To the bold, expansive systems thinkers of the ’60s and ’70s, it seemed perfectly natural that if we really wanted to help our clients change, we couldn’t ignore the society in which they lived. But then, with the political and economic shifts of the ’80s and ’90s–the end of the public money for community mental health centers, the tightening grip of managed care, the decline of insurance reimbursement–the struggle just to make a living took center stage for more and more of us. Like the economy , we therapist “privatized” ourselves and our view of our work, took a step back from a larger social vision, and refocused on individual problems and psyches.

Now, as the stakes seem to be getting higher and higher, the tide may be changing again. The United States has just been through one of the fiercest, most momentous presidential contests in its history, the result of which remains to be determined as we go to press. Whoever got your vote, it seems clear that the major issue driving the campaign–the economic meltdown and the credit crunch, war and terrorism, global warming and energy crisis, health-care and “family values”–profoundly affect everybody in our society, including therapist and clients. It’s become evident that we can’t afford to pretend anymore that the troubles people bring to our offices are purely “private,” completely contained within their own individuals psyches, uncontaminated by what’s going on in the outside world.

All well and good, but what are we supposed to do about it? Present foreign policy lectures during sessions? Give our clients handouts about green living? No, but as the contributors to the issue show us, increasingly, therapists are feeling a call to find a pathway to having an impact beyond their immediate caseloads.

Take Bill Doherty, for example, who’s spent the last decade or so showing us how to become active citizen-therapists–professionals who get involved in the world while keeping their day job in private practice. Doherty’s secret is disarmingly simple: he finds ordinary, “nonclinical” social issues that come up again and again in sessions–the overscheduling of kids’ activities to the detriment of family life or the wildly expensive, consumerism-gone-mad birthday parties for 2-year-olds–and uses them to leverage community movements for genuine change. Therapists like Doherty believe we can begin at ground zero in our own offices and, with enough clinical skill and media savvy, use what we discover about our clients’ lives a a stepping-stone to the larger project of shifting the values and actions of the entire culture.

Other therapists, like Laurie Leitch and Jeffrey Kottler, take their clinical skills on the road: Leitch to postgenocide Rwanda to teach Rwandans a method of trauma therapy and Kottler to Nepal to help set up a system of scholarships and mentoring for impoverished girls. Both have been scrupulous about avoiding what’s been called therapeutic “disaster tourism”: swooping in, doing quick therapy, and jetting back home. Each of them has focused on setting up a self-replicating system, so that the people they’ve helped can develop and sustain the good work.

The stories in this issue remind us that joining a community can turn a group of committed, well-meaning individuals into a powerful collective. So we want to remind you that the biggest community gathering of therapists in the country is coming up on March 26-29, 2009, in Washington, D.C. We invite you to be part of the 32nd Annual Networker Symposium, “Seizing the Day: Therapy and the Art of Engagement” (see pages 13-16). Join us as, amid the usual Mardi Gras conviviality and unbridled creativity, we continue the conversation highlighted in this issue and reconsider what expanded roles therapists can play as we discover how to apply the skills and knowledge of our profession to meet the challenges faced by our troubled planet.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.