Saturday, May 21, 2005

One Nation Under Therapy

A few days ago on CSPAN I saw two authors (one a psychiatrist) discussing their book, One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance.

I found it very interesting.

The Amazon official reviews state:
From Publishers Weekly
"Cancer patients who talk about their ordeal in therapy groups do not live longer," write Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?) and Satel (P.C., M.D.) in this suck-it-up polemic. For them, the pervasiveness of therapeutic thinking and practice in American life provides not healing catharsis but enervating psychic drag and evasion of responsibility. The authors marshal a litany of studies from a variety of perspectives, aiming to convince readers that taking one's lumps with as much equanimity as possible is far preferable to exploring one's feelings via an "unwholesome therapism"--or, worse, using one's "therapized" feelings as an excuse for bad behavior. Placing themselves in the tradition of Christopher Lasch and Allan Bloom, they begin with "The Myth of the Fragile Child," decrying the creeping prohibitions on dodgeball and tag (seen by some as too aggressive and competitive) on the nation's playgrounds as coddling. The next chapter, "Esteem Thyself," takes direct aim at the ideas of Abraham Maslow and self-actualization advocate Carl Rogers, while the following chapters chronicle the descent from "Sin to Syndrome" and "Pathos to Pathology," and track the enforcement of "Emotional Correctness." While basically a one-note book with little grace in its description of its foes, or in its insistent call for taking responsibility for one's own actions, Sommers and Satel's jeremiad will likely generate debate.

From Booklist
Philosopher-turned-controversialist Sommers and psychiatrist Satel argue as forcibly against contemporary psychotherapeutic notions and nostrums as Sommers did against radical feminism in Who Stole Feminism? (1994) and The War against Boys (2000). The American Enterprise Institute colleagues question five pet doctrines of contemporary therapy by presenting the research evidence for and against them. That is, they review the relevant literature, letting its conclusions speak for themselves; though they are critical of the five shibboleths, they don't have to apply spin to be convincing. Properly conducted research doesn't, they show, back up the fashionable dogmas that (1) children are psychologically fragile and mustn't be stressed, (2) self-esteem is the sine qua non of psychological health, (3) what moralists call sins are expressions of mental illness, (4) the emotional effects of trauma must be acted out, and (5) all war and disaster witnesses suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sure, some kids are hypersensitive, self-esteem isn't unimportant, PTSD is a real condition, and so forth. Folly and worse result, however, when the five dogmas are generalized as they are in current practice, a point Sommers and Satel drive home--anent dogmas 4 and 5, in particular--in the long sixth chapter, "September 11, 2001: The Mental Health Crisis That Wasn't." Well-written, well-informed public affairs argumentation.
Here is a counter-view by a reader, a self-described "Armchair Anarchist Philosopher", who demonstrates exactly what's wrong with this country by this drivel:
School, Self-Esteem and the "Read World", May 7, 2005
Reviewer: Jason Godesky "Armchair Anarchist Philosopher" (Pittsburgh, PA) - See all my reviews

It is instructive to occasionally remind oneself that this "real world" is neither real, nor the world. A few cursory flips through any basic anthropology book is enough to demonstrate that a hyper-competitive society is far from being the only society humans can build - or have built. It's also far from being the most efficient or effective society humans have built. As I said before, bands and tribes have worked perfectly well for millions of years. Civilization, on the other hand, has to grow and grow and grow until eventually there's no more land to farm and no more natives to slaughter and no more natural resources to exploit. Eventually, it must implode - and if the ever-increasing effects of peak oil are any indication, it'll be reaching that point fairly soon. To refer to this disastrous experiment as the "real world" is not only self-absorbed and eurocentric, it's also pretty damn stupid. But even stupider is wanting to prepare one's children for such a dysfunctional society.

After all, I was taught in my fruity-tooty Social Studies class that humans create societies to improve their lives. So what kind of society forces people to abandon their most basic human needs and desires in order to better serve the system? What kind of society requires training young children to forget about their feelings and the feelings of others so they can single-mindedly chase material goods? Who actually benefits from this? Some people get more money, but who gets more happiness? Who actually gets to slow down and be human? If we created society to serve people, how can we excuse the fact that people must now serve society?
Someone with a little more professional knowledge counters:
A book that needs to be seriously looked at, May 9, 2005
Reviewer: Brooklyn reviewer - See all my reviews
I believe that the review by Hara Marano, posted by another reader, misstates much of what the book has to say. Interestingly, the authors are not at all against psychotherapy per se. They are against a culture which medicalizes certain disorders so as to reduce the sense of individual responsibility for the choices that people make. At the same time, they are against a species of one-size-fits-all turnkey psychotherapy promulgated and administered by what I, for many years, have referred to as the "trauma mafia." This term may be unfair as many of these individuals are caring and well-meaning. Sommers and Satel maintain that many of these interventions are unnecessary and sometimes have unintentional negative effects in that they may interfere with help naturally present in community and psyche.

Some reviews have mainted that trauma counselors, whom the authors criticize, no longer use those methods that the authors are critical of. Were this only the case! I would personally advocate a worldwide moratorium on the training of both trauma and grief counselors.

As a psychotherapist, supervisor, and teacher with over thiry years of professional practice, I would say that a good part of my experience and that of my colleagues jibes with much of what the authors have to say. We fortunately did not see what we were told we would see after September 11. Many believe that PTSD is a relatively rare disorder which usually resolves without specific psychological intervention.

Marano states cognitive behavioral therapy has been extensively studied and has been found to be as least as effective as medication for many disorders. But a closer reading of psychotherapy outcome studies leads us to interpret claims of effectiveness with the utmost caution. The same can be said about much drug research. Although the problems with this research are beyond the scope of what I wish to write about here, the literature is there for those who would like to review it.

Any book that makes the leap from patterns of thought (e.g., the human potential movement) to gross issues tearing at the very fabric of society is bound to take some liberties and may not always apply so neatly. However, One Nation Under Therapy in my view is not glib, and is extensively documented. Whether what the authors call "therapism" weakens society is open to debate, but the authors make some important points which should not be ignored.

It's unfortunate that some here have dismissed a thoughtful and coherent thesis on the basis of presumptions about the authors' politics. I think that one can safely let the message speak for itself.
The authors in the CSPAN show maintained a balanced presentation when the floor was opened for questions. For example, someone asked if they thought this was a liberal/conservative issue, and they didn't take the bait.

I don't think it's that clear-cut either. But if I may speculate, I'd suspect that those who desire to be taken care of by a therapeutic nanny-state are the types who naturally are led to support left-wing socialist-types who promise to make everything better if they could only get control of everyone's money and be allowed to dictate the minutiae of everyone's lives -- for the good of the whole.

Rather than being authoritarians themselves, they are instead simply "useful idiots."


Blogger Jason Godesky said...

Thank you for quoting my review; your comments aside, it's good to see the ideas spreading. While obviously you disagree, hopefully some of your readers may be inspired to consider the possibility of a society that isn't hyper-competitive and self-destructive, and possibly instead give a moment's thought to the possibility of an alternative, where society instead works for people--rather than forcing people to work for it.

That said, the extract reads a bit choppily, because you've neglected the URL indicating that this is one passage from a full article by Giulianna Lamanna, available from the Anthropik Network, titled "School, Self-Esteem, and the Real World."

2:11 PM, June 08, 2005  

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