One way to analyse different approaches to mental well being is the degree to which the model serves a liberation agenda, or a social control agenda.
Liberation psychologies “focus on the well-being and self-organisation of people and their communities…promote critical reflection and transformation in local arenas, and…their goal is not the imposition of a prescribed yardstick of development but an opening toward greater freedom in imaging the goals of life.”1
In other words, liberation psychologies don’t just focus on the individual but the whole community, they don’t accept the status quo culture if it’s harmful, and they don’t tell people what it means to be successful/normal.
Mainstream psychology and psychiatry (which could be defined simply as that which gets the majority of research funding and institutional/governmental validation) fall at the social control end of the spectrum for a variety of reasons;
- It tends to focus only with the individual, not acknowledging their interconnectedness to other and the environment, and that everyone’s whose most important goal is personal happiness,
- It assumes that that there are fundamental realities of personality and psychopathology that are the same across times and cultures, not accounting for socio-cultural influences on the way we view mental well being,
- That social structures should persist as is, and it is the person who should shape themselves to fit the structures (as opposed to supporting the transformation of harmful social structures)
- A scientific laboratory based approach that is far detached from lived experiences2.
All of these inform and emerge from the central criticism of mainstream psychology; that it doesn’t acknowledge the role social oppression, colonialism and globalisation play in diminishing individual wellbeing, and that it works in service of the dominant Western colonising agenda by helping people adapt and adjust to oppression, rather than seeking to analyse and transform it.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
If you’re engaging with mainstream mental health services it’s good to be aware of the agenda and value system in the background. Sometimes the treatment people receive is more harmful than helpful because the impact of oppression, abuse and marginalisation is not recognised – all the issues the person presents with are seen as something wrong with and belonging to the person, instead of being connected to the broader social context of their lives.
I think Transgender Dysphoria (TD) is a great example of this. TD is defined as distress about the sex and gender you were assigned at birth; implying that the conflict and therefore distress is located within the person. I would argue that the conflict is actually located in the society. If our cultures were much more friendly and accepting of the transgender experience, transgender people would likely feel a heck of lot less distressed. Their distress is significantly located in the fact that they are at extremely high risk of assault, not to mention the weird looks, comments etc they may experience on a daily basis if they don’t conform to standard gender stereotypes.
Another example reported to me involved a psychiatrist, when being told by his client about her background of childhood abuse told her “we are here to talk about your mental health, not your history”, as if a history of abuse was in some way irrelevant to mental wellbeing! Try to challenge a psychiatrist like this and you could end up with labels like defiant. This is of course not the case with all psychiatrists – like all professions it is a diverse group and there are some that are trauma-informed. But not many that align with liberation psychologies that take the next step and state that it is also collective trauma that manifest in individual symptoms.
Mental health approaches with a social control agenda inherently require a power imbalance whereby one person is the expert (in control, adhering to cultural norms), the other in need of the expert’s advice (out of control, not meeting the expectations of the culture).
Liberation psychologies have a very different approach whereby they adopt a facilitative position that supports the unfolding of awareness and existing wisdoms and the accessing of personal and collective agency. They tend to be found more in collective projects but you will also see their influences in several models of alternate psychotherapy, including process-oriented psychology.
All that being said, being able to function in society is not unimportant. It’s highly distressing when you can’t get along with others, engage in meaningful employment etc. It just shouldn’t be assumed that this is what is good for everyone, or that society itself doesn’t need evolve!
- Watkins, M. and Shulman, H. (2010). Toward psychologies of liberation. Second Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p 5.
- Ibid, p 24, drawing on the work of Martin-Baró, originator the of the term liberation psychology.
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