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Saturday, October 1, 2022

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Travis Heath photographed at SDSU (SDSU)
 


Challenging the Narrative: Q&A with SDSU Professor Travis Heath

Travis Heath, the new chair of SDSU’s Department of Counseling and School Psychology, examines the stories we tell and how that relates to the health of individuals — and our culture.
By Michael Klitzing
 

Travis Heath’s journey in the field of psychology started in an unlikely place — the very back of the classroom.

Heath was a new student at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, fresh off an unsuccessful attempt to catch on with the famed Gonzaga basketball team as a walk-on point guard. At the time, he had no real direction in his academic career. In fact, he admits he was only in the introduction to psychology course because his college counselor chose the subject for him.

“I didn't even know what psychology was,” Heath recalls. “But I had an amazing professor, Dr. Linda Lockwood. I'd thought about a lot of these things before, but I was getting actual language to describe it. I realized that there are people — a whole field of study — thinking about these things and they don't think it's weird.

“Without even realizing it, I found myself drifting towards the front of the room.”

Two decades later, his forward progress continues. Heath now prepares to start his new role as associate professor and chair in San Diego State University’s Department of Counseling and School Psychology.

Previously an associate professor at Denver University, Heath’s work centers around narrative therapy, a style of therapy that focuses on the stories individuals carry with them to understand themselves, their identities and the world. It uses an anti-colonial lens to examine why some stories are accepted by society as truth, and others are marginalized.

The SDSU News team asked Heath about the ideas behind his scholarship and what led him to SDSU.  

In a 2019 TEDx Talk, you discussed how an individual's disorders are co-authored by the systems of the culture. Can you explain what that means?

I feel like that's at the center of much of my life's work. 

Take a specific label like depression. More and more we're finding that depression is not just a chemical imbalance, which means it's more complicated. So that raises questions — who are the parties that have the power to author what this label of depression means, and what are we to do with it when we experience it? It's a tricky conversation because in no way am I saying that depression doesn't exist. What I am saying is there are a set of circumscribed stories that people recognize depression as fitting into, and then they fit themselves into that. 

How does that affect the professional response?

We’ve limited the idea of depression to something that always needs treatment and must be eradicated. Realizing that this thing called depression is connected to the larger world that we're all a part of opens up new possibilities for how we might relate to this construct, one that goes beyond psychotropic medication for example. I'm not against that in all cases. But the idea that we immediately make this a medical discourse and treat it accordingly is quite limiting and, I think, problematic.

Can you explain the concept of communities of care and how it differs from the idea of self care?

I don't necessarily think that caring for one's self is a bad thing. If someone tells me they want to take a bubble bath, I say 'wonderful.' But I do worry about how that's gotten tangled up with late capitalist ideas. Through that lens, there are always ways in which we're insufficient, and there's always something we can buy to make us more sufficient. 

And of course you never actually reach the finish line. That's great for keeping an economic engine churning, but it’s not so great for people. Now, communities of care is not a concept I take credit for. In fact, this is the way many societies have run. We've sort of been lulled to sleep into believing that we can do everything in an individualist fashion. But we do exist in a community of care, we just don't recognize or honor that. So when we tell people who are struggling in life to practice self care, we're really outsourcing the care instead of leaning in and asking how we, as a community, can support you.

Our current systems have pulled us away from that, and that contributes to the mental health crisis that you hear people talk about.

What attracted you to SDSU and the Department of Counseling and School Psychology?

The more I've learned about CSP, I've discovered it to be a pretty radical unit. That appeals to me. If everything feels comfortable all the time and it's on an even keel, are we really even doing anything? I'd rather have colleagues with ideas who are challenging things, who are trying to stir things up that might be taken for granted and who are discovering new ways that we might go forward. What I think is cool about this role as chair is that I get to stand in support of what other people are doing and try to fight to create environments where other people can thrive.

What can you share about your experience playing ball at Gonzaga?

Well I was there, but I wouldn't really say I played ball. (laughs) It was more like I tried to. I was all right in high school in Denver, but it turns out even at what was at that time little tiny Gonzaga — this was before it was the Gonzaga we know today as a power — those guys were way better. I always wanted to play in the NBA, but it became painfully obvious that that wasn't going to happen. So it was a classic existential crisis of what the hell I was going to do with my life. And right about that time is when I found psychology. So it was kind of a fortuitous series of events.

Interview lightly edited for length and clarity.