29 January 2018

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Social Justice & Psychotherapy

Over the last couple of years, we have seen a groundswell of movement in Canada and the United States towards recognizing issues affecting the equitable treatment of certain groups of people in our society. Some of these groups are affected because of their race, others because of socio-economic, cultural, or gender-related factors. The rebuilding of ties to these communities — integrating them equitably into mainstream society and recognizing their mistreatment would define the work of “social justice.” It’s complicated work. Complicated namely because we are beginning to widely understand how structural power affects progress; when historically under-represented portions of the population are not included in the decision-making process it’s harder for them to find recognition, let alone a sense of justice. An example of this complexity would be so-called “diversity panels” — ostensibly to converge on the topic of inclusion and representation with the goal of finding solutions — comprised entirely of white (typically male) panelists; there is the veneer of progress (“diversity”), yet in fact, by virtue of no space actually being made for the under-represented, it’s progress in a vacuum.

That vacuum has been opened more and more lately, and we are beginning to see new faces — women, POC individuals, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants from non-Western countries — in positions of power and influence. For the first time, under-represented members of society have the opportunity to see a reflection of themselves in roles of authority.

So, how do social justice issues intersect with psychotherapy? How is it even relevant, you may ask. Recognition, for one example. On behalf of the therapist, an understanding — whether through lived experience or education (or, as often the case, a bit of Door A and a bit of Door B) — of where society has come from, and how certain groups have been historically mistreated. On behalf of the client, there may be many struggles, ranging from fighting the feeling that they are an outsider to the system, to guilt that they have succeeded while so many others have been denied access. It’s also possible for some clients to recognize their privilege to such a degree that, somewhat ironically, they internalize this as a reason to deny their needs (often in conjunction with other issues).

In my practice, I recognize the complexity of identity, how while it may be rooted by ethnicity, culture, religion, race, or gender identity — at the end of the day we are complex individuals and not just the outcome of what we are born and/or raised with. As a therapist it’s important for me to listen. As someone sensitive to social justice issues, it’s incumbent on me to listen a little more closely without losing sight of the individual.