Somewhere along the line we seem to have gotten the idea that our inner and outer worlds are unrelated. Most of us no longer think it’s weird that many psychiatrists and psychotherapists are materialistic and classist, or that many activists who work tirelessly for inclusion and peace also harbour bitter hatred toward certain groups of people. Something’s wrong with this picture, and our world desperately needs it to be corrected.
Here are three reasons why social justice and mental health are inseparable.
WE PROJECT OUR INNER WORLD ONTO THE OUTER WORLD
Shame and trauma inflict wounds on our psyche. If the wound is overwhelming, we shove it out of consciousness and do whatever we can to avoid or destroy it. Unfortunately, such measures succeed only in making us terrified and hateful of aspects of our own selves. We then apply the same logic to the external world: we deem some groups to be understandable and acceptable, and some to be hateful and insurmountably “other.”
As Marianne Williamson said, “until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world. And we find that we cannot. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart. And it is there that we must do our work.”
THE OUTER WORLD SHAPES OUR INNER WORLD
Of course, not all problems exist only in our hearts; many exist on a societal level. As Krishnamurti pointed out, “it is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” The social sicknesses of economic exploitation, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia and racism inflict devastating wounds of shame and trauma on people every day. How could we possibly expect people who are excluded, hungry or terrified to be mentally healthy? Any serious commitment to mental health must include a radical restructuring of society. Anything less is simply a band-aid.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL OF BOTH JUSTICE AND MENTAL HEALTH IS WHOLENESS
Mental health is not simply the absence of diagnosable mental illness. Greed, ignorance, fear, and hatred are not listed in the DSM, but they certainly interfere with our capacity to embody our individual and collective potential. Optimal mental health is about wholeness: compassion, understanding, courage, and joy. A psychiatrist who drives a Jaguar and makes a living sedating the poor with antipsychotics does not represent optimal mental health.
Similarly, social justice is not simply about turning the tables on the oppressor. It is so easy and so understandable to respond with hatred to victimization and oppression. But hatred fails to bring us lasting relief and only perpetuates the cycle of violence. Real justice means recognizing the humanity of the other and acting accordingly. Without inner healing and wholeness, “social justice” quickly degenerates into toxic vengefulness.
It’s time for us to recognize that the psychological and the sociological are mutually reinforcing. If our development is constrained by oppressive social structures, then we are likely to be psychologically unwell. If we are psychologically unwell, then our actions will contribute to oppressive social structures. If we’re serious about transformation, then we can no longer afford to overlook either level.
John works as a therapist in Waterloo.