Community Therapy: Supportive Social Networks to Promote Life

by Dr. Adalberto Barreto

[Presentation of the First Global PROUT Conference held in Venezuela, “Building a Solidarity Economy Based on Ethics and Ecology. July 7 – 9, 2011. Parque Central – auditorium 1, Caracas.]

Good morning everyone. It is a real pleasure to share the experience we have lived in Brazil. Tomorrow I will be heading back to my country with more hope in my heart because of what I have seen and heard here. Because each one of us, from very different backgrounds, are burning to light up the path for humanity. I remember a French philosopher who said: “If I don’t burn, if you don’t burn, if we don’t burn, from where will the light come to show us the way?” And this is what I feel watching each of you, coming from different backgrounds, with your values and your beliefs, that you are a little bit of that light

I am going to try to talk Spanish with my Portuguese accent. I did not learn this language in college, but I learned it a bit when I was doing my psychiatric training in Lyon, France. I learned Spanish from the Latin-American refugees, mostly Chileans, who asked me to be their psychiatrist because I understood them.

The population of Brazil is 190 million inhabitants. Fortaleza, where I come from, is the fifth largest city in the country with 2.2 million people. We work with the community in the Pirambu slum that has 200,800 people. This is to locate you in the context where I work.

The essence of our work are expressed in these words of Hermann Hesse: “I cannot give you something that I don’t already have inside of me. I cannot open a world of images that goes beyond the world of images inside my soul. I can give you the chance, the boost, the key. I will help you to make it visible; that is it.”

At the beginning it was a great challenge for us to work in this slum. How to go from a model that generates dependence to a model that encourages autonomy? How can we break the concentration of information by the professional and make it flow in a circular way so that it benefits everyone? How can we save the knowledge acquired by our indigenous, African, Asian and European ancestors through their life experiences? Because doctors and psychiatrists generally use prescriptions and medical treatments, but very little of the culture. How can we go beyond a specialized and limited practice to effectively confront a bigger system?

The greatest challenge for me was to overcome our own contradictions. How could we make the group believe in themselves and their own abilities?

In our practice, we observed that the churches say, “You need to believe in our God, our churches and priests,” and we see them wasting energy and fighting each other. We see that politicians say, “You need to believe in our programs,” and we see them destroy everything that was built by others. We observe technicians say, “You need to believe in our theories,” and we always see the consequences, they ask us to do what they want us to do. All these lead us to conflicts, competition, exclusion, territorial domination, power and intolerance. These are obstacles to the creation of transdisciplinary and transcultural action. They weaken cooperative networks and hinder the transformation of individuals and realities.

Our proposal is of the self. I am here to help you believe in yourself, in your resources and your strengths. In this way, we will be able to do everything together.

There are two sources of knowledge that empower people. University gives you a diploma, a professional identity and a guaranteed salary. The other source of knowledge is experience from the things we live every day. When we overcome suffering and needs, this becomes an ability and makes us stronger. I can love because I was loved, I cannot love because I was not loved. The lack of something creates abilities, and this is what we need to consider in our community and human development work. Here we have an emotional or affective income.

In community therapy we value the knowledge that comes from experience. Confronting a situation gives us knowledge that helps us survive. When we share our crises, sufferings and victories with a group and in the group, this gradually awakens social consciousness and encourages individuals to discover the social and personal implications of those problems: what creates misery and suffering, and how can they overcome it.

Another important aspect: my first school was my family and my first teacher was the child I was. Generally we credit our abilities to books that we read, to courses or workshops that we took, but never to something we lived or that we inherited from our past. We become empowered only when we understand and accept that we are active subjects, learning from our own story.

Needs generate abilities. Generally, we give better the things that we didn’t get. For example, if I was rejected, I am going to be a welcoming person. My experience in Brazil training 25.000 community therapists is that actions come from a great love or a great pain, generally a great pain that was overcome.

The philosophy of our work, our proposal, is to break with the predominant idea that considers that the people are ignorant and hence they need an education. That is not true – the people have a lot of knowledge. They say that tradition is an obstacle to progress. That is not true either – we cannot progress if we break with the traditions of our past. They also say that there is only one correct model of treatment. That is also false.

Anthropology teaches us that all human societies have valid and culturally valid therapeutic mechanisms that reinforce and value the path of life and the cultural identity of the members. The possibilities to prevent psychic suffering and also the ways of healing it are as many as the different realities, societies and cultures that exist in humanity.

The ethic of the work we propose is to break the separation of scientific knowledge from the knowledge of the people, calling for mutual respect for both ways of knowledge. In this sense we want a complementary perspective, without breaking with our traditions and without denying the contribution of modern science. We share the perspective of the ecology of the spirit, respecting cultural diversity and their different systems. We identify ourselves with the model of investigation combined with action-participation, rejecting the academic monopoly of knowledge and giving more value to the knowledge that comes of the people, by the people and for the people.

This effort cannot substitute for good social policies, but it can inspire them and reorient them. We need to use technical scientific knowledge to serve the growth of people, and not use these techniques to conquer others, to gain followers or or to reaffirm ourselves.

Community therapy is based on two things: everyone, no matter what their background, social class, or culture, has resources and knowledge that can be useful for others, even if they ignore it. These abilities come from difficulties that were overcome. Based on this, we share our experiences and we value them. For example, if insomnia is a shared problem, everyone has the same level of importance, whether we are a doctor, a child, an illiterate person, etc. How to solve a problem like this based on the experiences of others is the purpose of community therapy.

Why is this therapy systemic and inclusive? The word therapy stems from the Greek terapeía, which means to welcome, be warm, take care of, and serve. A community is composed of people with things in common, the unit of commons that hosts. It is systemic because it considers the difficulties in relation to the context and social interaction. Individuals belong to a social network that has the capacity of self-regulation, advocacy and growth. Why are these therapies inclusive? Because they struggle against isolation and exclusion, and they value cultural diversity and the skills and abilities of the members. The culture is seen as a resource that multiplies our potential for growth and our capacity to solve our social problems.

Community therapy shares experiences having the community as the therapist in order to observe the stories that are shared by the participants, rescue their identity, restore self-esteem, build trust in each other and expand their perception of problems and possible solutions from the experiences and abilities of the community. Everyone is invited to participate in the search for solutions to overcome everyday challenges. In the therapy we have a time to talk, to listen, and to bond with others following the rules in order to delve into the problem and find the solution.

In the world we have two models: one form is the savior of the nation: “You have problems, I have solutions!” That is a model that does not work. The other one is to share with the community that will have similar situations and ways to solve common problems. Each person is their own therapist when they listen to the stories and experiences of others.

Community therapy is a force that is born from diversity, an action that goes beyond social class, occupation, race, beliefs or parties. Every person shares their knowledge and their abilities to build a multicultural social network. We have many leaders, workers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, etc, that work with us in Brazil. Everyone can be a community therapist.

The methodology: those who what to understand this better can come to the workshop this afternoon to make a community therapy here. We start with a situation or problem, for example someone shares that he or she cannot sleep, or someone else shares another problem, the group chooses one problem from the ones that were given. The animator encourages people to share their problems and then when a situation is chosen, the animator asks if anyone has lived through something like that. You will find that a lot of people have lived through similar situations and will share their experiences.

I am part of the problem and part of the solution. Communities discover that they have problems, but they also have solutions. Soon enough you will discover that overcoming a problem is not only something that an individual can do, or a politician, or a therapist – the whole community can overcome it too.

To discover that my suffering is not only mine helps others to understand and give new meaning to their problem and discover that they are not alone because they receive help from the group and create bonds and relationships based on support.

In community therapy, words are the medicine and the guideline for the one that speaks and for the one that listens. People that share their situation find relief from their pain, relief that the community provides when social policies fail to do so.

For 25 years, community therapy has focused their efforts in the search of participative and responsible solutions through knowledge and wider social networks.

To conclude, our proposal is a paradigm shift from the savior model to the model of coparticipative solutions, a model that is formed for the community, a model that actively shares information, where the solution comes from community and families, a model that encourages co-responsibility and trust, a model for the people.

I would like to end with a poem called “The Stone” by Antonio Carlos Viera.

The Stone

The distracted stumbled on it.
The ignorant used it as a projectile.
The entrepreneur built with it.
The peasant, tired, sat on it.
For the children, it was a toy.
Drummond made a poem about it.
David killed Goliath with it and Michelangelo made a beautiful sculpture.
And in every case, the difference was not in the stone, but in the man.
There is no stone on your way that you cannot use for your own growth.
Every passing moment is a drop of life that will never fall again; profit from every drop to evolve.
Make the best of opportunities; you may not get another chance.

(Translated by Amyerin Arrocha)

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