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Resistance in an oppressive mental health system: One step at a time

December 19, 2011
by Jack Carney, DSW
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I was recently taking a look at Beyond Meds, the blog that Gianna Kali, a psychiatric survivor and advocate, maintains at. www.bipolarblast.wordpress.org. Ms. Kali posts two or three times a day, always interesting stuff. If you don't subscribe, I recommend that you do so.

On the particular day I'm referring to, she had posted a blog by Dr. Bruce Levine (www.brucelevine.net) titled "How the Occupy Movement Has Embraced Liberation Psychology." I had been thinking about how mental health practitioners who are disillusioned with the public mental health system: how it harms the people it purports to help; how it has been corrupted by Big Pharma; and how those who feel powerless to do something about it just might. And so I put two and two together.

For those of you who might not be familiar with it, liberation psychology begins with the supposition that most folks who work in an oppressive system don't know it or deny it and refuse to admit it. Borrowing from H.A. Bulhan, I would define an oppressive system as a combination of entities that obliges those who function within it to repress their self-identities, adopt the marginalized definition of self projected by the oppressive system and forego any alternate self-identity and the prospect of changing their life course. Liberation, the freedom of self-definition and choice for both the system's oppressing agents and the oppressed, begins when each can acknowledge the nature of the system of which they are a part and the oppression to which they are both subjected.

Step two requires that the oppressing agents -- I'm referring here to mental health practitioners—acknowledge that our practice, whether biologically—or psychosocially-based, is oppressive. This is simply because the consequences of our practice are oppressive: individuals defined as being seriously mentally ill remain diminished as persons, entrapped in the mental health system and subjected to treatments that endanger their well-being.

I found myself in similar circumstances during most of the 40 years I worked in public mental health. Hence, the "our." Actually, even before I entered the mental health system, I worked for several years in L.A. County's welfare system. In an earlier blog, I wrote that my co-workers and I understood—this was 1969—that we had the capacity to oppress and hurt our clients and explicitly acknowledged our social control role, referring to ourselves as "cops in mufti."

Since the third step in personal liberation involves taking action, we did just that. We actively supported the organization of the first public services union in L.A. County; we also formed a caucus within the union organizing committee to keep our collective focus on the larger systems issues, particularly the Vietnam War, that were corrupting the country; and we took on the role of advocates to ensure that our clients' rights were recognized and that they received all the benefits to which they were statutorily entitled. This is the personal practice model that I adopted then and have adhered to since.

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Jack Carney

Jack Carney

Jack Carney, DSW, is a practicing social worker with 42 years of experience in the field. He is...