Writing About Damaged Communities

People have been attempting to alter the course of human society through writing for centuries. Charles Dickens arguably brought the attention of the world to bear on the plight of the Victorian poor in Britain, and the newly awakened social consciences of his audiences help to push through various reforms which improved the lives of street urchins, prostitutes, and those in the workhouse. Or so the theory runs. According to some social historians, the ‘Dickens Effect’ can’t be credited with nearly as much social reform as we tend to believe. So can writing really be a means by which a troubled communal psyche may be healed?

‘Talking Cure’, ‘Writing Cure’

As with everything, it probably depends upon how it’s done. We all know that ‘talking cures’ can be hugely beneficial to certain people struggling with individual psychiatric issues. Writing can also help these people. It helps to express what we’re feeling and, by so doing, work our way towards the heart of the matter. While such things won’t work for everyone, for some they bring about revelations, self-awareness, and reveal the path to healing. Such ‘talking cures’ have been attempted on a communal level with things like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people on both sides of the nation’s divides to come together and tell their stories – with no small degree of success in raising awareness of the other point of view, and healing rifts. However, it requires a good degree of self-awareness already on the part of the troubled society to set something like this up. Before we can reach this point, this awareness needs to be triggered. Some people feel that writing is a good way to go about this. And sometimes they’re right – but it has to be done properly…

Agenda VS Audience

A great many people have attempted to bring the fractures in a community’s psyche to the attention of those both within and without that community via writing about them. Fiction has since time immemorial served as a parabolic way in which to explore our personal and societal truths, foibles, and conventions. Indeed, many traditional shamans use the power of story and myth prominently in their healing ceremonies – by using well-known stories to illustrate the complexities of the human psyche, they can bring the unconscious into a state of self-awareness. And by using trusted characters as proxies for the suffering individual, they can guide the sufferer through their own psyche as they guide the character through the story. Some writers attempt to do this kind of thing on a wider scale through the power of agenda-driven fiction. The trouble with this, however, is that if the agenda is displayed too overtly, readers lose interest. Nobody likes to feel that they’re being accused, or preached to while they’re trying to enjoy a good book. A very skilled and popular writer may get away with wearing their agenda on their sleeve, but others will have to hone their craft to get their message across and raise societal self-awareness without alienating their audience.

Engage And Educate

Let’s go back to Dickens. Plenty of historians have, as we mentioned, pointed out that his influence upon reform may not have been as great as we assume. No single piece of reformist legislation can be traced back to him or his influence. However, we still believe him and his literature to have been a reasonably big factor in the social reforms of the nineteenth century. Why? Because his characters stick in our minds, as do his stories. The adjective ‘Dickensian’ is still used to describe a situation in which the poor are exploited and mistreated. Because of Dickens, we are aware of what went on back then, and fully believe in preventing such situations from arising again. While Dickens may not have directly influenced legislation at the time, he has certainly ensured that we are self-aware enough about the potential ‘Dickensian’ cracks in our societal psyche to defend ourselves against such horrors in future (or so we hope…). He did this by not only educating people regarding parlous situations about which they may simply not have known, but by weaving his social lessons into engaging stories borne by memorable (and loveable) characters. It is his style, and the ability of readers to engage with his tales and his characters which keeps them in the forefront of the public imagination – not the lessons he seeds them with. If, therefore, you wish to enact a ‘writing cure’ for your particular communal troubles, be sure that people are engaged enough with what you’re writing to develop that vital self-awareness you’re aiming for.


The Dangers of Diagnosis – Is Traditional Psychology Addressing the Real Causes?

One of the most fundamental problems for psychologists over the ages has been defining ‘normal’ behavior. As time and society changes, so do accepted social norms – what used to be considered witchcraft is now perfectly acceptable behavior these days for example. However, in trying to define a constant social ‘norm’ from an ever shifting cultural landscape is surely bound to cause problems. One of the problems with mental illness for example, is that it can be very hard to identify, and the dangers are that traditional psychological approaches are very quick to diagnose a problem and medicate without trying other approaches. What is the real scope of the problem, and can a move towards Liberation Psychology help?

Mental Illness in the Modern World

Mental illness in general is still a somewhat of a taboo in many parts of the world. In the UK for example, there are many campaigns that aim to raise public awareness of these problems in order to shed some of the stigma often associated with such issues. The engagement with these problems often varies wildly by country – in some African tribal communities for example, traditional tribal practices can often result in severely dangerous ‘cures’ for those suffering from what could be a fairly common, easily diagnosable condition in another part of the world. One common thread does run throughout the globe however, and that is that not only is mental illness on the rise, but it is still an issue which for the most part, is relegated to the shadows. These estimates are of course, based on traditional psychologies understanding of mental illness, and furthermore often involve a solution through medication. While there is certainly no doubt that medication is necessary for some conditions, is this a crucial flaw in our approach to dealing with this worldwide epidemic?

If we approach the problem from a Liberation Psychology focused angle, we begin to see where the problems might be starting, and find alternatives to medication to help sufferers cope. A recent research report by NAMI – GC offers us an interesting insight into one of the problems we have when it comes to defining mental health issues. The opening statement reads:

‘Mental health is a state of well being in which individuals realize their potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and make contributions to their community..’

It’s entirely possible that part of the reason we are seeing a global epidemic of mental health issues, especially in the developed world, is because of the traditional approach to diagnosis. How do we define the ‘normal stresses of life’ for example? If someone is from a poor background, and has little in the way of prospects due to limitations imposed on them by a capitalist society for example, because they can’t afford healthcare or education, is this a ‘normal’ stress of life? Should someone who suffers depression as a result of this, for example, then be diagnosed with mental illness and medicated? Are we really dealing with the cause of the problem by doing so, and does Liberation Psychology offer a preferred approach?

Differences in Treatment

Some Liberation Psychologists, such as Bruce Levine, have made numerous statements and observations about the inherent problems with these kind of diagnoses, and how they can in some cases be completely unnecessary and in fact damaging to the patient in the long term. If we take the approach that many of these problems, especially the large amount of new ‘disorders’ that are being suggested by traditional psychology all the time, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is especially common in American teens and young adults, are solvable not through medication, but through simple applications of Liberation Psychology counseling, and understanding them as symptoms of a society that creates such problems as a whole, perhaps we would some one step closer to solving these problems. Of course, that is not to say that some traditional diagnoses are not correct, and that all such disorders can be solved without the use of medication. Schizophrenia for example, in severe cases can be extremely dangerous to the sufferer and others, and often some form of medication can be required in order to help them lead a normal life. That said, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of guidance, counseling and simply helping a sufferer to understand that there is no blame to attribute to themselves when it comes to coping with such a condition.

A Change in Approach

By simply creating new conditions and prescribing medication, we could be seen to be running the risk of simply papering over larger problems. Perhaps instead, by embracing Liberations Psychologies’ approach to understanding that the causes of many of the new disorders that we are seeing are indicative of a much wider problem ingrained in many Western societies in particular. The modern demands of life can place huge stress on people trying to make ends meet, trying to live up to unrealistic expectations that are incessantly forced on them, and so on, and perhaps we need to begin addressing these issues at their core with a more Liberation Psychology focused approach.



Liberation Psychology Approaches to Counselling – The Wider Implications

Liberation Psychology often finds itself at the forefront of the ever-redefining lines of psychology in general – whether this is how we choose to make diagnosis, to how accurate and useful established labelling of some conditions may be, to give some examples. Counselling is an integral part of any psychological care or inquiry, and there is strong evidence to suggest that the approach employed by liberation psychology in relation to counselling can have much wider impacting, positive outcomes for not only patients but also communities at large.

The Fundamental Differences

In contrast to traditional psychological approaches, which often ignore social and contextual relevance, liberation psychology actively incorporates the importance of these factors on both an individual and community. Given the roots of Liberation Psychology, this is perhaps no surprise, but while the founding reasons for the approach are indeed based on communities that are in general struggling with social justice issues, there is evidence to suggest that adopting Liberation Psychology as wider approach is beneficial to counselling approaches all over the world. This of course, makes sense: Most communities, whatever their location, economic and political stability, will often face problems unique to their social environments. While we may find cases of similar conditions in many different places, such as depression for example, the reasons and causes for these conditions will greatly vary from individual to individual, society to society. The causes of depression are numerous, and the condition is often not set off by any one, but a combination of a number of triggers. However, the social climate can have severe effects on what triggers are likely to be more common. Countries struggling for social justice for example, will generally have differing levels, and potency of triggers compared to the UK. Of course, there are many common elements that contribute to depression, and this perhaps argues well in defence of employing liberation psychology counselling methods: By understanding and addressing the importance of social and environmental factors that are unique to the individual, the chances of successful counselling are increased, as well as achieving a greater understanding of root causes. Continue reading