Therapy Interrupted (in Norway): Shifting the Gaze from the Self to the Group

On June 3rd I landed in Norway to attend the conference, Beyond the Therapeutic State: Collaborative Practices for Individual and Social Change. There were 200 participants from 24 different countries. Where we came from varied. There were many well known academics from universities around the world, people who have struggled with schizophrenia and have been hurt by forced hospitalization and medication, and practitioners of a wide variety of therapeutic approaches. What we had in common was a commitment to creating alternative approaches to emotional growth.

Early at the conference I brought all of you into the dialogue – patients, colleagues, community members and helping professionals interested in social therapy. We were having a conversation about the harm done by the medical model of labeling and medication, and forced institutionalized treatment. I asked, “Where are the voices of our patients, our communities? Are we talking to them? What is it they have to say? Collaborative therapy needs to include all of our voices.” I met many practitioners who agreed and were eager to hear more. I talked about our work together and how our focus on social activism and building community are necessary activities for emotional growth and development.

I spoke with Sheila McNamee, a leading social constructionist, about the importance of community organizing. Sheila asked me to talk about our community work. I explained how the STG is part of a movement of social activism, of community building – the All Stars Project, social therapy as a non-diagnostic therapy, our therapists going out on the street corner asking people, “Does our community need therapy? What does our community think about diagnostics?”

In his opening remarks, Ken Gergen, a leading post modernist and the primary organizer of the conference, spoke out passionately against the therapeutic state. He spoke about the damage done by the medical model and psychiatry’s need to label, predict and control human beings. Ken talked about the need to come together as progressives in mental health to create new ways of helping people with emotional difficulties. He asked “Can we come together to do something about the oppression of diagnostics and forced medication?”

A wonderful session was led by Carina Håkansson, a compassionate practitioner who has created the Family Care Foundation in Sweden. She works with people who have serious emotional difficulties and places them with families on neighboring farms. In a documentary about her work made by Brian Mackler, it is vividly clear that what is required to help people grow is compassion not drugs or diagnostics. The notable absence of pathologizing the client and people’s ongoing growth is stunning. One farmer notes that relationships with the farm animals can be helpful to people. He heard voices himself at one point in his life and being on the farm with family helped him get better. Carina and her staff have outstanding success in transforming the lives of people with schizophrenia and other emotional difficulties.

On the second day of the conference, I led a workshop with Pal Carlin, a family therapist in Oslo who trained in social therapy at the East Side Institute a number of years ago. I was his supervisor. Pal and I designed an asystematic exploration of the human capacity to perform and its implications for emotional growth and development. We called our session Therapy Interrupted: Performing Social Therapy.

Why “therapy interrupted?” We talked with people about how social therapy interrupts our fascination with the self and helps us shift our gaze to the group. It stops us from digging deep into our patients’ psyches in favor of helping them create new ensemble performances. It disturbs our patients’ notion that therapy is all about them and introduces them to the other. It challenges the model of traditional psychology in favor of exploring, creating and playing with subjectivity as social relational and cultural activity.

In the session, we showed a section of a dialogue between Ken Gergen, a leading post modernist and Fred Newman, the founder of social therapy, about the importance of performance – how it doesn’t so much matter what we are talking about but how we are talking! Participants then performed Ken and Fred’s conversation.

We invited the participants to perform transcripts of actual social therapy groups from my practice at the Social Therapy Group in NYC. They had many reactions to our work. Some were interested, enthusiastic and curious. Others were critical and concerned about how the therapist challenges the patients’ conceptual framework of what therapy is! More on this in my next blog.

The conference ended with Ken Gergen asking people to take more responsibility for what is happening in the world. He spoke passionately on the need to build a movement. He urged us to keep the dialogue going.

I want to do that with all of you.

First, by inviting you to our upcoming local, national and international community event sponsored by the East Side Institute, Performing the World from Oct 10th – Oct 12th. Educators, social activists, mental health professionals and artists will be coming together to share and showcase their work, build community, and create something new using the developmental power of performance. Do join us.

Second, I’d like to begin a new conversation with you. As many of you know the history of social therapy lives in the activity of community building and social activism as essential to creating the conditions needed for emotional growth. Social therapy is a community therapy. Building community makes it work!

How do you see the relationship between community building and our capacity to grow emotionally?

Do you think it is important? If so, tell us about your experiences.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for coming to Norway! More to follow…

Christine LaCerva