Psychotherapeutic training generally includes something called Universality as a healing technique. It stems from Irvin Yalom’s germinal Therapeutic Factors for facilitating group therapy. It basically means that when humans get to hear and witness another human facing something similar to their own experience, this communality engenders a sense of validation and fosters healing. Universality, with its relational delivery, inherently addresses the isolation any human can feel amidst a problem that had felt singular.
Normalizing Responses to Societal Issues
As a trauma-informed and relational therapist who specializes in climate change grief and disaster trauma; this is of interest to me for several reasons. A dominant one is that grief and anxiety created by several ongoing collective traumas are hard to separate from their myriad effects on a single person’s psyche, which at times is simply responding to these threats, pressures, and perils. Living within a colonial, imperialistic, and capitalistic society under threat of both climate change and continual pandemic pressures is not a cakewalk. Even that sentence stresses me out! The waters we swim in matter. Our collective ills contaminate human psyches and can show up as pain, depression, anxiety, panic, and the like. Our collective diseases become individuals’ problems.
And yet, as universality would have it, a clinician understanding these ills—as best they can from the purview of the client—is paramount to good treatment. Coping strategies alone are not sufficient, normalizing the client’s response to the collective deficiencies is part of alleviation of these pressures. Normalizing in this way may look like: “yeah, this is not, or should not be, normal.” This is a bit of disclosure from the therapist– a human to a human, both part of the same culture admitting where things stand.
I don’t think I am going out on a limb to note that our culture is currently struggling. As I write this, in Texas, transgender citizens’ rights are on the line. Gender-affirming care is slated to become criminalized, at times targeting trans children’s parents with threats of abuse. Recently, trans adults were added to the list with SB1029, which targets insurance companies and providers. Abortion is banned, though it is a medical intervention that can be lifesaving. To make matters worse, bounty laws that enforce this are creating an environment that is truculent and dangerously paternalistic. Books are being banned, and educators censored. A new Don’t-Say-Gay-esque bill was proposed just last week, modeled after Florida’s, which threatens an outright book ban around anything mentioning LGBTQ+, as well as censoring classroom discussions around the same. And the effects and human impacts of a climate changed are palpable and ever-increasing–in our area, we are recenrtly off the heels of another freeze. All of this on top of year three of the pandemic and its longstanding disruptions on learning, isolation, mental health, and physical health.
When Diagnostics Are Not Enough
And listen, I am not against diagnosing one’s mental health issues. Diagnostics as a part of comprehensive therapeutic treatment can be incredibly beneficial. They can certainly aid in devising and guiding successful treatment within the therapeutic consulting room. For the client who has been struggling with symptoms; a diagnosis can provide relief, an explanation, and a framework to describe their internal state or external behavior to themselves, family, classmates, work colleagues, and friends. Diagnostics on the whole can open up lines of communication within a treatment team, creating access to intervention avenues at the school level, or equally, funnel information to a psychiatrist who can better medicate. A correct diagnosis can create ease within a family system to remove the label of Identified Patient (IP) from a child’s role and help the system see their child or sibling from a more educated and supportive perspective.
So- we can diagnose the person inside of the room however, we must also pay mind to the collective upheavals, distresses, and systemic issues that contextualize this individual. The medical equivalent might be something like this: we have a town next to a factory that is seeping toxic waste into the town’s water supply–a large and suspicious portion of the town comes down with a respiratory disease. Diagnostics alone would create a closed loop within the local medical system, with continuous siloed individual diagnoses reporting the disease created by this substance. AND/OR; the water supply could be addressed, and toxin mitigated. This is made more complex when we consider mental health as things tend to be created by many factors– and it can be tricky to suss out the causes, and the collective fixes. But complexifying our solutions, and as collectively as possible, is exactly the medicine called for in this era.
Psychologist James Hillman said (and of note, before the internet took hold):
“Of course I am in mourning for the land and water and my fellow beings. If this were not felt, I would be so defended and so in denial, so anesthetized, I would be insane. Yet this condition of mourning and grieving going on in my soul, this level of continuous sadness is a reflection of what is going on in the world and becomes internalized and called “depression”, a state altogether in me ─ my serotonin levels, my personal history, my problem…”(Hillman, 1996)
Trauma-Informed Care as a Path Toward Healing
I know I am outting my politics, but alas—my last two blogs have been about porn and fairy tales so that cat is already out of the bag. Let’s take the example of gun violence. I see teens and work often with parents with young children. Both demographics are widely impacted by the nations’ lack of legislation on guns and are moreover the compensatorily-devised adaptation techniques that infiltrate our learning institutions instead of real action. If a teen client comes in saying; “I have had [X many] years of Active Shooter Drills at school and I am experiencing nightmares.” Yes, we can work to shift the nightmares, ameliorate the residual fear and treat the existence of such symptoms. But resounding data is against these drills and particular practices within. Why would I simply normalize them?
A study quoted by Everytown bleakly reports:
“Active shooter drills in schools are associated with increases in depression (39%), stress and anxiety (42%), and physiological health problems (23%) overall, including children from as young as five years old up to high schoolers, their parents, and teachers. Concerns over death increased by 22 percent, with words like blood, pain, clinics, and pills becoming a consistent feature of social media posts in school communities in the 90 days after a school drill.”
Similarly, if a parent comes in citing concern their little one is going to be soon introduced to this practice at their new school, it would be wholly inauthentic of me to ignore not just the upset this future event is inciting but to not also see this concern within the structure of the collective climate.
I speak here from a position of activism, allyship, and a desire to move forward as clinicians with eyes open, and as collectively aware as possible. No matter the source, symptoms and their manifestations are treatable. Therapy can provide meaning-making, the healing relationships can be sturdy-ing, and its structure and techniques can actively reify the resilience, connectivity, and vibrancy of the Self. If you love data, therapy has been shown in many forms to change the brain’s structure, namely in the frontal and temporal cortex, which enables more integration, processing capacity, and regulation of neural symptoms. When under the care of a trauma-focused and trained practitioner; trauma can be reprocessed to repair mental injuries from not only the initial trauma(s) but also any newer experiences that have been neuropsychologically linked up with the traumatic experience. EMDR, for example, uses bilateral stimulation as an adaptive information processing technique to reprocess and restore improperly stored, fragmented memories that can otherwise create interruptive and discontented states. The de-fragmentation and integration it engenders can be deeply impactful.
Therapy is helpful, and it is more helpful when it considers itself as a tool within a structure, that keeps in mind the structure’s influence on the clients it is aiming to help. I would be doing a disservice to clients to ignore the wider lens, and I hope that in and of itself is a helping technique.
I am not telling you to do or not do anything, but here is a list of books that have been banned in Texas.
Dr. Jennifer Mullan’s Decolonizing Therapy model provides trainings for Politicizing your Practice