Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good for the goose, not so good for the flock

A particular paradox has popped up in a couple different venues of my life lately, and I'm not sure what to do with it. The summary: The behavior that is most likely to help an individual triumph over difficulty is often the same behavior that disguises and enables the social systems that cause the difficulty.

Case #1: In my previous post on student loan debt and unemployment I quoted a commenter at Dear Sugar. The commenter was pointing out that Sugar's advice to keep your chin up, take responsibility for your own finances, and not get bogged down in blame was probably right for the struggling letter writer, but it was enabling to the predatory student loan industry and the ruthless corporations that are fueling a generational crisis.

Case #2: More recently, over at Feministe, guest blogger William wrote about the disgusting situation at the Anoka-Hennepin school district and how the school tried to dodge responsibility for the student suicides by blaming "mental illness" as if it had no connection to bullying and and systemic abuse. William was arguing that "mental illness" fails as a paradigm because it avoids looking deeply at the social and environmental causes of distress, instead focusing on symptom reduction in the individual. In my comments on the post, I noted that in my experience focusing on symptom reduction is often the best way to ease a patient's suffering and help them re-build a stable life. However, William is right that this approach tends to let the community off the hook.

Case #3: In my own struggles with depression and anxiety I have found that, while it can be satisfying to understand and name the family dysfunctions that contributed to my madness, it doesn't do much to reduce my symptoms in the present moment. Furthermore, my anger and frustration over environmental and social justice issues fuel my anxiety, and working in the environmental and social justice field does not in fact make this better. What does reduce the panic attacks, insomnia, and hopelessness is to detach as much as possible from my expectations for a better world.

So: Emphasizing our own agency and focusing on what we can control helps us feel hopeful about our ability to improve our situation, fights off despair, and targets our immediate needs. But it encourages us to ignore systemic problems, or blame ourselves for systemic failures.

I think what we need is a clear division of labor: X is focused on helping individuals manage and overcome their difficulties, and Y is focused on uncovering the systemic faults that foster those difficulties and fixing them. This leads me to the idea of occupational medicine for mental health, but I think that needs its own post.

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