by Christine LaCerva
As we move into the New Year I’m experiencing a whole range of emotions. In conversations with my clients in our social therapy groups, it’s become clear that I’m not alone in this experience. Many clients and community members have expressed how they feel overwhelmed and challenged by what is happening in the world.
People are talking to me about the ongoing impact of Hurricane Sandy, the tragic shootings of children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut and the daily newscasts of young children, teens, adults and the elderly getting bullets in their bodies. Mass shootings in movie theaters, schools, on the streets of Brooklyn, walking your child to school. It is a frightening, confusing time.
Recently the New York Times reported that more Americans die by gunshot wounds than in other countries of wealth. We have the highest rate of death by violence, teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, and assaults on women and children, and the highest percentage of poverty — in the richest country in the world. Many ask: what is going on here? What is happening to us? Is the world falling apart? Is there anything we can do about it?
Once again, psychology has asserted itself as the arbiter of what’s normal and what to do about those who are outside those limits. Through the media, the mental health experts have created a national dialogue of explanation, telling us we need better tools, more accurate assessment, so we can get better at identifying people who are capable of this kind of violence. They urge mental health care providers to target young people in their teens. They call for more mental health facilities, training in parenting skills, training teachers to recognize the characteristic of problem kids, gun control. On the internet, endless psychologists and therapists analyze how mentally sick Adam Lanza was — labeling him as a menace and a crazy, unfeeling monster. Or was it the mother’s fault? The theories are astounding — and offensive. Nowhere to be found are the far more upsetting and frightening issues of where we are as a culture.
As a social therapist and longtime community activist, I think we need a different kind of dialogue, that at the very least acknowledges the limitations of how and what we see, how we think and how we talk about these issues.
Fred Newman, the founder of social therapy, and the creator of a development community full of rich and growthful activities for young people, had a lot to say about how we think about all of this. Over the years that I worked with him, Fred repeatedly raised the issue of the ways in which mental illness is used to explain violence and horrific crimes, leaving the larger social and economic questions in the shadows, unexplored. Psychology itself is full of premises and presuppositions that explain everything in terms of individual dysfunction. What about the environment that we are living in? What about the failure of our schools to educate and nourish young people? What about the norms of therapeutic work that tell people with psychiatric illness they cannot get better and need to be on medication for the rest of their lives? Fred asked a different kind of question. He asked whether the society is mentally ill.
I think ordinary people know well that there are deeper structural and political underpinnings to what is happening. We all know that there are larger social questions that are not being explored. But what many of us don’t know is that the current methodology — how we think, have relationships, understand the world — keeps us locked into conservatizing ways of living our lives and limits what we see as possible in a culture that is dramatically changing. Causality and explanation blind us to the larger picture.
What is there to do? My answer is to build community; come together. And of course this raises the question of how we do that. What kinds of environments need to be created so we can ask different kinds of questions — questions that don’t have ready-made answers because they’re outside of what we know. They are questions whose answers need to be created.
What do you think about all this? As we begin 2013, I would like to start a conversation, in this blog and through therapeutic dialogue, that explores a variety of new conceptions — how to think, how to see, how to grow and develop. It’s possible that through our conversations we can learn to ask new kinds of questions and develop our creativity in how to see what‘s possible.
So what’s on your mind? Please leave a comment, ask a question, and we’ll build this conversation together.
Happy New Year, everyone! Christine LaCerva