Community Mental Health Today

Community Mental Health Today

Encompassing the Big & the Small

By Mary Sykes Wylie

November/December 2015

Once upon a time back in the mid-’60s, it looked as if a vast network of community mental health centers would soon blanket America, providing a wide range of holistic, high-quality psychological and social services to poor, largely African American and Latino families. Not only would this system improve people’s family and personal lives, but it would somehow help propel them out of poverty, effectively combat oppression, and possibly transform society itself.

This vision turned out to be radically overconfident. Even if the community mental health campaign hadn’t been cut off at the knees by funding cuts and the fading of political interest in poor people, it seems unlikely that the most brilliant psychotherapy interventions by themselves could undo generations of political, social, and economic injustice and racism. Salvador Minuchin and other social-activist therapists pioneering innovative approaches with poor families came to believe that therapy really wasn’t nearly enough. “The tools of family therapy, or the tools of therapy in general, are very tiny,” Minuchin once said in a Networker interview. “The [idea] that we can take families from Harlem and make out of them a movement of social liberation was part of our ideology and also our naiveté.” In other words, as he said another time, “when you pit the slums against families, the slums win.”

But if the slums always win, why bother with therapy at all? If poor people’s biggest problems aren’t…

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