The number of people struggling with mental illness is growing. A look at the headlines reveals that mental health is worsening as a result of economic inequality, social media addiction, sexism, police violence and racism, and climate change. Add to this list the psychological effects of hate crimes such as the mass shootings and mail bombs we’ve witnessed in 2018. In a global context, social dysfunction is taking a massive toll on our psyches. How can psychotherapists help?
Dehumanization and its Toll on Mental Health
These toxic social conditions have something in common: they are dehumanizing. To feel dehumanized is to feel treated as an object, as a thing, with no self-direction, sense of justice, or will—to feel part of a situation over which you have no control. Racism and sexism are obvious examples of this objectification, while issues related to social media use, economic inequality, and climate change may be a little less obvious. With each, consider the dehumanizing elements:
- When patients face economic hardship, that experience is now more and more isolating and toxic to mental health, since the social safety net has been dismantled and the unemployed are blamed for their problems. During economic downturns, people also trust each other less. A feeling of competition for fewer social benefits causes higher rates of anxiety.
- Social media is designed to operate as an addictive experience, and people are more emotionally isolated and atomized as they spend more time with their phones.
- Social media itself can be a dehumanizing instrument. Recent news reports reveal it was intentionally used in Myanmar to dehumanize the Rohingya, leading to what is being defined as a genocide. In addition, at a global scale, intelligence agencies and private firms are flooding social media with misinformation and polarizing rhetoric to further undermine faith in public discourse.
- Stress related to the ongoing threat of climate disasters and degradation reduces us to feeling powerless in the face of worsening weather and ineffectual governments.
As dehumanization worsens mental health crises, it must be a priority for the mental health community to understand how people experience dehumanization and how to reduce its effects.
Four Ways Psychotherapists Can Help
How do we cope when we ourselves are feeling dehumanized from many directions? How do we act as supportive allies to others facing it? Psychotherapists urgently need a more public discussion about the role they can play in suggesting answers—and, as a group, psychotherapists must not be afraid to navigate the well-founded professional inhibition against explicit politics.
It would undermine professional credibility for therapists to appear to be politically influencing people, yet it would also be a dereliction of duty to look away from the effect on patients of what’s happening at a social level. Here are four suggestions for focus areas:
- Overcome powerlessness and learned helplessness. Psychotherapists can help people get politically involved and active. This suggestion is at the top of the list for a reason: the causes of dehumanization outlined above are rooted in acts of political power and policy decisions. This is no time to blame the victim. For many, however, getting politically active is not as easy as it sounds. People must overcome practical obstacles, such as having the time, of course, but also the personal inhibitions about having a voice and opinion, and they must believe others want to hear what they have to say, even if they lack expertise. Psychotherapists can help address the anxiety and inhibition people experience around taking on new political activity.
- Counter devaluation and isolation. Trauma specialists understand that community resilience is incredibly powerful in reducing and overcoming issues relating to traumatic stress. When part of a group, we see that others share our problems and feelings and feel validated, less alone. Psychotherapists can motivate people to get involved in social actions—whether it’s volunteering at the local library or joining an activist group—by helping people overcome their social inhibitions and mental obstacles to joining local groups they can relate to.
- Deal with shame, guilt, and the internal oppressor. Everyone has an internal critic, the voice of conscience, guilt, and embarrassment. Unfortunately, this critical voice can devolve into a sadistic, pernicious internal oppressor that is toxic to self-esteem and drains motivation. Our internal oppressor all too easily amplifies the dehumanizing messages we get from the world. We may feel worthless or inferior. We may feel guilty for not doing more, or being a selfish consumer, or being a dehumanizer ourselves. The negativity is so unpleasant, we may drive the possibility of action out of our minds and live in denial or depression. Psychotherapists can help educate the public about these internal oppressors and provide tools for self-help, in addition to offering our services as therapists in sliding-scale settings for broader access.
- Understand anger. Psychotherapists see in anger the expression of need. In this sense, anger itself is not negative or to be avoided. But in the current political context, anger is being confused with violence and hate, as well as with the message that it’s bad or uncivilized to feel and express anger. To the contrary, when a person feels anger as a result of dehumanization, their anger is an expression of need, a signal of injustice, and a source of energy to take protective action. Psychotherapists can offer sorely needed tools for thinking through the ethics of anger and political action.
Psychotherapists Must Join Public Discussion
While there are already many mental health professionals actively involved in this public dialogue, more psychotherapists—the ones who work day in and day out in clinics and private practice—should imagine how they can make their professional knowledge and experience more useful in the context of social issues that are growing more toxic by the day. If they are courageous enough to navigate professional boundaries and start talking, they’ll find an audience eager to hear from them.
Richard Brouillette, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in the treatment of trauma, depression, and character issues. Now based in California, he previously worked with survivors of torture and political asylees, in a community mental health center, and as a community organizer in New York City. Contact him at www.therapywithrichard.com