Updated: Feb 6, 2019
Written in bold black letters across the whiteboard was a term that, in my five years of psychology exposure, had never been introduced to me. Sitting around a handful of seasoned seniors, I saw blank expressions cross the faces of my peers as it became clear that they also not been taught about this in the repetitive lessons we had on Freudianism, behaviorism, and the other psychological approaches. We sat idly waiting for an authority to arrive, some texting, others forging small groups to tackle what was to be a daunting semester, until a very tall wiry man walked up to the front of the room. I can’t give any other description other than that he reminded me of the character “The B.F.G.” out of a Roald Dahl tale. The unkempt giant dropped his belongings and spun wildly in front of the class with a somewhat lazy grin, and from there made the class an experience that was to change my entire career path and understanding of mental health.
Community Psychology is an approach that views systems of influence (government, place of employment etc..) and relationships (parents, partners, teachers) with others as explanations of individual behavior. What does this have to do with mental health? Well, simply put — everything. My professor put it best in his first lesson: Why is it that there’s a correlation between poverty and mental illness? They feed into one another. External stressors (i.e. poverty and financial insecurity) can cause chronic stress in one’s life which can eventually develop into an onset mental illness. This, to me, was groundbreaking. In all of my years in high school and most of undergrad mental illness education focused solely on the biological and its subsequent prescriptive solutions. This is not to say that these are not reasons for mental illnesses nor is it the wrong way to approach treatment, it’s to emphasize that before that class I had never had anyone mention this holistic paradigm that saw symptoms arising out of systemic issues not solely the individual.
Mental health was no longer being presented as an individual issue but a public health concern.
Up until that moment, I had never thought psychology could be a liberatory practice; everything presented was either cold and calculated or very abstract and caught up in theory. For once there seemed like there could be possibilities outside the numerous chants of therapy and medication, which for much of the population just isn’t feasible. I saw in community psychology the experiences of those that were unregarded or seen as solely deviant. At that moment it all became immediately personal to me. I thought of my mother.
I hate to admit that over the years of conversations about mental health becoming mainstream, my impatience with my erratic mother exponentially grew. Between the buzzwords of “self-care”, “unpacking”, and “therapist” with attached blog posts of people talking about their own small miracles, I became hardened in my resolve to get my mom a therapist in 2017. Looking back at myself then I can see how egoistic and naive I still was. I came at my mother with no real plan or care just demanding results. I was a person with a half identity and I looked to her to put me together. I was not prepared to deal with even 1/8th of the trauma that comes with being a first-generation Haitian immigrant.
I remember the first time manman opened up to me, I clumsily introduced the idea of therapy to her during a car ride to her friends house. My mom kept her attention on the road maneuvering through the Boston winter without saying a word. I remember becoming indignant and just spewing 20 years of hate, confusion, and anguish onto her relentlessly. She sat there taking all of it entirely mute, turned into the driveway, parked the car, and just sat. It was silent for about 10 minutes until she turned to me and what I saw in her eyes is a grief that I could live two-life times and never know. At that moment, I felt for my mother but I wanted answers, I wanted this accountability that all these workshops had hammered into my head. She clearly was uncomfortable but in that desolate parking lot under a dim car light my mom listened for the first time in what felt like my whole life. She gave me space and she also gave me something I thought I was ready for but wasn’t: her history. That night she named names of relatives I had never known, experiences with my father that had never been disclosed, and when speaking of my grandmother and great- grandmother her mind and eyes would go to a distant place. It was too much. None of those blog posts, none of those workshops, none of those articles could ever prepare me for even just the hour my mother gave me about her life. I felt myself becoming overwhelmed with a tight clamp in my chest struggling to breathe. And just like that — it ended.
Since then, my mom has opened up little by little to me about her past, our past, and my family. Each time it causes that clamping sensation, but it’s followed by a small relief to know more about these people that I have no recollection of or who passed away before I was a child. The type of mental minefield second-generation children have to trespass to learn about their parents is something of an anomaly. I find this especially true with Haitian families: everything is kept secret and for so long that secrecy eventually marries resentment, as it did when I went through my adolescent years. But what I found is that those secrets, while not fully benefiting the child, protect the secret bearer and those who would be considered for their selective audience. This isn’t right, but it’s also been the coping strategies of many black communities including my own. With these secrets there becomes the unawareness of generations of women and men within a family that carry trauma. To address this by just bringing up therapy isn’t going to be enough. It’s going to have to be a community effort.
This past year I went to several Haitian/Haitian-American community events in Brooklyn, where I found solace in knowing that my relationship with my mother wasn’t isolated. In fact it, was common and in other ways slightly rare because she had opened up to me. Within these pockets of small gatherings we spoke of Haiti’s history and its lasting effects on our families today. To be in secret, to be mistrustful, to be tight-lipped, to be God-fearing; all of these were all interlocking together to create a culture of fear and suppression. That’s where I came to the realization that just throwing out the idea of therapy wouldn’t be enough; the cultural history that affects Haiti runs deep through my mother and the women off and of the island. There are too many customs and ideologies to simply use Western modes of mental health and its solutions as the prototype. Going back to when I spoke with other Haitian-American women about my mother and they shared their narratives was a moment of shared cultural trauma and from that came its own form of healing.
While I’m not suggesting that therapy is ineffective (it has positively impacted the lives of thousands), I’m moreso promoting community psychology as a route that’s more integrated. It is a psychology that looks at ones social, political, environmental, and economic situations as stressors that cannot be alleviated easily and what forms of support and strategies can be given to persist. With this we as a community need to start actively doing better, constructing communal gatherings where those of shared identities and backgrounds can orate, receive, and build. A space where women who have been carrying the collective repression of their mothers, great-grandmothers — and the women long before them — can rest at the feet of those who are just as weary in a collective effort to strive towards enduring restoration. Simultaneously, while making space for people to have those shared cultural moments, initiatives that address the lack of mental health services and best practices for preventive work would have to be built on that foundation. Whether those initiatives be through policy, lobbying, or financial donations; those who are most vulnerable that require these various forms of aid cannot be expected to solely carry this burden. Regardless of those obstacles being income, time, cultural and religious obstacles or all of the above during that time, we must work (as many are doing) to envelop our communities in care until that moment arrives when basic services like therapy can become a viable option for all.
Therapy won’t save you. Depending on who you are or where you come from, the idea of therapy is foreign and it’s something to be regarded with apprehension. Even with the unfamiliar aspects of it removed, people wouldn’t have the capacity or time to allot to an actual practitioner. So in place we give you space, we give you autonomy, we give you security enough so that there’s a buffer between you and that world that regards you with distaste. We wrap ourselves as an attempt to shield away from the long list of people and entities that failed to protect us and safeguard terrains as we heal inward and elevate. For me and mine it looks like finally having honest conversations that should’ve taken place ten years ago, it looks like late phone calls with mumbled “I’m sorry’s” , it also just looks like time. I won’t ever know my mom’s full truth or story nor do I think I can handle it, but what I can do is make space for us both when we have the strength to have certain conversations about bitter wounds. All we can do is continue to extend that hand as we do our best to sustain a spirit that has been persevered and passed down to us as heirlooms.