MLK’s “Creative Maladjustment”

Written by: Sheena Yazdandoost, LCSW & McKenna Hereford, Ph.D.

This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s honor his legacy by reflecting on his powerful address at APA’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. in 1967. As he mentions in this statement, “there are many roles for the social scientists [to assist in the civil rights movement].” We are taking some time to read this and reflect on what we as individuals can do to increase awareness within and outside of ourselves. 

King makes a point to say that we tend to use helpful jargon in the mental health field, including the word “maladjustment” (print version seen in APA Monitor, 1999). This might refer to difficulty adjusting to life changes or situations that create psychological distress. However, King notes, mental health professionals might categorize all difficulty in adjustment as “maladjustment.” He provides examples of contexts wherein we actually should not adjust, such as discrimination and social inequity. 

The consideration of systemic barriers is paramount in 2023. According to Mental Health America, there is one mental health provider for every 350 people, and 23% of adults experiencing prolonged mental health concerns are not able to see a doctor due to cost. For Black Americans, suicide is also a significant concern in 2023. According to the CDC, suicide rates are quickly increasing, and now suicide is the second leading cause of death for Black Americans ages 15 to 24. The CDC also reported poverty as an additional layer affecting mental health and risk of suicide. Taking all these elements into consideration, Black Americans are facing bigger stressors and systemic barriers, including to treatment itself. 

Even when Black clients are able to access care for mental health concerns, they face new barriers. First, they’re much less likely to find Black providers! Given the history of the mental health field and the points King made in his address, Black clients might feel much more comfortable meeting with a Black provider. Unfortunately, the percentage of Black providers is below 10%, which is another barrier. Black clients are more likely to end therapy earlier without notifying the therapist due to lack of cultural responsiveness in the therapist and/or microaggressions (Owen et al., 2012). They also might feel less comfortable or safe to talk about their experiences as a Black client. 

Mental health organizations are one of many groups who play an important role in community advocacy. 2022 was the deadliest year on record in regard to U.S. police killings. Texas alone has experienced a 30% increase in killings since 2013 displaying how deeply systemic this issue is. As one of the top mental health providers in Texas, it is our duty to not only stay aware to offer client-centered care, but also to advocate for our communities throughout Texas who are exposed intergenerationally, emotionally, and physically to this chronic violence. While some progress has been made on the local levels, there is much left to do. Honoring Dr. King through action is one of many ways we can celebrate today. 

In his address to the APA, Dr. King suggested a new organization for mental health professionals, one that he coined “creative maladjustment.” He highlighted historical figures who defied cultural pressure while risking professional and physical safety in order to promote social justice. King emphasized the importance of mental health providers taking the risk to refuse to “adjust” to inequity strategically. This type of maladjustment, or going against the status quo, should be viewed differently than those experiencing difficulty adjusting to new psychological challenges bringing people to seek mental health treatment. Here are some examples we consider to be in the spirit of creative maladjustment, whether you are a therapist, client, or anyone else:

  • Taking a training on health inequity
  • Educating yourself on local resources and lack thereof
  • Participate in volunteer efforts to address inequality
  • Vote in elections
  • Attending marches or rallies highlighting the changes needed
  • Having difficult conversations with co-workers, friends, and families

Less than a year after this address, Dr. King was assassinated. At the end of his speech, he writes, “I have not lost hope. I must confess that these have been very difficult days for me personally. And these have been difficult days for every civil rights leader, for every lover of justice and peace.” We can hold these words close as we continue to understand the meaning of “action” in the context of our individual lives today and everyday.

Owen, J., Imel, Z., Adelson, J., & Rodolfa, E. (2012). ‘No-show’: Therapist racial/ethnic disparities in client unilateral termination. Journal of counseling psychology, 59(2), 314.

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