I am lucky enough to be trained in psychology from a critical perspective that centralizes the relationship between psychology and politics, or the ways in which power functions in our production of psychological knowledge. I am also a woman of color whose history is deeply entwined with colonialism, which has given me another form of knowledge–that of experience. In the classes I have taught on gender and sexuality, I often begin with a deconstruction of what we know about human behavior, and why. Why is it, for example, that students come into my first class of human sexuality and turn the most to evolutionary psychology (i.e, that men and women are “wired” to seek sexual experiences with each other because of their need to procreate) to explain why heterosexuality is the norm? I equip students with critiques of these paradigms from the beginning so that they have the tools to challenge master narratives about gender, sexuality, and their intersections with race, class, disability, etc. and to understand how those narratives are employed to reinforce systems of oppression.
In the class I am shadowing, it was interesting to see how as educators, we can bring students to this critique on their own without the help of outside literature. Students were having a discussion about the biological bases of mental disorders, and were given a case study about a woman who was dealing with feeling “trapped” taking care of her husband who was suffering from physical disability. She was also feeling guilt for the feelings that were coming up around her situation, which “made her feel like disappearing”. The students were asked to deconstruct her story and come up with a theory for her mental illness. Students went back and forth about whether she could have had a chemical imbalance that was triggered by her situation, or whether her situation might have caused a chemical imbalance, and some students came up with theories that were purely biological or purely social constructionist. At one point, some students started making judgements about the feelings that were coming up for her. One student shared that she thinks some people are simply weak, and not able to handle difficult situations. Another student noted that she should have been prepared for something like this to happen when she entered into her marriage, Then, a student argued that if the root of her mental illness is biological, then it couldn’t be her fault.
The issue of who is “at fault” speaks exactly to the issues of power in our discussion of mental illness. It is often the case that to legitimate that pain is real, we must locate it within the body and thus “out of our control”. It is much more difficult to argue that it is our social conditions which are physically and mentally making us sick because neoliberal logic convinces us that we should be able to control our emotions, toughen up, and pull ourselves out of our feelings. Our lack of support for caregivers in our society, for example, could not possibly be part of the equation. I began to reflect on this moment in the class where I saw an opening for students to recognize how they were coming to their moral conclusions about who is “at fault” for mental illness, and felt myself immediately nervous to leave them to sit with these judgements without providing them resources to deconstruct their arguments. At the same time, I recognize the value of allowing students to sit in their discomfort and to learn how to identify when their judgements are embedded in master narratives. I’m curious to see where students will be by the end of the semester in terms of how their thinking will change around these issues.