Liberation Psychology as a Counter Force to the Trauma of Oppression

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Can liberation psychology help people heal from community trauma?

This groundbreaking interdisciplinary approach to psychology shows great promise for clinicians whose clients identify as LGBTQIA+ or BIPOC, people whose very existence runs up against white supremacist and oppressive structures.

What is liberation psychology? How can clinicians learn more about it and apply its principles in communities and treatment spaces?

What Is Liberation Psychology?

Liberation psychology is a framework, not an official category of psychology. It was developed in the 1970s in parallel with liberation theology. It was promoted by scholars, priests, and nuns in Latin America who believed that activism on the part of the poor and oppressed was their core mission.

Liberation psychology shares a similar outlook and goals with today’s intersectional and antiracist work. The founders of liberation psychology fought against the perceived neutrality of psychology that seemingly removed people from the context they existed in. Its adherents believed psychology was dominated by white, middle-class men, treating mental health issues as individual, rather than societal problems.

This approach turns that around, seeking to understand what happens when someone grows up and lives in an environment of oppression. 

It places mental health issues in the context of social injustice and structural violence.

Liberation theology takes the notion of cultural competence and cultural humility deeper, fully embracing oppressed minorities and acknowledging the ways societal structures harm them.

When working in populations of people who have experienced the trauma of racism, liberation psychology is an approach that seeks to understand and liberate people from the structures and forces that hold them back.

Say His Name: Ignacio Martín-Baró

The man credited with pioneering liberation psychology was a part of a troubled chapter in the history of US aggression. 

Ignacio Martín‑Baró, a Jesuit priest and psychologist, was born in Spain and lived most of his life in El Salvador. Martín‑Baró held a post at UCA El Salvador while the population was caught in a struggle between a popular revolutionary movement (FMLN) and the brutal US-backed Salvadoran Army. 

In 1989, soldiers from the Salvadoran Army murdered Martín‑Baró along with five other Jesuits and the caretaker’s wife and daughter.

The murdered priests/academics were labeled radicals and communists and those labels diminished their efforts on the part of the poor. When The New York Times called the murdered priests “leftist intellectuals,” John R. Quinn, an Archbishop from San Francisco, replied with the words of Brazilian liberation theologist Helder Camara: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.” 

How does this context of war and ideology apply to today’s world?

Reconstructing Psychology to Address Context

Among his other writings, Ignacio Martín‑Baró was a proponent of reparations for people whose ancestors suffered under slavery, war, and other oppression. In his article, “Reparations: Attention Must be Paid,” Martín‑Baró wrote:

"It is clear that no one is going to return to the imprisoned dissident his youth; to the young woman who has been raped her innocence; to the person who has been tortured his or her integrity. Nobody is going to return the dead and the disappeared to their families. What can and must be publicly restored [are] the victims' names and their dignity, through a formal recognition of the injustice of what has occurred, and, wherever possible, material reparation... Those who clamor for social reparation are not asking for vengeance. Nor are they blindly adding difficulties to a historical process that is already by no means easy. On the contrary, they are promoting the personal and social viability of a new society, truly democratic."[

In the minds of Martín‑Baró and other pioneers in this evolving framework, treating people for trauma while not addressing the reasons for their trauma was a way of perpetuating colonialism and oppression.

Liberation Psychology in Practice

Today’s clinicians and academics are following in the footsteps of the martyred Salvadoran Jesuits by doing intersectional and antiracist work. They are cultivating cultural humility, recognizing privilege, and seeking to understand the contexts for mental and behavioral health challenges.

Practices like The Liberated Us in New York City and Liberate Therapy in Los Angeles practice psychotherapy using the lens of liberation psychology. They tend to focus on serving BIPOC communities, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ individuals, artists, and activists. 

But no matter what the background of the client, an orientation toward liberation psychology moves us all toward a more equitable and healthier future.

Dr. Thema Bryant: Carrying on the Legacy

One of the most well-respected inheritors of the legacy of liberation psychology is Dr. Thema Bryant, author of the recent book, Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self and Thriving in the Wake of Trauma: A Multicultural Guide.

Dr. Bryant is president-elect of the American Psychological Association. She is currently a tenured professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University, where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. 

She has devoted significant energy to studying and teaching about interpersonal trauma and the societal trauma of oppression. She hosts a popular podcast, The Homecoming Podcast, and speaks around the world at events and conferences. On top of all that, she is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Attendees at the 2022 Trauma & Recovery Conference experienced a dynamic keynote by Dr. Bryant.

Intersectional Practices

When clinicians immerse themselves in the ideas of liberation psychology, clients have space to grapple with the trauma, racism, and oppression that they have experienced. Combined with a sense of cultural humility and recognition of implicit bias, this approach can be deeply liberating for both client and clinician.

Instead of living with the shame and self-doubt that the trauma is somehow their fault, liberation psychology takes a hard look at the oppression that is around us and says it’s not okay.

And given what’s going on all around us, it’s okay to not be okay.

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