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.


2016 Newsletter, Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology & Ecopsychology Specialization, Pacifica Graduate Institute

Dear Friends,

Please enjoy this year’s Hearing Voices, our newsletter from the Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology, Ecopsychologyspecialization of the M.A./Ph.D. Depth Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.
This newsletter highlights some of the socially and environmentally transformative work of our students and faculty. Our students engage each year in community and ecopsychological fieldwork and research in a wide variety of contexts around issues they are passionate about. Through coursework and fieldwork experiences, they are preparing themselves to meet the needs of their communities through work in non-profits, schools and colleges, foundations, social movements, community groups, and academic-community partnerships. They are contributing to an eco-liberation psychology approach to the environmental, community, and cultural issues that challenge us today.
Some of the highlights this year include a section, “For the Sake of New Justice,” that focuses on the work of students within the carceral system and in efforts “outside” for restorative justice; the outcome of meetings between Students of Color and Racial Justice Allies in “Why Groups for People-of-Color and Racial Justice Allies”; and the initiation of a exchange program with Colegio de la Frontera Norte as part of our Borderlands Initiative.” We welcome your interest!
Please forward to friends and colleagues who might be interested.  We are currently accepting applications for Fall 2016.  We welcome your interest!  Please follow the link to Hearing Voices Volumes 1-3.
Mary Watkins, Nuria Ciofalo and Susan James, Professors

2015 Newsletter, Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology, and Ecopsychology specialization, Pacifica Graduate Institute


Students and faculty are happy to share their work with you! Please enjoy our annual newsletter about the eco-liberation and community work we are engaged in!


News from Liberation Psychology, Community Psychology, Ecopsychology Program, Pacifica Graduate Institute

We would like to share with you the work of our students and faculty in our annual newsletter: 
Hearing Voices
Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 3.52.07 PM 
Our students travel to classes from many different places, studying on campus 
three days a month. For information on our curriculum, scholarships, and 
admission please see our Admissions Booklet



Collaborators for the 5th Int’l Conference of Community Psychology

Hello Colleagues,

Wondering if folks are looking for compatible presentations to propose symposia or roundtable papers at the conference in Fortaleza? I’d prefer be a part of a group rather than propose a solo paper.

If so, I intend to propose work on the idea of the downpressor as a problem in community life. (Reggae music artists Peter Tosh and Bob Marley coined the term “downpressor” to emphasize the weight of oppressive social forces based on class hierarchies). I’d like to explore how acceptance and understanding of the downpressor in the (post)colonial world could be a form of psychic/social movement that could lead to middle class resistance against state violence, extreme poverty and resultant trauma.

I would look forward to discussing ideas and can be reached at dbell@antiochcollege.org.




APA fails to take action on collusion with Guantánamo torture

The following post is based on a request from Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a USA-based group.

It is possible you’ve heard the news that the American Psychological Association recently issued a stunning landmark decision on psychologist involvement in state-sponsored torture.

U.S. military psychologist John Leso was involved in the development of the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” protocol at Guantánano Bay Naval Base and is documented as directly participating in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. This interrogation was described as meeting the legal definition of “torture” by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration convener of the Guantánamo military commissions. Yet despite substantial evidence of Dr. Leso’s involvement in cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the APA recently closed a complaint against him, almost seven years after it was first brought, without proceeding with formal charges.

I am writing to you today to ask for your help in putting needed public pressure on the APA, an organization whose leadership continues to be as complicit in U.S. torture under the Obama Administration as it was under the Bush Administration.

While several mainstream media organizations in the UK and Canada covered this important story (e.g., BBC, CBC, The Guardian), it has been buried in the U.S. The American public therefore goes unaware, and, we suspect, most APA members as well.

This week, Psychologists for Social Responsibility sent the letter pasted below to the APA Ethics Office, demanding answers (the letter is also available in PDF format on the PsySR website).

I am sure that all liberation-orientated psychologists will want to join in deploring the APA’s action and in supporting PSySR’s call for clear explanations and transparency about the decision-making process by APA.  You can read about PsySR’s work on torture at this link.  Please do publicise this through your own networks.

Mark Burton
Co-ordinator, LIberation Psychology Network
and Visiting Professor, Manchester Metropolitan University.


Text of the letter to APA fromPsySR follows:

January 29, 2014

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD Director, Ethics Office American Psychological Association 750 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-4242

Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD Director of Adjudication/Deputy Director, Ethics Office American Psychological Association 750 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear Drs. Behnke and Childress-Beatty:

As representatives of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), we write to express our deep concern and dismay over the recent decision by the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association to dismiss the Complaint against Dr. John Leso, a former military psychologist at Guantántamo Bay Naval Base. According to your 31 December 2013 letter to complainant Dr. Trudy Bond (a PsySR member), your office does not dispute that Dr. Leso was instrumental in devising and administering the Guantánamo “enhanced interrogation” protocol in 2002. Declassified government documents and independent reports have revealed that this protocol included, but was not limited to, weeks or months of solitary confinement; sleep deprivation; sexual humiliation; exposure to extreme cold; prolonged removal of sheets, blankets, wash cloths and religious items; 20-hour interrogations, and painful stress positions.

The Ethics Office took almost seven years to review one of the most egregious examples of unethical behavior in the history of American psychology. Due to unusual circumstances (leaks and release by Congress of classified documents) more information is available about Dr. Leso’s participation in government-sanctioned torture and abuse than may ever be the case for any other APA member. Dr. Leso co-wrote the plan for and is documented as directly participating in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. This interrogation was described as meeting the legal definition of “torture” by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration convener of the Guantánamo military commissions.

In the end, your office apparently decided that Dr. Leso’s months of involvement with the torture program were wholly mitigated because he did not volunteer to lead the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) that formulated the protocol; he was an early-career psychologist; and he reportedly expressed unease with the assignment and a preference for “rapport-building” methods. In reaching its decision the Ethics Office has set a stunning and disturbing precedent. Your office has now provided another layer of protection to psychologists who participate in the debilitating isolation of prisoners, the psychological abuses still permitted by Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the brutal force-feeding of Guantánamo hunger-strikers, or other ethical violations. As well, this logic suggests that psychologists who engage in insurance fraud or sexual relations with their patients can evade censure if they are relatively inexperienced and express discomfort in advance of or concurrent with their actions.

For years APA has insisted that it would sanction any member for whom credible evidence existed of participation in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, yet no psychologist has ever been held accountable for involvement in our government’s post-9/11 torture program. Evidence clearly exists that Dr. Leso and other psychologists have utterly failed to ensure that detention and interrogation operations at Guantánamo and elsewhere were kept “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” By closing this case in the manner you have chosen, it is only reasonable for members and the broader public to assume that APA will never sanction any psychologist participating in government-sanctioned abuses. No statements from APA’s PR office will change this perception.

At this point, your office must realize that the Leso decision is being widely discussed in the media and has become a matter of profound concern to many members of the profession. We therefore believe that it is important for the Ethics Office to provide greater clarity regarding two key issues: First, substantively, how does this landmark decision align with the specific principles and standards of the APA’s code of ethics, and with longstanding professional prohibitions against involvement in torture and abuse? Second, procedurally, how was the decision to close the case reached? While you state that the complaint was “carefully reviewed by multiple reviewers,” it is unclear who these reviewers were. Does this decision reflect an official vote of the entire Ethics Committee, or rather action taken by the Director of the Ethics Office, or some other group of reviewers, without the participation of the full committee? Confidentiality about these matters serves, in our perception, no constructive purpose and instead raises confusion and uncertainty about the priorities and procedures of the Ethics Office. We therefore request that this information be made public in order to begin to rebuild the moral authority of the profession.

We look forward to your timely reply. Thank you.


The Steering Committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility

cc: Members of the APA Ethics Committee Members of the APA Board and Council of Representatives


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 Psychotherapy

I received an inquiry from someone who’s interested in liberation psychotherapy because they’re “mortified” by the thought of entering into a therapeutic relationship with someone who doesn’t have an understanding of oppression and its intrapsychic impact.
Does anyone know of a directory of people who practice with this sensibility?


sites for posting faculty job opportunities?

Hi Everyone,

Wondering if folks have any suggestions for where to post faculty job opportunities that may be of interest to liberation psychologists and other colleagues?



Hearing Voices* newsletter

Mary Watkins writes:
This newsletter is entitled “Hearing Voices.*”. We intend this in two senses: in our
commitment to hear the multiple voices of psyche, communities, and earth –
particularly those that are marginalized; and in raising our own voices that are
informed by what we have closely listened to and witnessed in the world and in
ourselves for social justice, peace and sustainability.
The newsletter contains a variety of work from the Liberation Psychology inspired programme at Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA.
Read the newsletter (3.9 MB, .pdf)

* not to be confused with the Hearing Voices network MB