Vitality: A Psychiatrist's Answer to Life's Problems

By Richard Esser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4.
LEARNING BASIC LESSONS IN HARLEM

My colleagues in psychiatry and psychology who worked outside of Harlem usually wondered whether it was possible to work effectively with those who lived in Harlem. It was often taken for granted that people who had least education, who lived in near poverty and who knew little about modern psychiatry and psychology would be unmotivated and unsuitable for such helping. That was not what I found. The people in Harlem with whom I worked were highly motivated. There was, however, one striking difference between my work there and my parallel work with those who lived outside of Harlem and were better off. That difference — and the lesson it taught me — was epitomized in how people reacted to an initial contact.

During that very first meeting people in Harlem needed a crystal-clear idea of just how coming to see me would help them get out of the troubled or troubling state they were in. It was difficult to recognize that need because it was almost never put into words. When dealing with authorities and experts, people usually kept their mouths shut; they kept their feelings and thoughts to themselves. It was only when they were convinced that a person was truly interested in helping them and would welcome possibly challenging questions that they would open up and voice their questions. Because that was rarely the case, they were often seen as sullen or passive, a perception that reinforced the idea of their supposed lack of motivation.

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