COMMENT ON: America’s Mental Health Industry Is a Threat to Our Sanity | Truthout

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Americas Mental Health Industry Is a Threat to Our Sanity | Truthout.

by: Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet | News Analysis

Hello all. Happy New Year! I trust everyone had a great holiday season. I know I did.

My last post was back on December 21st, 2011. I thought I’d get the blogging juices flowing agin by briefly commenting on the above article by Bruce Levine entitled America’s Mental Health Industry Is a Threat to Our Sanity. This article appeared over at Before we get started, a disclaimer: during our 2010–2011 fiscal year, the FHL Foundation made a $5,000 grant to regularly features articles by researchers such as Henry Giroux and George Lakoff. Our Foundation learns from and supports voices such as these.

First comment: Levine does a good job accurately portraying the mental health industry as it exists today. I can make this comment for two reasons:

  1. The information Levine presents agrees in large part with the information that anesthesiologist Dr. Ronald Dworkin presents in his 2006 book Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class.
  2. Back in the mid- to late-1990s, I worked in the mental health industry as a psychotherapist. I mainly worked with adolescents in a RTC (residential treatment center) environment. Ergo, I have firsthand (albeit a bit dated) experience with the subject matter at hand.
Levine starts his article by pointing out that increasingly doctors are diagnosing children as young as three-years-old as suffering with such mental health maladies as ADHD (attention deficit disorder) and bipolar disorder. As a result of such diagnoses these young children (toddlers really) are being fed copious amounts of psychotropic drugs that in many cases are more powerful than cocaine (a fact I am pulling from Finn Bowring’s 2003 book Science, Seeds and Cyborgs—Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life). Levine simply asks what has happened to our society that we are increasingly feeding our kids—many as young as two and three-years-old—powerful psychotropic drugs. Recall that last month on December 2nd, 2011, an article by Judith Warner appeared in the online version of Time entitled Overmedicating Foster Kids: The Cost of Skimping on Care. (I mentioned this article in my December 14th, 2011, post.) As a psychotherapist, I witnessed firsthand doctors pushing meds on kids as the first (and in some cases, only) line of therapy. Levine presents a list with seven possible explanations for how we, as a society, have gotten to such a dark and foreboding place:
  1. Corruption by Big Pharma
  2. Invalid Illnesses and Disorders
  3. Scientifically Unreliable Diagnoses
  4. Biochemical Imbalance Mumbo Jumbo
  5. Pseudoscientific Drug Effectiveness Research
  6. Psychotropic Drug Hypocrisy
  7. Diversion from Societal, Cultural and Political Sources of Misery
Levine looks at each of these briefly. Dworkin (mentioned above) looks at all of these in some detail in his book Artificial Happiness. Dworkin goes a bit further by placing each into a historical perspective. As Dworkin makes clear, the story of artificial happiness starts way back in the 1950s and 60s. (Recall that the Rolling Stones released their song Mother’s Little Helper back in 1966, a song about housewives using barbiturates.) Another book that I have found to be helpful in this area is Ernest Keen’s 2000 book Chemicals for the Mind—Psychopharmacology and Human Consciousness.
Second comment: In my opinion, Levine leaves out a big part of the picture he paints for us. Levine makes it seem as if big corporations (i.e., pharmaceutical and insurance companies) and big institutions (like APA—American Psychiatric Association) are principally driving this societal problem. Levine closes his article by stating: “[T]he mental health profession not only has financial value for drug companies but it has political value for those at the top of societal hierarchies who want to retain the status quo.” This position fits with the prevailing “Occupy” attitude—it’s all about big corrupt corporations and societal institutions. But is it possible that such prevailing Occupy attitudes can also divert our attention away from select forms of “societal, cultural and political sources of misery” (quoting item seven above)? Allow me to present one possibility.
In 1973, social commentator Jacques Ellul, writing in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, makes a rather startling observation: the propagandist and the “propagandee” (for lack of a better term) exist on a continuum. Ellul tells us that the individual is made up of the mass (as in mass media) and the mass is made up of individuals. You simply cannot look at just one point on the continuum: the entire continuum must be considered in any analysis. Ellul tries to convince us that as much as the propagandist enjoys spreading propaganda, the propagandee enjoys receiving it. There exists a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” if you will between propagandist and propagandee that holds that there is an agreed upon version of the world whether either truly believes it.
Dworkin in Artificial Happiness suggests that there is a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” between parents and the mental health profession. In keeping with Ellul’s view, Dworkin tries to convince us that as much as the medical/big pharma community enjoys doling out drugs, parents and other care giver organizations (like schools and foster care) enjoy receiving them. Allow me to quote Dworkin at length:
Critics [like Levine] often blame the popularity of [such “quick fix” societal trends as] psychotropic drugs, alternative medicine, and obsessive exercise on greedy doctors, greedy drug companies, and greedy insurance companies. … Yet this explanation ignores public moods, which are especially powerful in a democracy. The notion that psychotropic drugs, alternative medicine, and obsessive exercise became enormously popular because they served medical or corporate interests strains the imagination. Moreover, each of these modalities challenged medical or corporate interests. For example, many doctors, including many psychiatrists, opposed (and still do) the liberal use of psychotropic drugs. The entire medical establishment opposed alternative medicine. Many doctors thought exercise medicine was specious. The fact that these modalities became popular in spite of powerful opposition calls into question the interest-based explanation, which also fails to account for the public’s enormous enthusiasm for the new approach to unhappiness. So loud was the public clamor for action that at times during the medical practice revolution it was hard to tell whether doctors led the people or the other way around.
Back on December 6th, 2011, I started a multi-part post summarizing neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg’s book entitled The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. (The final installment will be coming up soon.) Consider this excerpt from my December 6th post:
— begin excerpt —

Returning to an earlier part of his book, Goldberg talks about the current ADD (attention deficit disorder) epidemic. “The reasons for ADD becoming a social phenomenon,” writes Goldberg, “has to do with a complex combination of several cultural factors.” Allow me to quote Goldberg at length as he lists these cultural factors:

First, it has to do with the guilt, parental or personal, for one’s child’s or one’s own failures. A clinical diagnosis removes the guilt and even the sense of responsibility. In an age when diagnostic labels proliferate, this offers a convenient way of unburdening the responsibility for life’s failure. Second, it has to do with the ever-expanding scope of perceived individual rights and antidiscrimination [which are hallmarks of a postmodern attitude]. A clinical diagnosis earns all kinds of concessions and exemptions in wide-ranging situations [that are perceived as being limiting, contingent, even oppressive]. Third, the ADD phenomenon is true to the indefatigable American belief that anything can be fixed with the right pill (in this case, Ritalin). This may explain why another heavily inflated diagnosis of our time, learning disability (LD), is nonethless nowhere nearly as commonly made or sought after: there is no ready promise of a magic pill [that can bring Artificial Happiness pulling from Dworkin].

— end excerpt —

Simply, parents increasingly do not wish to parent, and, in addition, they wish to not feel guilty about this new anti-parenting attitude. As Mary Ebertsadt writes about in her 2004 book Home-alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, parents (and other care givers) are increasingly seeking out and turning to all manner of parent substitutes. The same message can be found in Kay Hymowitz’s 1999 book Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours (summary available). Throughout his trilogy on attachment John Bowlby railed against the practice of parents and other care givers “parentifying” or “adultifying” children. Here are the markers that Eberstadt points to in Home-alone America as mapping the trend toward increased use of parent substitutes with kids and teens. (My note: a search for parent substitutes should also be framed as a search for a substitute for secure attachment):

  1. Increased use of behavioral drugs with kids and teens
  2. Increased levels of inappropriate sexual activity (leading to teen pregnancy)
  3. Increased levels of food abuse leading to obesity and diabetes
  4. Increased levels of alcohol and substance abuse
  5. Increased levels of body image issues and eating disorders
  6. Increased levels of teen crime (including school shootings)
  7. Increased levels of teen suicide
  8. Increased levels of music with violent and aggressive themes
  9. Increased use of violent and aggressive video games
  10. Increased levels of bullying

So, to sum up, it would appear that there is a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” between the mental health industry and those individuals providing care such as parents, teachers, and even community leaders. Simply put, parents of all stripes—not just our political and corporate leaders—wish to have children but increasingly do not wish to parent. Parents (both individual and societal parents) wish to privatize profit and socialize care (a point that Christopher Lasch makes in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism). The result: care or parenting “on the cheap” (pulling from Warner’s article). Simply blaming corporations or doctors or insurance companies is disingenuous at best and intellectual laziness at worst. As Dworkin puts it in Artificial Happiness, such attitudes “strain the imagination.” As we move to embrace what the Occupy attitude shows us about the present state of our culture, let us also make time for a move toward what the Occupy attitude does not readily show us, namely, the ways in which individuals and groups do benefit from many of the actions taken by big pharma or big corporations, actions asked for in large part by the “public mood” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It’s an occupational hazard: we psychotherapists are trained to attend to what is not being said (protested) as much as what is. I hear Levine loud and clear, but I also hear Dworkin, Eberstadt, and Hymowitz as well. I guess you could say that I like to occupy the entire continuum and not just one part of it.