans face something too big for individualized, myopic psychological practices to solve.  Reservations are apartheid, systematic enfeeblement, culture erasure, and death by bureaucracy, rolled into one.  Those who have left the reservations for the cities often cope with enormous alienation and marginalization.  All of this no accident, but engineered by governments with vested interest in keeping Natives powerless.  Material conditions need changed.  Power structures need dismantled and reformed under less oppressive guidelines.  Anyone that is going to make the slightest difference, has to be counselor, psychologist, but also social activist, part of a collective revolution for change and justice.

In the psychological institution, that is a dual role few walk, or even see the necessity of, at this present date.  Yet that was not always the case.  In their book Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman talk about a shocking history of psychoanalysis utterly at odds with how psychiatry is practiced in many places today:

Many early psychoanalytic practitioners were engaged Marxists, socialists, or social democrats, whose practice of depth psychology issued from hopes of liberation on both social and psychological fronts, fronts which were seen as inextricably intertwined.  (…)

Erich Fromm, Sigmund Freud, Willhelm Reich, Karen Horney, so many founders of psychoanalysis saw their psychological practice as meaningless without some sweeping reforms toward a more just and humane society.  They saw without alleviating deplorable societal and community conditions, individual psychoanalysis would amount to not much.

In the early period of psychoanalysis forged in Red Vienna, psychologists were personally involved in initiatives for free clinics for psychoanalytic treatment, free clincs for children of the poor, the kindertarten movement, school-based treatment centers for children traumatized by war and poverty, settlement house psychology classes for workers, the first child guidance clinics, and suicide prevention centers.

They paid attention to building conditions for peace and stability in Austria and Europe, put forward initiatives to help women struggle against various forms of domination and control, and suggested architectural changes for public housing that would help build urban families sense of community, understood to undergird psychological health.  Their advocacy for children issued from the extensive needs of children after World War I, psychoanalytic insight into the importance of early childhood development for later psychological health, and awareness of the traumatizing effects of poverty on child development.”

Envision a truly revolutionary psychological practice getting back to this root of seeking more happiness for all by alleviating everything that causes grief on every single level.  Everything wrong in society, everything broken in a person’s community, manifests in their individual problems in some way.

Without intending to, modern psychological practice contributes to the isolation of the individual by severing the big picture from the process of healing. I think isolation, and a sense of existing in the abstract, losing connection with a feeling of existing in a tangible way, losing connection with the light and the soil, are major reasons why so many people in western society are depressed.

Personally, as I’ve struggled, any movement toward the natural world, toward community, toward owning what has oppressed me and what has privileged me, toward being out in the middle of the day, doing something visceral, has been a step toward wellness.  I think many could benefit from a psychological practice that creatively envisions ways for people to pursue wellness within the full scope of their human experience, rather than the sliver of experience psychiatry has been focusing on.