The Talking Cure

It’s not easy being a teen these days. Young people between the ages of 16-18 experience the highest rate of violence in the country quickly followed by 12-16 year olds. Beyond the heightened risk of violence and violation, young people in underserved communities daily combat inadequate schools, municipal neglect, increased exposure to drugs, gangs, domestic abuse, increased incidents of teenage pregnancy, parental neglect and they often coexist antagonistically with authority figures, particularly local police (,Bourgois, 2003). And young people of color are particularly likely to experience violence—which includes murder, rape, sexual assault, robbery, and abuse.
Not surprising, when these young people start to make media, they create pieces that often reflect trauma and disclose personal traumatic narratives. These complex revelations may make a practitioner, who, not trained as a psychologist or social worker, feel unprepared to appropriately respond to and cope with the personal stories of young people. Fortunately, youth media practitioners do not have to act as junior psychotherapists. By simply giving young people a safe space to explore and make sense of what has or is continuing to happen to them, practitioners can help provide a powerful healing component to the process of making media and finding meaning.
The Dynamics of Disclosure
Everyday we talk to communicate, share, and even, process emotions. Talking about personal incidents has been shown to bring about both physical and psychological benefits, which suggest that we may be innately compelled to disclose deeply personal incidents in our lives—particularly the more traumatic and emotionally charged the information (Harber, Cohen, 2004). Emotional disclosure is often followed by self-reports of relief, a sense of closure, and a greater understanding of the incident relayed and also corresponds with immune function (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986, Pennebaker & Susman, 1988, Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).
For young people, there are very few spaces or opportunities to disclose personal information let alone traumas. Youth media programs can fill this need. They not only encourage young people to speak but teach them that what they have to say is of value. This process shouldn’t be thwarted but rather nurtured.
A large part of what we are doing when we recount, disclose and confess is attempting to make meaning of daily events and past occurrences and incorporate them into the broader narrative of our lives and deeper understanding of how the world operates (Stiles & Brinegar, 2007, Janoff-Bulman, Yopyk, 2004, Silver, Boon, & Stone, 1983). This becomes a particularly pressing need when the events are shocking, traumatic and counter to our daily assumptions about how the world works (Janoff-Bulman, Yopyk, 2004).
For example, being sexually violated by a family member, experiencing a sudden loss of a loved one, or witnessing or being the victim of a violent assault can all represent occurrences that will initially violate our belief in a fair and orderly world. Talking about these experiences can often represent the beginnings of a larger process of assimilation and is a crucial precondition for the healing process.
Indeed, many researchers and psychotherapists have found that individuals who use more descriptive language when describing traumatic events and are able to build a more cohesive narrative of the event report a greater sense of relief and healing (Honos-Webb, Harrick, Stiles, & Park, 2000, Pennebaker, 1993). Youth media is a perfect medium for such growth because young people are encouraged to use an array of media tools with which to piece together their stories and find meaning in the chaos of victimization.
The healing process in the wake of victimization is long, delicate and complex and can involve many years of work. Youth media practitioners should have ready access to mental health clinics in the event that the situation feels overwhelming or risky. Practitioners ought to keep in mind that when a young person discloses traumatic information it represents a desire to make meaning of confounding events. Being an empathic and accepting listener can act as a powerful healing agent and does not require years of training.
Leading Practices and the Helping Relationship
The vast majority of disclosures are not those revealed on the therapist’s couch but rather between friends, lovers and family members. Potentially, these kinds of relationships are what the late Carl Rogers, psychoanalyst and leader of the humanist movement within psychology, coined as helping relationships (Rogers, 1961/98). For Rogers, paramount in the helping relationship is not years of academic training but rather empathy, compassion and unconditional positive regard. While youth media practitioners are not counselors, psychiatrists or social workers, they aim to support, listen, and engage young people. In providing unconditional positive regard and building trust with youth in crisis, practitioners can be ideal participants in helping relationships.
At the heart of Rogerian theory lays a fairly basic but very powerful assumption: “If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur” (Rogers, 33, 1961/98). For Rogers, healing can occur quite naturally “off the couch” provided there are certain preconditions present in a relationship in which at least one of the participants is interested in cultivating the inner strengths and resources of the other.
Unconditional positive regard—which Rogers defined as a total and complete acceptance of the other person as a valid and separate individual of unconditional worth—is crucial to the helping relationship. What this means for practitioners is a willingness to allow young people the dignity and space to find their own meaning based on their experiences and regard the expression as true, valuable and as worthy of respect. It also means that we ought to avoid moral and diagnostic evaluations/judgments as well as giving advice of how to change or heal. In this way, the extension of unconditional acceptance allows young people to continue to find and express their own reality, making growth possible.
While there is wonderful simplicity in what Rogers suggests, this extension of unconditional acceptance can be challenging and requires mindfulness. Passing judgment, feeling distrustful of what someone may be telling us, or shutting out ideas and beliefs that are counter to our own—or counter to how we would like to see the world operate—can happen very quickly and block effective channels of communication long term. Unconditional positive regard is a challenge for us to be mindful of these tendencies, to open ourselves up to the experiences and realities of others, and to give young people the dignity to be their own, unique selves.
Utilizing our Tools
In creating media, young people’s voices reflect the broader sociopolitical climate in which their experiences are forged. Inequity, subversive forms of racism and sexism, and heightened exposure to drugs, neglect, assault, rape and murder are sociopolitical realities that bleed into their every day experiences and becomes irreparably bound to their personal narratives and their search for meaning and value.
While youth media practitioners may not have the same tools and training as a therapist or social worker, the tools they do have at their disposal—the approaches to empower young people to express their voices through the creative and artistic process of media making—are powerful agents of healing. Talking about and making sense of trauma and pain through story-telling and disclosure is a crucial stage in the healing process. Youth media practitioners need to be aware that as young people express themselves using writing, art, music, web, radio and/or video, the process of personal narrative building and meaning-making can in fact help young people map their own process of violence and healing.
Brooke Hansson has a BA in Psychology from The New School for General Studies and has completed several graduate courses at The New School for Social Research. Brooke focuses on the interface between individual realities and broader political, historical and socioeconomic forces and the byproducts of social inequity and lack of access to life-sustaining resources. She lives in Jersey City, NJ and is currently working on several independent research projects.
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