By Razia Kosi, LCSW-C
2013 has offered me the opportunity to participate in and lead experiences that have combined the issues of mental health and social justice. This process has been eye-opening, invigorating, anxiety-provoking, frustrating, and energy-draining. The mix of emotions have varied as I moved in and out of diverse professional roles I have as therapist, activist, educator, and social worker.
The clinical social work perspective teaches one to look at the person’s biological, psychological, and sociological factors that contributed to the person seeking mental health services. The macro social work training helps to examine the socio-political and historical contexts that may be impacting the person’s current circumstances.
One of the reasons I chose the profession of social work over other disciplines in the mental health profession was because it aligned with my belief that we can’t work to resolve a person’s individual pain when the situations that contributed to the distress are still present and harmful. This isn’t to say other disciplines in mental health do not address this macro perspective, but in my experience the social justice piece has been an integral part of our training and worldview.
In my role as a therapist, I have the great privilege to share a healing space with the individuals or families I see. Hearing a person’s story, through their words, tears, physical expressions, offers an insight into their world and their perspective. Since the risk of burnout or secondary trauma is higher if one over-identifies with the client, one might think social justice work in addition to being a therapist might not be the healthiest combination.
I’d like to pose another possibility. The sense of purpose, solidarity, and hope one feels when working towards equity, human rights, and human dignity reinforces a sense of mental well-being. At the heart of mental health is the advocacy for others to have a healthy mind, body, and spirit full of inner peace and hope. I can’t change the world but I can be the change I hope to see in the world.
Through the different perspectives, I find myself questioning whether it makes sense to increase a person’s resiliency skills if the circumstances that created the trauma, difficult circumstances, or pain still exist. Can I be an effective therapist if I ignore the ineffective laws that are not supporting a client’s access to care? Can I ignore the issues of immigration reform that are affecting my client’s ability to build a life in this country? Can I look in the face of a client who has been sexually abused and not work towards legal and community accountability to hold the abuser responsible? Can I be an effective educator if a school system created for the industrial age no longer serves the population of students in today’s digital age?
The gang rape and death of a young woman in India was a tragedy that called for action. People were contacting me out of the blue about organizing a march in her memory. Friends were reaching out seeking solace for their pain and voicing a vivid connection to the death of the woman whose background and circumstance could have been any one of us. Across the globe, people were angry and demanding change. Men, who previously were unaware or unconcerned with the gender inequity and violence against women, were ignited into action. Organizations led by women in South Asia and in the US continued to lead the advocacy for change with renewed strength and purpose.
The activist in me was pushed into action. I joined with others to plan the candlelight vigil in DC to honor the life of the young woman whose time on this earth ended in unimaginable horror. I attended with my daughter. She wanted to go to take a stand against violence, against anyone that may harm her, and to stand up for herself and women across the world. So through the sadness and anger, we went with hope that justice may prevail. When I spoke to the beautiful faces at the vigil, I was again reminded that all of us—young, old, male, female, brown, black, white, gay, straight—came because it was in our hearts to do so.