Lois Holzman on Social Therapy
On the future of mental health
Posted March 1, 2016
The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Lois Holzman
EM: You take the obvious but rather completely ignored position that human beings are embedded in society, are social creatures, and have social needs. What do you see as the relationship between individual emotional and mental health and our basic nature as social creatures?
LH: Thanks for the question, Eric. It’s an opportunity to clarify what being “social creatures” means to me. Most everyone agrees that we’re embedded in society and have social needs. And most everyone also—and far too often—ignores the obvious, and relates to people as isolated, self contained individuals. I’m with you there.
However, our socialness is way more than that for me. For me, social is what we are—not sometimes, but always. Not embedded, but in unity with. Obviously, I’m not talking about whether a person is physically present with other people or not, whether they’re in what’s called a “social situation.” I believe we’re always in a social situation. In a room alone we’re social. Our location in time and place is social (a room is a social-cultural entity); its meaning to us and to others is social (what does it mean, in different historical times and different geographical and cultural locations, to “be alone?”); our so-called private thoughts and feelings are social (even what are thought to be the most basic of emotions, like fear, are shaped by history, language and local circumstances).
I relate to emotions as social, meaning they are not products of an individual brain. They are not in our heads. They are in the world. They are ways of being. To be honest, I’m uncomfortable with the term “individual emotional and mental health,” because it reduces the incredibly complex relational activity of emotionality to the individual’s mental apparatus. But to play along with the mental health language game, the relationship between individual emotional health and our basic nature as social creatures is this: an individual’s emotions are no less social for being experienced, in our culture, as individual. And in terms of what direction we might go to help people, it’s encapsulated in a statement I heard a long, long time ago and never forgot. Quoting Sylvère Lotringer: “One does not cure neurosis; one changes the society that cannot do without it.”
EM: You engage in what you call “social therapy.” Can you tell us what that means and how it works?
LH: Social therapy is a practice consistent with everything I’ve just said. It’s a therapeutic approach that’s been practiced continuously since philosopher and community activist Fred Newman created it forty years ago.
Social therapy groups (it’s mostly done in groups) are the co-creators of their therapy; it’s their job to create an environment where everyone can grow emotionally. That’s the way social therapists help people in emotional pain—by relating to people of all ages and life circumstances as social performers and creators of their lives, as not who they are but as who they are AND who they’re becoming at the same time. The therapeutic process is to invite and support people to transform, to grow, to be more giving, to be more responsive to environments, to learn how to interrelate and to recreate our humanness.
In this way, social therapy is aligned with other non-diagnostic and group or community based approaches that, taken together, are efforts to transform therapy from an approach designed to fix up what’s wrong with us to an approach designed to support the expression of what’s positive about us—which is our capacity to reshape our lives together.
There are social therapy centers and practices in several US cities. As well, the many hundreds who have trained in social therapy over the decades work in mental health, educational, hospital and private practice settings nationally and globally.
EM: You are the director of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy. What goes on there?
LH: The East Side Institute is a non-profit organization whose mission is to transform how people understand and practice human development—and psychology and psychotherapy more broadly. It’s the training center for social therapy as well as for study and training in its methodology outside “the therapy room,” which we call social therapeutics and the psychology of becoming.
Our many programs, workshops and classes are open to anyone regardless of degree or profession. The basics of our understanding of development and our approach to learning—the socialness of human beings; our capacity to continuously create new environments, new ideas, new feelings, new ways of relating to ourselves, others and the things of the world; that “development is the cure”—are applicable everywhere.
So all kinds of people come to us to train, not just social workers, counselors and psychologists, but teachers, coaches, doctors, nurses, scholars, grassroots community organizers, performance and theatre activists, and people with no professional identification. This diversity is a hallmark of the Institute and, in my experience, no small part of our continued success and expansion. It turns out people really relish the work and play of developing through building relationships!
At the Institute we also carry out research and scholarly pursuits. A visit to our website yields dozens of books and articles and videos, many addressing the key issues social scientists, philosophers and educators are hotly debating. We engage with them and we also bring these issues to the general public.
EM: What would you like to see shift with regard to the current dominant paradigm of the one-on-one “diagnosing and treating of mental disorders”?
LH: I’d like to see a mass movement challenging the dominance of the diagnostic medical model and demanding the equal promotion and availability of alternatives. The vast majority of people don’t even know there’s anything else but getting a mental illness diagnosis and then, more often than not, a drug to “treat” the illness. And the education and training that social workers, psychologists and counselors get are limited in the same way, so that they have few options in developing their practice in serving clients.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
LH: This is a question we asked on our Survey on Diagnosis and Emotional Distress, which means I have the opportunity to speak for many others and not just myself. More than 1000+ people told us what they think people in emotional distress can do. Be active. Find people you can talk to. Go to therapy or counseling or a support group. Be social—find a group to sing or dance with, or do volunteer work. Do yoga. Meditate.
Lois Holzman is a developmental psychologist, activist scholar and community builder with a practical-critical approach to exposing ways the biases of psychology permeate our everyday lives. She develops tools and practices that empower people to transform the alienation and passivity of our culture—in particular, social therapeutics and performance activism. Lois writes for both scholars and the public and you can find a wealth of written, audio and visual materials at loisholzman.org, A Conceptual Revolution at Psychology Today, and http://eastsideinstitute.org.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at email@example.com, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here
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