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As a therapist, I am a huge advocate for therapy, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. I believe therapy is the emotional first aid a lot of folks need when it comes to navigating a deeply flawed world as well as the inner workings of our humanity. As people, we are always exposed to adversity. There is no way to bypass hardship in life, and having an outlet where we can talk about the emotional injuries we endure can bring ease, peace, and healing into our lives. However, I want to be real, and as a therapist, what I also want people to know is that therapy has its limits; it is not structured to help you heal from all your problems. We need numerous resources for healing, not just therapy.
The world of therapy is tied to mental health, so in many ways we expect therapy to be the thing that can help us heal from the multiple issues that impact our mental health, but this is not always the case. And that is because emotional injuries that impact our mental health do not just come from challenging childhoods, acute trauma, and interpersonal conflicts; they are also deeply tied to structural issues and social inequities.
Therapy will not help you pay your rent if you are financially insecure. Therapy will not take you out of poverty and give you a livable working wage. Therapy will not put an end to police brutality. Therapy is not going to help you meet your basic needs and provide you with food, shelter, and safety. Therapy falls under health care and isn’t even easily accessible through the American health-care system. I advocate for healing, but we cannot pretend that healing isn’t a social justice issue, because it absolutely is. Healing goes beyond our tendency toward individualism and requires structural change in many ways.
When I was growing up, I always thought trauma equaled war and veterans. What I was taught in graduate school centered around distressing interpersonal events like child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse, emotional and physical neglect, and more. I also learned about war and natural disasters. What I did not learn about, however, was how social inequities can be a form of complex trauma for individuals who must navigate the many systems of oppression, especially when they are a part of a marginalized group. Trauma is not just a childhood issue and can manifest in many ways even during adulthood.
This can be traumatic:
- Having a miscarriage
- Death of a loved one
- Losing a job
- A global pandemic
- Mass shooting
And this can also be traumatic:
- Food apartheid
- Racial profiling
- Police brutality
- Gentrification and housing displacement
- Experiencing redlining
- Medical racism
- Gender oppression
And that list can run on forever when we include all the -isms: ageism, sexism, classism, and ableism as well as homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on. Dealing with these issues can be a form of complex trauma because they are usually not isolated incidents.
Healing is a social justice issue because trauma impacts not only the individual but the family unit, our communities, and the social and economic structure of our country. A research study conducted by Michal Gilad, a Penn Law doctoral student and an associate fellow with the University of Pennsylvania Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and Abraham Gutman, an economist and health policy expert, shared that adverse childhood outcomes that result from a lack of treatment cost society more than $458 billion each year, with a lifetime tally of $194,000 per individual.
In Gilad’s own research, survey results showed that in most states, resources were available for children who experienced abuse, and they were eligible for compensation for therapeutic services; however, being a parent from a disadvantaged community made it difficult to navigate these resources because of language and economic barriers.
Gilad’s research also dives into the social and economic costs of unhealed and untreated childhood trauma. When examining the snowball effect of childhood trauma and exposure to violence and crime, we must consider how trauma impacts a child’s overall health, including their intellectual health, which can lead to issues like school absences, and even the possibility of dropping out.
Once a child’s intellectual health is stunted, their ability to secure a job is impacted, which affects not only the child but their families, community, and society, by placing a financial burden on systems such as social services and law enforcement. The only way to cut back on these costs is to create better systems, which could even require the total demolition of our policies and practices to redesign legislation that considers individuals who are disadvantaged in the first place.
Mental health care is not just therapy; it is also public policy. Recovery cannot happen just while you are sitting on your therapist’s couch. It’s a starting point, but it will not always be enough. No matter how good I was at my job, there is no way that I alone can help a client rise out of poverty and overcome the social inequities she is burdened by. Having access to resources, not just tangible but geographical and financial, is critical.
Mental health recovery requires community, accessibility and affordability, and comprehensive care. Organizations like NAMI, Mental Health America, and Be Vocal: Speak Up make it easy for individuals to learn how they can play a role in policy changes that can do just that: create social and economic change.
You can play your part by doing things like voting and educating yourself on the policymakers you are voting for; reaching out through phone or email to your electoral officials with concerns as well as ideas for change; reading up on policy in general, especially at your school and job; and joining pledges created by these organizations above that are helping to fight for change in the mental health sphere. Lasting change is not just about what we do for ourselves; it’s also about what we do for the communities that we are a part of.
From Owning Our Struggles: A Path to Healing and Finding Community in a Broken World by Minaa B., published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Minaa B.
Flow Advisor and mental health educator Minaa B. is a licensed social worker and founder of Minaa B. Consulting, a mental health consulting practice that works with organizations to help them develop psychological safety and become mental health inclusive.
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