I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about therapy. He pointed out that–with the exception of a few individual therapists–psychotherapy has been and remains all about the individual or, at most, about couples, families, or small groups. The field doesn’t address whole human communities or the relationships between communities and the land, although that is precisely where much of our sickness and pain live.
It is an empirical fact that over a century of psychotherapy and many decades of psychologically-inspired self-help groups and books have not saved our world from teetering on the brink. Collectively, we make very, very bad choices. Individually, far too many of us are deeply lonely and battling despair.
Something important has been left out.
There is, indeed, a movement within psychology to take the mental and emotional dimensions of ecological issues seriously: ecopsychology. I have discussed before the mental health implications of climate change, and there are psychologists looking to use their expertise to help society make more sustainable decisions, both individually and collectively. But all this remains a minor voice in the field.
What occurred to me yesterday is that the problem may be less philosophical than practical. Society may be sick, but society can’t sit down on a therapist’s couch. Even couples therapy is difficult to arrange–for both partners to simultaneously agree to counseling requires a minor miracle. More often than not, it is a single person sitting on the couch seeking guidance from the therapist, so is it any wonder that therapists focus on treatments that can be given to one patient at a time? And part of that focus means defining problems in terms that allow individual solutions. An understanding of the role of context, of the community dimension of mental health, of the importance of the relationships between people and the land, all of that becomes collateral damage to the unavoidable limitations of the therapeutic relationship.
I’m speculating, of course. I further speculate that the focus on the individual by therapists may be one of the factors that has been eroding community over the decades, teaching us all to believe that the individual, and only the individual matters.
We need each other to be happy–and others need us.
Societal problems and the actions of others can impair our mental health and our ability to function.
Where we live–whether our surroundings are beautiful, ecologically intact, and deeply familiar–matters to our mental health. Where we live matters.
Even saying those words feels transgressive because therapists, self-help groups, self-help books, and inspirational internet memes all declare the exact opposite. The zeitgeist and the experts seem to agree that each of us can control nothing besides ourselves and therefore must learn to depend on nothing but ourselves to be happy.
I agree about the impossibility of control–actually, I can’t control myself, either. Willpower is effective only over a very narrow slice of human experience and behavior. But the fact of the matter is we need lots of things we can’t guarantee ourselves. We need food and water, yet some of us can’t get either and so die. We likewise require intact bodies, yet injury and illness can’t always be avoided. Is it too far-fetched that we might also need love, community, and an intact home to survive?
The appalling truth is that all of us are two things most of us don’t want to be; vulnerable and morally obligated.
Perhaps I’m digressing a bit.The point is that an expanded understanding of our mental and emotional needs is important, both from the perspective of supporting mental health for its own sake, and from the perspective of understanding how to solve the various environmental crises we face, most critically, climate change.
But how is that to happen, given that it’s still almost impossible to get more than a few people on a therapist’s couch at once?
The therapist must come out of the office. What we need are communities organized around supporting both individual and collective mental health. Healing and happiness needs to be part of how we live.
All of which stands parallel to another principle–that it’s all very well and good for an individual to make more sustainable lifestyle choices, but ultimate success depends on society-wide change made possible by environmentalism at the ballot box.
The bottom line may be that we need to become a society that takes care of ourselves, each other, and the planet–which reminds me of something a different wise friend once said:
It’s not enough to try to conserve the environment; we have to conserve the human community that conserves the environment.