CBT, Mindfulness, and Pscyho-fixes to Poverty; or You Can’t Think Your Way Out of Capitalism

Authors: Sarah Stinard-Kiel*, Temple University
Topics: Geography and Urban Health, Social Theory, Urban Geography
Keywords: Poverty, urban geography, health geography, mental health, education
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Madison B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has become both the common-sense and hegemonic approach to improving mental health and emotional regulation. Not only is it taught to mainstream clinical psychologists, but as more schools, social service organizations, and whole cities attempt to become “trauma-informed” and “trauma-responsive”, professionals across sectors are being trained in the foundations of CBT. This is happening as public health advocates increasingly talk about the "toxic stress" and "trauma" of living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, and general economic precarity. Transforming structural and political economic issues into psychological and medical pathologies is not new, but my research on approaches to youth behavioral issues in urban areas does reveal novel techniques to accommodate people to conditions of austerity. While CBT was designed to help people cope with severe anxiety and suicidal ideation, it is now deployed to help people manage the everyday stress of having to do more with less. Philanthropic grants are given to train educators and youth service providers in both CBT and mindfulness techniques with the aim of calming distressed students or clients, but also to avoid on-the-job burnout in professions that require large investments of emotional labor. This paper explores the ways the scaling up of mindfulness and self-care culture to the institutional and bureaucratic level constrains abilities to and push back against the hollowing out of support systems and the privatization of education. It also asks how techniques to improve individual mental wellness can be transformed to make collective demands that don’t require the pathologization of poverty.

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