No ‘ginhawa’ without justice
What has justice got to do with mental health and well-being? Everything.
This was highlighted in the recently concluded joint National Conference of Sikolohiyang Pilipino and National Conference on Ginhawa, cohosted by the Pambansang Samahan sa Sikolohiyang Pilipino and the University of the Philippines Diliman Psychosocial Services. It was initially surprising that they invited a lawyer as a keynote speaker for a conference on well-being. Lawyer Cecilia Jimenez-Damary pointed us toward the notion of transitional justice, which focuses on the dismantling of legal structures and policies that perpetuate human rights injustices as opposed to a more punitive form of justice. Moreover, transitional justice puts victims’ welfare at the center. She highlighted four human rights: (1) the right to know the truth, (2) the right to justice, (3) the right to reparation, and (4) the right to non-reoccurrence of injustice. By putting victims’ rights and welfare at the very heart of justice, we can easily see how seeking justice can lead to better well-being overall. It also challenges mental health practitioners to reflect on their interventions and programs if they truly do bring about long-term well-being or if they have become enablers of abuse and oppression by ignoring the community’s justice issues.
The notion of “no ginhawa without justice” also opens the field wide to other ways we can enhance mental health and well-being. Addressing mental health individually and internally is rooted in western traditions of healing, which often locates the cause of suffering inside an individual. By emphasizing that justice is a necessary component to well-being, we can be cognizant that mental health solutions are not only found in therapy rooms but can also come from community action. When companies consult with me on how to develop mental health programs for their employees, I first tell them that the simplest, most direct way to improve their employees’ well-being is to raise their wages. While the adage “money cannot buy happiness” has its wisdom, I dare say that money can solve more external problems. A liveable wage can provide a sense of security that can remove most of our daily stresses. A clear career path, with transparent mechanisms for promotion, can further enhance this sense of security and allow people to make meaningful life choices.
Transitional justice is usually applied at a much bigger scale, of course. This pertains to nation-building and helping countries transition toward peace and democracy. It points toward breaking down of apartheid walls, which promote unjust treatment, and rejecting despotic rule, which promote impunity. At a practitioner level, this requires that we are aware of our clients’ minority status and become active allies in their pursuit of justice.
It is also fitting that scholars of indigenous Filipino psychology and mental health practitioners have started coming together on a yearly basis. There can be no true solution to the Filipino mental health crisis without fully understanding the context of the Filipino. Mental health interventions devoid of such context often become unwitting tools of westernization. When this happens, and we perpetuate the imposition of western or colonial values, mental health programs can also become tools of oppression. One need look no further than the emergence of colonial mentality. Colonial mentality, especially when unchecked, is insidious in the way it makes us believe we are inferior to others. When this is not confronted explicitly in the therapy room, it can lead to worsening of self-worth and a distorted self-image. This, in turn, can lead to depression and self-destructive behaviors. The more we insist that they adopt and subscribe to western ideals and values, the worse their well-being can become.
Understanding the Filipino through an implicit western lens can also be quite dangerous. Take the concept of intelligence, for example. Filipinos are generally disadvantaged by the traditional (and outdated) notion of intelligence quotient (IQ), where intelligence can be defined by a singular number. IQ measures are often developed in the west, loaded with western-based items of general knowledge and vocabulary. As such, the average Filipino IQ is almost always lower than their western counterparts. This should not be automatically interpreted, however, as us being less intelligent than others. It must be seriously considered that such tests are inappropriate to Filipinos because they are tested on western knowledge and not on intelligence per se. As such, the development of local measures becomes a matter of justice.
Addressing mental health and well-being without addressing justice is akin to putting a band-aid on a cancerous tumor. We can better help our communities by addressing the root causes of their suffering and pursuing justice for all.