If I am comfortable with oppression then I’m an oppressor

Let me set the scene for you. You are walking along the side of a rapidly flowing river. You hear someone calling for help, struggling to stay above the river’s violently flowing water. You quickly jump in, rescue them, perform CPR until they revive. Then you hear another person calling for help. You quickly jump in, rescue them, perform CPR until they revive. Again, you hear another call for help. You quickly jump in, rescue them, perform CPR until they revive. It goes on and on like this, and you don’t have the time to look upstream to see who is throwing all of these people into the river. This is the reality of mental health practice in the United States. We are so busy rescuing people that we can’t proactively work to stop the need to rescue people. (Thanks to Jerry Reed, PhD, MSW for this excellent analogy presented at #AAS16).

In response to my blog post from last week, “I’m Exhausted But Not Extinguished,” many people asked me why I choose to be an advocate when it makes me so unhappy? Why not just focus on my doctoral studies and help people in the therapy suite as a clinician? This is a reasonable response, especially when you are familiar with how much work is involved with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, particularly one which is very research intensive. Indeed, this is a question I ask myself almost every day. Actually, I wish that I could merely be a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology. In truth, it would be so much easier than the life which I live now.

But here is the reality. Psychologists, as mental health professionals, have an obligation to advocate for their patients. And we have largely been remiss in targeting the stigma which exacerbates mental health concerns and the discrimination which causes so much of the social, economic, health, and psychological issues faced by so many today. Indeed, there is a reason that minorities experience more psychological issues than any other population. And as mental health professionals we have been so busy pulling out patients out of the swirling river of depression, anxiety, suicide, etc. that we haven’t paid the attention we should to those who are throwing these people into this river.

LGBTQ+ youth have unreasonably high rates of psychological complaints, and in terms of suicidal behaviors (my primary research area) nearly half have made a suicide attempt. When you consider that LGBTQ+ youth make up such a small portion of the population (10% by some estimates), this 41% is unreasonably high. Research has demonstrated that parental support serves as a key protective factor when it comes to LGBTQ+ mental health concerns. It has also found that community support is equally valuable. But these two protective factors are in short supply.

As a clinician in training, how can I claim to want to help these youth regain a healthy and happy life if I ignore the place where they are getting thrown in?

This year, laws have been cropping up all over the country which will make state-sanctioned LGBTQ+ discrimination the order of business in the United States. Just this month, a law in NC will make it illegal for transgender individuals to use the restroom of their choice. Imagine what effect that will have on transgender students, 60% of whom already report being victimized at school and 80% of whom feel unsafe at school.

So I have two choices. First, I can selfishly put off saying or doing things which might help to alleviate or challenge these cultural trends. I can wait until it’s more convenient to myself and my pocket book to do something in response to injustice. I can selfishly vote for political candidates who say terrible things about women and minorities because their economic plans are more comfortable to me than those who support minority issues. Or, secondly, I can speak out against oppression. I can use my experience and my knowledge and my research to challenge these harmful and scientifically unfounded laws. I can use my gift as a dynamic speaker and teacher to gently correct misinformation, ignorance, and fear. In other words I can use what little privilege I have to make it to the head of the river and stop the person throwing these helpless people in.

And you should to.

Because, to paraphrase the Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, silence in the face of oppression is support of oppression.

Please know that you are valuable. If you are in crisis, please know that I am here for you. Make no peace with oppression and love one another. -Darcy