Therapists Need to Be Capitalism-Informed Just as We Are Trauma-Informed

Without understanding how capitalism negatively impacts mental health, we miss a crucial puzzle piece in supporting our clients.

Gay Men & Blog
9 min readMay 16, 2022
Photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

We live in a capitalist society that places work, money, productivity, and consumption at the core of everything that we do and think about. It is tied to the politics that have a direct impact on our everyday life. We participate in capitalism through our labor and spending, not because we want to, but because we have to in order to live. Without a paying job or the ability to earn money, life becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Capitalism and the societal circumstances it creates are often the root causes of many mental health issues, or are the barriers to getting the support needed to address them. As mental health professionals, why aren’t we talking more about it?

In an episode of Upstream Podcast, activist, writer, and journalist Hadas Thier describes capitalism as a “political-economic system, where politics and the economy cannot be separated, that is based on a relationship of exploitation, which is fundamentally concerned with the production of goods and services for sale on the market.” It’s important to highlight that exploitation is fundamental to capitalism — in order to make the most profit, business costs need to be low, which includes the labor that people provide, and product cost needs to be as high as possible.

Given this profit-driven formula, which is partially achieved by keeping wages low and cost to consumers high, capitalism creates strain in the lives of people who live in it. We are placed in a position where our ability to work and make money is the primary focal point of our existence.

White supremacy is another fundamental part of our capitalist system. Those who control industries and capital are predominantly white men who are invested in maintaining business, political, and social structures in a way that will continue to provide them with the most profit and power, which has historically been created off the backs of women, Black, Native, and other marginalized people. Oppression, violence, and exclusion are gears that keep capitalism running. Furthermore, capitalism exploits natural resources and animals, which has largely contributed to the pain and suffering of living creatures, destruction of ecosystems, and the climate crisis. Not surprisingly, capitalism prevents the necessary actions to rectify its own wrongdoings.

Capitalism is a source of trauma

Mondays are dreaded because they signify the return to jobs we keep in order to “earn a living” at workplaces that drain our joy when we would rather spend our time doing something else. Our disdain for Mondays is a signifier that we actually hate capitalism. Capitalism ties us to a life of labor and everything and everyone has been programmed to keep it this way.

From a young age, children are given the burden of deciding what they want to do for work for the rest of their lives by parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults. Rarely are children given the chance to know themselves as individuals and outside of the concept of being future workers. They’re not encouraged to envision how they could contribute to the betterment of life on this planet without it being tied to work or money. Instead, children are placed on a conveyer belt with tunnel vision toward a “good paying job,” where they’re taught to think and perform in a standardized way, to only see value in certain jobs and careers over others, and lead a lifestyle of consumption. They’re trained to dedicate their mental, physical, and emotional capacities to education for the purpose of a life of labor.

The pressure to do all of this in 12 years + 4 years of college, and grad school in many cases, has real mental health consequences on young people, such as stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and an inability to know themselves outside of being a student and a worker. Children enter adulthood with this as their self-perception, outlook on life, and as the baseline for their mental health state. Not to mention the challenges and stressors that are specific to their own life experience.

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And that’s just the tip of the capitalist iceberg. There are endless social and political problems that capitalism creates, and are rooted in white supremacy, that make life unbearable. Widely accepted aspects of life under capitalism such as the rising costs of a education, housing, and living, the 40+ hour workweek, our reliance on fossil fuels, social and economic hierarchies, policing, the skewed criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex, unequal access to resources and opportunities, homelessness, and our gutted medical system have negative and long-lasting effects on our mental health.

In the weekend this article was written, another white man armed with hate and white supremacy committed a mass shooting; this time, at a grocery store in a Black neighborhood and live streamed it. The Black community has to grapple with another assault on their lives and safety. People across the country and the world are forced to witness acts like this without real political action toward change. And yet, we are to show up to work the next day. Capitalism encourages our desensitization to the tragic loss of life, which has deep effects on our mental health and well-being.

Below are more manifestations of capitalism in the mental health of our clients and ourselves:

  • Financial stress and suffering from the inability to afford basic needs
  • Work-driven schedules
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Loss of bonding time with family, friends, and community
  • Isolation
  • Low self-esteem/sense of self-worth
  • Body image and disordered eating issues
  • Hopelessness and suicidal ideation
  • Addiction and substance use, abuse
  • Maladaptive coping behaviors
  • Perfectionism
  • The pursuit of external validation
  • Abusive interpersonal relationships
  • and more

A more accurate way of understanding this list is to see it as symptoms of capitalism. Without a capitalism- and white supremacy-informed lens, we unintentionally therapize our clients to mentally and emotionally adapt to a system that exploits them and inflicts harm onto them and everyone.

By expanding our understanding of how capitalism and white supremacy contribute to our clients’ mental health challenges, we become a better resource for them. Just as being trauma-informed helps us adjust our conceptualization and approach to our clients, so does being capitalism- and white supremacy-informed. Through these lenses, we can formulate finer assessments and interventions for our clients that put them in better positions to achieve the wellness they seek.

Capitalism, the mental health profession, and you

It is widely understood that, in many ways, the counseling and mental health profession is rooted in white supremacy. From almost all-white psychology figure heads, predominantly white test subjects in theory and intervention research, the promotion of research findings for universal application across all populations, and mostly white leadership and faculty at counseling education programs/institutions, there is lots to unpack and relearn from our professional training to better serve diverse pools of clients.

Adding capitalism to that mix results in inadequately funded counseling service agencies, insurance companies that dictate who gets access to counseling, the cost to clients, clinician’s earnings, and clinicians being overworked and under-compensated. Throughout my social work and clinical career, I’ve played the twisted game that capitalism creates where I try to find a job that A) pays according to my professional value and cost of living, B) has a secure source of funding, C) doesn’t work me to death, and D) allows me to feel like I’m making a positive difference. In my 12 years after social work grad school, I have never had a job that meets all of those aspects.

Your struggles as a mental health professional are connected to capitalism, whether you’re in the non-profit realm, educational system, hospital setting, private sector, or private practice. We know of countless colleagues and folks outside of the profession who are unhappy with their job and feel stuck, burnt out, hopeless, and helpless.

It’s not uncommon to meet with clients whose challenges mirror our own. A recent one has been navigating life through COVID. As clinicians, we experienced the same challenges and hardships as our clients under the pandemic, which put us in a peculiar professional headspace. As with COVID, we are dealing with the same obstacles created by capitalism and white supremacy as our clients. If we can identify how capitalism negatively factors into our life and find a different way of living that works better for us, we can better show up for our clients.

Identifying and deprogramming internalized capitalism for our mental health

The work toward better mental health in a capitalist and white supremacist society involves identifying how they exist within our conceptualization of the world and ourselves. As a therapist at a university, I consistently see students struggle because of their held beliefs about themselves, their purpose, and the state of the world. They’re perpetually stressed about grades, their academic performance, school-life imbalance, the costs associated with college, their career and job prospects upon graduation, and their ability to make a living.

This capitalist pressure is ingrained in us and creates an unhealthy mental environment. It leads to negative emotions that are difficult to navigate and we develop maladaptive behaviors that exacerbate the situation. Not surprisingly, all of this can result in distress and suicidal ideation.

As a clinician, I provide my clients with a therapeutic space to process their concerns, offer validation and perspective, and suggest interventions and resources. Through my capitalism-informed lens, I ask how they see themselves as individuals. I reflect to them that they are more than just a student and highlight the importance of engaging other aspects of themselves. What I try to help them see is that they are more than what they’ve been forced to think of themselves under capitalism.

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In some cases, I’ve asked clients what they enjoy doing and who they are outside of school and being a student. Upon reflecting on my question, some are visibly and verbally stumped, embarrassed, alarmed, and sad because they realize how neglectful they’ve been of themselves. It’s important that clients know that this is not their fault or a failure on their part. I explain portions of what I’ve outlined in this article to them, which moves them past the inaccurate ownership of the problem and the guilt that is useless on their journey to reclaim themselves from capitalism. Helping a client see themselves as a whole person rather than just a student or a worker tends to improve their mood, motivation, academic performance, and their life overall.

Without intentionally reflecting on one’s self to take stock of held beliefs, patterns of thinking, and behaviors, to then determine what is accurate, serving, and harmful, and subsequently work to change it, we leave ourselves vulnerable to be dragged through life by capitalism.

In a previous article, I discuss our role in capitalism and how to live more intentionally within it. Below are 13 suggestions that can help “deprogram” a mindset afflicted by capitalism. You can read my expanded thoughts on each in the previous article.

  1. Don’t make your job your identity.
  2. Engage your creative side.
  3. Focus on your emotional and spiritual healing.
  4. Know who you are.
  5. Rest, relax, and replenish often.
  6. Spend time exploring your purpose(s) in life.
  7. Don’t put up with abusive and exploitative work environments.
  8. Have a set of core values.
  9. Spend your money according to your values.
  10. Spend your money on your wellness and well-being.
  11. Connect to and build community.
  12. Use your money and abilities to help people and communities.
  13. Cultivate your joy and contribute to the joy of others.

My hope with this article is to highlight the extent to which capitalism negatively impacts mental health in people. As mental health professionals, it is our duty to understand this connection, incorporate a lens in our practice and work with clients, and be part of advocacy efforts to change the systems, policies, and mindsets that perpetuate harm under capitalism. Just as we have learned the importance of being anti-racist and dismantle white supremacy, we must also be anti-capitalist and work to dismantle it for mental health’s sake.

Resources to learn more about capitalism and alternatives to it



Gay Men & Blog

Writer of Gay Men & Blog — a blog dedicated to empowering gay men to heal, grow, and live a life of love and fulfillment.