Ignoring the politics of distress

05 October 2022

In an opinion piece for The Guardian UK, clinical psychologist Sanah Ahsan argues that it is time to shift focus from the medical model of mental illness to target the social causes of mental distress.

Dr Ahsan, also a poet, writer, presenter and educator, says it’s time for us to reckon with the fact that we live in a traumatising and uncertain world.

‘If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions,’ she wrote. ‘Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.’

As Ahsan explains, in our efforts to destigmatise mental distress, ‘mental illness’ is framed as an illness like any other, often rooted in chemical imbalances of the brain or flawed chemistry. These efforts wrongly place the problem and the solution on the individual sufferers and distract us from the environmental situations that are causing the distress.

Ultimately, she recommends the work of social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, who founded liberation psychology, which argued that we cannot isolate mental health problems from the broader societal structures that provoke them.

‘Liberation psychology sees people not as patients, but potential social actors in the project of freedom, valuing their own lineages, creativity and experience, rather than being forced into a white, eurocentric and individualistic idea of therapy,’ Ahsan wrote. 

While in no way dismissing the value of counselling and therapy, Ahsan calls on mental health workers to examine, and confront, the causes of the distress as they manifest in society.

‘The most effective therapy,’ she writes, ‘would be transforming the oppressive aspects of society causing our pain.’

Read Sanah Ahsan’s opinion piece, published 6 September 2022 in the Guardian UK.