Background to the Bitter Melons

Throughout 2008 and 2009, Alliance for People’ Health organizers observed that mental health, in particular stress and anxiety, was emerging as a critical issue for community members accessing the People’s Health Series/Women’s Health Series and APH community services, as well as for organizers at the APH and the Organizing Centre for Social and Economic Justice ourselves.

In the new book “Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts” Mikkonen and Raphael highlight that “[p]eople who suffer from adverse social and material living conditions also experience high levels of physiological and psychological stress.  Stressful experiences arise from coping with conditions of low-income, poor quality housing, food insecurity, inadequate working conditions, insecure employment, and various forms of discrimination based on Aboriginal status, disability, gender, or race. The lack of supportive relationships, social isolation, and mistrust of others further increases stress.” (p. 10)

This was indeed our experience as community health and social justice organizers.  The majority of us had tried various forms of professional therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, psychiatric treatment including medication use, self-help manuals, meditation, exercise, and diet changes. Yet through a collectivization of our experiences what we found was that these methods, while at times helpful in reducing acute distress, were not enough to overcome the roots of our anxiety.

Mikkonen and Raphael make a similar point when they conclude that “[i]n many cases, individually-oriented physical activity and healthy eating programs do not address the social determinants of health that are the underlying causes of many serious illnesses” (p. 10)

Read the WHS Stress Presentation here.

A New Community Health Project is Born

After collectivizing our experiences as organizers in dealing with stress and anxiety, and analyzing the roots in oppression, exploitation, and alienation, we decided it was time to launch a new community health organization based on the model of the 1970`s Radical Therapy Collective.

Radical Therapy was an anti-capitalist project in the early 70`s that sprang from a group of psychiatrists and activists who wanted to see the root causes of mental distress addressed through social change not behaviour modification. Their motto was “Therapy means social, political and personal change, not adjustment.”

From the Radical Therapy Manifesto: “In the midst of a society tormented by war, racism, and social turmoil, therapy goes on with business as usual. In fact, therapists often look suspiciously at social change and label as “disturbed” those who press toward it.” “Therapy today has become a commodity, a means of social control. We reject such an approach to people`s distress. We reject the pleasant careers with which the system rewards its adherents. The social system must change, and we will be workers toward such change.”

Taking inspiration from this model, the Bitter Melon Consciousness-Raising Group was born!

The Bitter Melons

The Bitter Melons, originally called the Radical Therapy Group, is a collective of community organizers who are struggling to address the root causes of anxiety and mental distress in our own lives, while developing a model that could eventually be taken out to our communities.

The consciousness-raising work of the Bitter Melons is based in the practice of Radical Therapy, the form of therapy that will truly get to the heart of emotional distress suffered by the working class.  This requires a consciousness-raising process to identify political solutions to personal struggles and our emotions.

We believe the institution of psychiatry will never get to the roots of our struggles because it profits enormously from mental health problems.  Radical therapy de-professionalizes the psychiatric institution by rooting out the capitalist ideas and practices around mental health and treatment which focus mostly on the individual and behavioural changes.

We practice our own form of therapy in an intimate collective setting of organizers with the ultimate aim of decolonizing and liberating our minds to see the potential of transforming our society into one where there is real social and economic equality, all people are valued, human relations involve a willingness to struggle and honesty, and there is strong sense of belonging and interconnectedness.

References and Resources:

Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts
Juha Mikkonen and Dennis Raphael

Impact of Poverty and Stress on Diabetes among Native Americans