Feminist Psychologists Talk About…Women’s Mental Health & Feminist Therapy

(piano music…) (music fades out…) I think mental health is one of those
specialized services that is so problematically separated from other services so that women
have to divide themselves into little pieces, and then come to define themselves by those
fragmented pieces. And especially poor women who have to check off the boxes right: I’m
homeless, I’m substance abusing, domestic violence, you know check them off as if they’re this array of problems. That’s how, at an intake, that’s how they have to greet the people who are supposed to help them. Then they told to go here, here, and here. I read an article that was written by
a group of very well respected epidemiologists and psychiatrists – it got a tremendous
amount of attention – they basically concluded that if you have anorexia on the island of
Curacao – Curacao is predominantly black – then anorexia must not be culturally determined. To their credit, they said, ‘ok big mouth, why don’t you come
to Curacao on our next visit and you can do the interviews and you can poke around and
we will open everything up to you and you can see what you find … Lo and behold, what
did I find? Well actually as soon as the women walked in the door, they literally all came
in – it was a small island, the study had gotten lots of attention … so they literally all came in and if a picture speaks a thousand words, it was there in a moment. not one of the women that walked in through that door looked anything like the typical woman on Curacao. I mean these women were for the most part, not black, even though blacks were the dominant race. They had mostly left the island, had been exposed to
alternative possibilities and came back and then had to reacclimatize to a very different
set of cultural expectations. They were better educated. They had very different views about
themselves for the future. Each one of them had a story about how they used their food
as a way of coping or in an effort to escape. There was nothing typical about them and everything
cultural about them!! Everyone knew about cramps, but nobody
knew about PMS. It just wasn’t something people complained about, it was just unknown.
Then, in 1980, there were two trials in Great Britain where women used the defense that
they had premenstrual syndrome at the time of their crimes. This was an international
sensation. In fact one of my early studies was called, “The Media Construct a Menstrual
Monster.” I’m not trying to
say that there are no changes in your body that you can experience and notice across
the menstrual cycle, every woman knows that there are. But the question is, how bothersome
do they have to be before you say I have a medical problem? If it’s normal, it’s
not a medical problem. It’s just premenstrual changes, or biorhythms, whatever you want
to call it. It’s not premenstrual syndrome. I think starting from a really young
age, getting kids to have some body literacy goes a really long way. We’re finding that
body shame and genital shame affects sexual decision making, affects sexual satisfaction
so I think if there are any opportunities through the schools, through community groups,
through parents to start in developmentally appropriate ways, to start talking about embracing
all facets of your body and getting more comfortable touching your body and understanding how it
works, how it feels I feel that can go a really
long way … so I think it’s about consciousness-raising and education from a really young age and
getting psychologists and physicians to start talking to women about their sexuality and their
bodies. What goes on out there is not irrelevant
to what is taking place in the therapy room, that everything that goes on out there affects
who the patient is. If they’re a member of a marginalized group, how that group is
treated and how that affects this person and their understanding of it and what is going
on in society that marginalizes them is an important piece to bring into the work. I think that everything a feminist therapist does is a small act of social change. From
where we situate our practice, to how we set our fee, to how we relate to giving clients diagnoses, to how we inform our clients about what it is
that therapy will be, because by taking the stance that you the client are also the expert,
by disrupting the discourse of authoritative knower and non-authoritative help-seeker,
we do an act of social change. I think that for me, working with one person at a time is how change happens; one
person at a time is how change happens. Which is why I like to do some organizational work
too because change also happens in a bigger way, but yet I prefer the one-on-one. I think
for people to understand how much, when you’re working one-on-one, sometimes the awareness
of how much the environment is impacting on you. It’s your personal
history in terms of your family, in terms of your larger network and in terms of your
social cultural environment. I’m very explicit with my patients that I am not necessarily the expert – that together
we are working on exploring alternative questions so that they can come up with a new solution.
They are the ones that are doing the hard work during the week, they are correcting
me. I do whatever I can in terms of
our interactions to be on the one hand supportive and engaging and a safe pair of hands, but on the other hand, extremely respectful of the fact that they are going to be the agents in their life. I had frankly always looked down at therapy
as being passing out band aids when society needs major surgery. Because so many of the
changes that I think really need to be made are at the systemic level and therapy isn’t
a systemic activity, it’s at the individual level. But I also came to realize that it
was important for people to not bleed to death while we’re trying to do major surgery on
society. Feminist therapy is a theory; it’s an integrative model of therapy that’s about
therapy with human beings in which gender and power and people’s other social locations
are interrogated as we make sense of people’s distress. So we’ve succeeded in getting
all of our core concepts into the good stuff. You know, students learn, do informed consent,
think about gender, think about power, but they don’t learn that this was started by
feminist therapists. Certainly in Afrocentric therapies the
importance of understanding racism was brought into therapy, but what was missing was how is
race gender-coded; that racism is experienced differently for men than it is for women;
how is sexism an active component within African Americans as a group that also undermines
the status of women. And of course feminist therapy was evolving.
As I understood it at the time, it was acknowledging women, and the personal was political. So
it was those early consciousness-raising groups that were evolving as they went, and developing
“What does feminism mean? What is feminist therapy?” And of course it is still evolving
and changing, and by now there’s not just one feminist therapy, there’s many. I would say my practice is majority people of colour. I think that what that reflects is that people of colour a) are more
willing to seek services beyond their family, the ministers, the community, and b) I have
a lot of individuals who call me and say ‘I want a woman of colour as a therapist’. And so I think that there is a great deal of sophistication and a greater sense that
I can ask for what I need and get that. So I think that we have made some progress. I
also think that even in the black press, in the media, we’re talking about mental health issues. I think the challenges are to keep renewing our understanding of what feminism is, to
keep expanding it so that as we understand oppression and empowerment in new ways, that we don’t keep on having the same definition of feminism
as we did thirty years ago. I’m not the same feminist I was in 1972, and that’s
a good thing. I don’t think feminist psychologists are only women. I don’t think feminist therapy
is done for or with women only. And I did. I don’t think multiculturalism is other
than central to feminist practice. That was not something I knew or understood in the
1970s. I don’t think that gender is binary and I certainly don’t think it’s essential. (piano music…) (music fades out)

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