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THE WATERS WE SWIM IN: 5 Reasons for Liberation Work in Mental Health and Wellness

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

"...our ailments do not exist in a vacuum and the reasons for our malaise lie in our history as well as our solutions."

I’ll get right to the question. Have you noticed that our systems, despite best intentions, do not seem to be working? That they are, in fact, flailing at the worst possible time, in the midst of a global drug addiction epidemic, with suicide rates, domestic violence, child abuse, homelessness, anxiety and depression rising across all age brackets and demographics – not to mention military violence across the world and the global threat of environmental devastation. Hey, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer and make you weep into your drink, but this is what I see every day as a mental health worker and citizen of this planet.

And I just quit my job.

How could you? you ask, knowing what I know, knowing that people are needing my help… It isn’t because I’m a jerk who doesn’t care about the state of the world. It is because I care too much to allow myself to get burned out in a system that treats me like I am not human. A system that treats me like I am a therapy machine who can process my clients’ severe struggles back-to-back, hour-after-hour, without being affected by any of it. Tracking and making space for over 50 lives at a time, lives of people struggling to overcome serious trauma, is nearly impossible if one attempts to do it conscientiously and wholeheartedly. It left me drained at the end of each week. Although I had maintained pathways for spiritual practice and self-care for years, these slowly started eroding as my spirit grew more and more depleted. I was so exhausted on a Friday night that I turned to wine and mindless Netflix shows for escape and rest. It took most of my Saturday to recuperate enough to go on a hike on Sunday, run errands and cook meals for the week on Monday, and do it all again for 40 hours Tuesday through Friday.

And still, I LOVE working with marginalized, low-income populations, who receive services via community mental health. I wanted to stay. I suggested part-time work. I gave them ideas on how to revamp our work structures and work culture. But systems are systems, and I’m a little brown cog in a giant machine. And as I look at this machine that got me physically ill enough to make me take stock of my life and decide on quitting, I realized that it is the very same machine that makes my clients sick, that makes the world sick. We are not struggling in a vacuum, folx. We are not sick because there is something inherently wrong with us. We are sick because we are swimming in toxic waters. These waters are the systems that we belong to and that we operate in.

And so it is time to look at liberation work as the way out of these systems that do not serve us.

So what is liberation work and how does it relate to mental health and wellness? The following 5 reasons will reveal more (although there are many more reasons than just these 5!).


Black and white photograph of a hand reaching out of a body of water toward a cloudy sky.
photo credit: stormseeker

I’m going to do my best to keep this short. Once upon a time most of the people of the Earth lived in relative harmony with Nature, its cycles, and the vast web that comprises existence. These were animistic, indigenous cultures preceding the major patriarchal religions, who existed and thrived throughout the world (including Europe) for thousands of years. I am not idealizing this past. The world has never been and will likely never be perfect, but people were part of the ecosystem and as such, lived in sustainable ways that did not deplete or threaten the Earth and the vast web of life (water systems, plant life, animal species, climate, etc.). Then came the patriarchal religions, particularly Roman Catholicism, and these attempted to obliterate indigenous, animistic, “pagan” cultures starting in Europe (for the sake of looking at our own history and predicament in the Americas). People were killed and given no choice but to convert through imperialist, violent tactics. Serious trauma raged through these bloodlines. As these violent means unfolded, both the oppressor and the oppressed experienced the effects of this violence as severe psychic wounding (a.k.a. trauma). Many years later, these conquerors and conquered people, now evolved into many other groups, came to an ancient world and called it a “New World” and killed, enslaved, converted, and raped the indigenous peoples who had lived in harmony with their environments for thousands of years, destroying vast civilizations and attempting to eradicate culture, knowledge, language, along with the people themselves, as it had been done to their own ancestors.

So what does this have to do with mental health, you ask? Like I said, our ailments do not exist in a vacuum and the reasons for our malaise lie in our history as well as our solutions.

The systems imposed by these imperialist colonizers were systems of power-over, violence, and extraction. They were systems powered by a need to own, to own more, to own the most, to amass wealth even if that meant slavery, theft, murder, and desecration of land and place. We are still living under the influence of these systems. Just look around. We are still caught in the trap of drinking the Kool-aid that keeps us in a scarcity mentality - thinking that we need more, that we don’t have enough, that we are not enough. This creates dis-ease. It is the foundation of addiction, violence, dissatisfaction, and discontent. So, if people are experiencing these effects, do we need to fix the people or do we need to look at the systems that created the dis-ease in the first place as we try to help the people heal from it? People need psychoeducation and liberation-focused therapy to begin to understand how these systems are affecting them – both historically and presently.


Black and white photo of a large group of people sillouhetted against a light backdrop and mirrorred on what seems like water beneath them.
photo credit: Mario Purisic

Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, brought the term dirty pain and clean pain to my attention and it revolutionized my thinking about emotional pain. The term was coined by Dr. David Schnarch and Dr. Steven Hayer. To summarize, dirty pain is often unconscious pain. It is when we experience pain, but do not really allow ourselves to feel it and we suppress it or distract from it through behaviors that cause more pain to self or other (i.e., addiction, violence, dissociation). We might yell at someone and insult them, or we may shoot someone. We might shoot ourselves. We might get wasted and ruin our lives and/or the lives of others. We might eat the whole pint of ice cream and raise our blood sugar. Regardless of how large or small, the trademark of dirty pain is that it creates more pain, more damage. It perpetuates the cycle of pain. Clean pain, on the other hand, is when we look at our pain, acknowledge it, feel it, process it in a healthy way. From talking to a trusted friend or therapist, to giving ourselves some compassion and care as we allow ourselves to grieve our pain.

How does this connect to liberation work? Liberation work requires that we look at our history as well as our present individually and collectively. It requires us to do the work of clean pain together. We have to look at the ugly places in our past, in our ancestry, no matter what side of the fence we’re on, or what side of the fence our ancestors were on. We all have blood on our hands, whether the blood of our own people or of the ones we oppressed. Some of us have both. I, for example, have the blood of the colonized and the blood of the colonizer in my ancestral lineage and this something I’ve had to work hard to unpack, heal, and reconcile. My ancestors were both the raped and the rapist. This is so deep, folx. It is difficult and ongoing work to heal this trauma in my lineage and in myself. But it is so damn worth it. Mental health/wellness is flat and shallow if it doesn’t look at the intergenerational trauma brought about by patriarchy and colonization. For the most part, we are a dissociated culture and no healing can happen in this state of numb avoidance. It is time to look at this stuff and be in clean pain with it through a liberation-focused therapeutic approach.


Behaviorism, which eventually gave rise to modalities, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), somehow took over the scene in mental health. It took over, to such an extent, that my job title was “Behavioral Health Specialist.” This is therapeutic fast food, folx. Just go through the drive through, fix your thoughts and behaviors, and you’re done. Move through the managed-care system quickly so that no one has to spend the money and time really looking at what underlies behaviors in the first place. Folx, if we are doing healing properly, I can guarantee that it will take a lifetime and I highly doubt that insurance will pay for all of it. My deep apologies to anyone who loves and lives by CBT. There are some very cool and helpful aspects to it AND it doesn’t get to the root of these deeper problems we are facing both as individuals and as a species.

Recently, I sat in a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) training and saw something horrific, which none of my White colleagues seemed to notice. We were shown a video of a Black, female, adult patient in residential treatment, who was having a session with a therapist (our trainer) after becoming aggressive when a White person in the residential staff denied her permission to go to the bathroom. Folx, thinking about what we just covered in regard to intergenerational trauma, what do you think comes up for an adult Black person when they need to go the bathroom and a White person denies them? We are talking deep, deep, trauma – anger, pain, a sense of injustice, helplessness, rage– all of which are appropriate. How many centuries have Black bodies been dominated, owned, and abused by White bodies? And yet, this therapist (our trainer) did not acknowledge any of this! Instead, she went on to teach the resident a “skill” called “Willing Hands,” which has to do with willingness versus willfulness. I witnessed a White therapist teaching a Black person to submit when her physical needs were denied. No one else saw this and the trainer defended her position even when I brought it to her attention.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for DBT. I use it all the time, since it is based on Zen Buddhism and it is a brilliant, evidence-based modality. But we cannot correct cognition or reprogram behavior when cognitions, feelings, and behaviors are valid and appropriate outcomes of the circumstances someone is in. This is harmful, invalidating, and helps to promote a docile acceptance of the oppressive status quo. Above all, it does not address the real problems. We cannot fix the person or the behaviors without first looking at the systems that continue to do harm and perpetuate injustice, from a liberation framework. I will never call myself a behavioral health specialist again. Behaviors are symptoms and the real work is going to the root of the problem. Is there room to address symptoms? Absolutely. There’s a place for it, but that is only the very tip of a colossal, Titanic-sinking iceberg.

I will not “radically accept” that we are devouring this planet. I will not “radically accept” racial and social injustice. And I will not ask my clients and the folx I work with to do so either.


Albert Einstein said that “we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used to create them.” In an essay featured in Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Pleasure Activism, Micha Cardenas wrote: “Transformative Justice, as I understand it, is rooted in understanding that we have all been harmed and all caused harm. It requires a rigorous self-examination, honesty, and accountability.”

We have been living under extractive systems of power-over the Earth and the life forms that comprise it. In the previous paragraphs, we have briefly mentioned our bloody history and our bloody present. And we continue to extract. In a more mundane level, we extract labor and money in systems that keep us indentured and working, sometimes in meaningless, unfulfilling jobs until SOME of us have the luxury of retiring to enjoy the last decades of life. We keep our prisons full (both literally and figuratively) in order to keep the oppression complex operational.

COVID-19 seemed to have brought some things to our attention (there are many more than just these 3): 1) we have a very large footprint and the Earth seems to bloom better when we aren’t trampling it and 2) Marginalized folx have worse health outcomes, not because we are genetically inferior, but because oppression depletes our health and immunity 3) it’s damn nice to be home or outside and reconnecting to self and close friends and family. Many people had privilege and time to reevaluate priorities and reinvent work and career in order to have better quality of life. This has resulted in the workforce crisis and supply chain difficulties we have experienced. Capitalism is having difficulty breathing.

Sometimes things need to fall apart to be rebuilt. As these systems collapse, let’s look at how we can all be a part of the new paradigm that will rebuild, not the same, old, tired systems of oppression. Let’s look at how we can shift ourselves and build new systems in which we consume less by feeling that we have enough and are enough, while ensuring that everyone has enough. Can we create systems of reciprocity and belonging with the Earth and the vast web of life? Can we question all the ways that we have been colluding with the old systems of extraction and oppression and find new ways to show up in a paradigm of liberation and community through individual and collective healing? Can we look at what roles we play in perpetuating these systems and figure out how to invent new ways of being in the world and with each other?

We need all wellness practitioners, healers, and citizens of the world on board for this. We need to do this work ourselves so that we can guide each other through this dark night of the soul we are experiencing as a species. Blinders off and souls blazing new trails through the work of healing and liberation!


Black and white photo of large tree with large root system and light shining through the center of tree foliage.
photo credit: Jeremy Bishop

Okay. Eurocentric, patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist principles, ideas, systems, and paradigms, you’ve had your day in the sun. We did it your way for a few years, a tiny blip in the history of this world, and you have failed. It is time to return to the ancient, aligned, and respectful ways, and to systems of reciprocity, if we are to survive as a species. Extractive systems are finite and we are scraping the very bottom of a pot that we have not bothered to replenish. Let’s turn to the ones who know, who still remember, who lived in harmony with the planet for thousands of years to show us the way. It’s time to realize that human beings are important, but only as important as trees, fungi, and plankton. We are not the apex of creation. We are simply a part of this magnificent web of life. It is time that we recognize this and learn the ways in which we could truly contribute and give back instead of just take, take, take. This will take a whole unlearning and it will take generations, but we need to start now. We will likely never go back to the past, nor are we meant to, but it is time to be humble and take our bow when we have failed and to learn a new way of doing things in this world. We need to heal to get to this place of humility and readiness to do things differently. Indigenous ways of knowing and healing are the key to restoration and healing. Period.

This is a whole other topic that we will explore on the next post. Thank you for hanging with me, if you made it to the end.

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