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Why would anyone choose a career in community mental health today?

By David Dan

A few weeks later, he came in for another session. "I'm done acting up in school," he said, and he was. I was glad for him. During the next few sessions we worked together, Jamal continued to take responsibility for his behavior and to develop interests beyond irritating his teachers. I thought of his therapy as a success story.

That was seven years ago. Earlier this year, I got a call from his family. Jamal, now 18, had been arrested and imprisoned for a felony. I was shocked. I visited him in prison. Prisoners and their visitors huddled together throughout the room. Occasionally a handcuffed man came in and was put behind a pane of glass for his visit. I wondered how Jamal was coping. We talked about his strategies for getting through his time.

He said he was attending Bible classes and studying for his GED while awaiting trial. He hoped that the letter I'd written on his behalf, in combination with good behavior, might help him get off with time served. I hoped for that, too.

Seeing Jamal in prison reminded me, yet again, of the injustice of systems: how our society offers black men so few legitimate options. I thought about the stunning reality that more African American men are now in prison than in college (reversing the trend of 1980, when black men in college outnumbered those in prison three to one). I wondered what kind of odds Jamal faced. What kinds of cultural images of himself was he wrestling with? Therapy seemed to me a tiny island in the midst of some rough seas that young people, especially young people of color, were forced to navigate.

Jamal's plight gnawed at me. I thought of him sitting in his cell, and I worried for his future. Seeking some direction, I reread and reflected on W. E. B. DuBois's concept of double consciousness, described in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois wrote about African Americans' experience of looking at themselves through the eyes of The Other, the dominant white culture that projects relentlessly negative images onto them. But he also described a second kind of consciousness: a nascent, internal consciousness, which provides a source of resistance to the images imposed by the external culture.

I found this concept useful in thinking about Jamal and other marginalized people who enter the mental health system. Through this lens, I thought, therapy could be seen as an effort to identify and support clients' double consciousness, which, in turn, could help them develop their voices and sense of agency. This was the original vision of community mental health, wasn't it: to utilize therapy as a force for intertwined personal and social change? CMH work could be political not only at the macro level of overhauling systems, but also at the micro level of listening for the vital, fighting spirit in each client.

At his trial, Jamal received a seven-year sentence.

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Last modified on Monday, 30 July 2012 10:36

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