Interviewing my therapist
Many years ago, when I first sought therapy, I figured I was merely one of the bunch, one among millions of young people who struggle to apply peace and meaning to their existence. Relationship discomforts, disordered eating/non eating habits, productivity addiction, motherhood complex, friendship fatigue, passive-agressive misandry, a will to live no more. Was it not something we all dealt with?
What I was not aware of back then, was that I am also part of a population group that is disproportionally struck by mental health issues. Upon investigation, I came across report after report indicating that LGBT people have more mental health issues than the general population. Several studies report on bisexual women in particular, who appear to have more mental problems than both lesbian and heterosexual women.
Stepping out, stepping in
For long, I had a tendency to distance myself from the sub-grouping of bigger issues into “LGBT issues”. I was just like everyone else, and felt no need nor wish to segregate nor “minoritize” myself. Fact is, though, that no matter how safe, informed or legally accommodating your society is, being L/G/B/T is not the norm. I don’t think it will ever be. Thus, in the majority of my daily social interactions and transactions, I have to confront (or consider the risk of having to confront) a norm that does not accommodate to me.
Don’t get me wrong – I often feel privileged being able to identify and point out heteronormative and cisnormative societal structures. I am often euphorically happy and proud to be part of a queer community. What is important to acknowledge, however, is that being assigned to the constant role as norm-breaker can also have some negative side-effects.
Someone who is taking such side-effects seriously, is Simón Torres. Joined by Carolina Herrera Small he runs the psychological service “Liberarte” – “Free yourself”. About eight years ago, undergoing their university’s clinical psychology practice, the two noticed that the gay and lesbian clients that arrived to the consultancy, were not receiving the assistance they needed. Therapists often referred to said clients’ spouses as “comrades”, and homosexuality was simply a non-topic. Further, Simón observed that in general, gay clients came to about five sessions before mentioning their sexual orientation to the therapist.
– We created Liberarte in order for clients to save themselves those five first sessions. We created a service to which clients can come in peace, knowing that their sexual orientation or gender identity won’t be problematized, rejected nor judged. Worrying about “confessing” should not be part of the worries one might have when seeking therapy, says Simón.
When I looked for prospective psychologists in Colombia, the country in which Liberarte mainly operates, it was exactly this promise of “non-problematization”, that caught my interest. From a liberal northern European perspective, such an emphasis may seem odd or superfluous. However, in a country where “affirmative therapy” for gays and lesbians until very recently has been (and is still to some extent) thriving – such emphasis was reassuring.
Of course, I was also sold by Liberarte’s rainbow-y logo, their website’s many same-sex couples illustration photos, and their rich academic resources on gender and trans* issues. To me, Liberarte seemed like a service practically screaming “GAY OKAY”, and it was screaming into my willing ears. But let us dwell here by the fruitful discrepancy that exists between my explicit self-identification as a (LG)B(T) mental health client, and Simón’s somewhat wider approach to diversity and mental health.
– In Liberarte, we see diversity as something beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, about thirty percent of our consultants are heterosexuals, but they are persons who feel diverse. They know that our space is one free from dogmas – a space where everything, even the unquestionable, can be questioned.
Such questioning is not only performed by Liberarte’s clients: It is also one of the very pillars of Liberarte’s investigative approach. In addition to offering clinical psychotherapy, Simón claims it vital for a clinic like Liberarte to perform “critical investigations that doubt, that question established theory, and that permit thinking and re-thinking oneself”.
– A clinic not performing research, is a dead clinic, states Simón.
The psychologists’ debt
In the introduction to this very text, I made reference to various reports claiming LGBT people have more mental issues than the general population. In Colombia in particular, Simón explains that violence, hateful public debate and social rejection especially impacts young gay and trans* people, who suffer from very high depression and suicide rates. But where can we draw the line between mental health issues and societal issues? At this point, too, Simón brings some counter-thoughts to the table.
– The notion of mental health itself, presumes that there is such as thing as mental illness. I find this separation dangerous, because it allows for us psychologists and psychiatrists to act as some kind of police, policing over what is “normal”, what is “deviant”. In a world where social change happens very fast, people can lose track of what the current norms are. Those who fall outside of the norms, will often end up being pathologized.
Throughout ancient and not-at-all-ancient history, LGBT and other norm-breaking people have indeed suffered pathologization. As many of you are probably aware, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the World Health Organization (WTO) considered homosexuality a mental disease up until the 70s and 90s respectively. For trans* people, that very same road out of global and national health policy pathologization is being walked today, decades later. Simón thinks that mental health professionals around the world stand in debt to those who have suffered such pathologization.
– We are now trying to pay that debt. We do so by telling diverse people that, to us, they are not sick, antisocial nor deviant. Rather, they are as valid and worthy as anyone else.
As a former Liberarte client, I can indeed testify that such a validating environment facilitates sustainable personal change. But it is not only consultants that are provided a space to change in Liberarte: therapists, too, question themselves, and develop. In fact, while working with Liberarte, Simón has started his very own gender transition. He gives thanks to the relationships he has developed with his consultants for getting him to where he is today.
– I don’t think it is possible to accompany the life of others without getting impacted by it. I am never the same when I enter, and when I exit, a process. The moment when I encourage others to think and live differently, I start questioning my own thoughts – my own life. My brave consultants have been my source of inspiration, and have made me brave, too.
Simón draws special attention to his youngest consultants – in this case gender diverse minors who come to Liberarte. From them he has learned the absolute most, as they have confronted him with his own reality and gender identity.
– I have told myself: if these kids can fight their way through school as they do, without fear, without anxiety, I too, can say “this is me, and there is nothing wrong about it”.
If you want to get in touch with Liberarte, you can visit their website, or send them an e-mail directly. Therapy sessions can be done face-to-face (in Bogotá), or online (via Skype). You can also follow Liberarte on Facebook and YouTube.
Recently, Liberarte published a book on same-sex couples. It is the result of a five-year research project, and aims to fill a theoretic void in the field of intervention psychology. It moves away from heterosexual models, and emphasizes the need to contextualize interventions in a diverse framework. The book can be found here.
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