It matters that people have a way to use the latest findings in psychology beyond buying a pill for depression. It matters that people have a way of looking at their lives that lets them ask the big questions and determine how they want to live – and that this is supported by therapists and mental health professionals.

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No Way to Prevent This? Well, Maybe There Is...

Posted on 03 Jun | 0 comments
Erik Werenskiold's The Funeral (1883-85).
Erik Werenskiold's The Funeral (1883-85).

Much in the way that some families only see each other at funerals, America only seems to have a conversation about mental health when somebody dies. These are the worst times to have such a conversation, because the needs of the survivors are at odds with the needs of a “national discussion about” anything. The result is a kind of Kabuki Theater around guns, politics, and mental health that for all its noise accomplishes less than a moment of honest silence ever could.

But here we are again, confronting the fact that—as The Onion so elegantly put it—the only nation on earth where this regularly happens is the one saying “there’s no way to prevent this.” Our political system is in the grips of a learned helplessness that perfectly suits the needs of entrenched interests. We have such a hard time changing our system because while nobody wants this, everybody contributes to it. We all have a stake in the way things are, whether it’s because it suits our financial interests, or our personal interests, or because keeping quiet keeps us from the abuse and harassment we’d take if we spoke up.

If we want to change, somebody’s going to have to act against their short term interests to advocate for the greater good.

By rights, it should be the privileged who take this step. Paradoxically, they have the most to lose but are the least vulnerable. But they rarely do. These issues lack urgency to them precisely because they are privileged.

Yet, this time we are seeing an unexpectedly poignant discussion emerge out of a howl of frustration at the toxicity of our culture: the brave souls declaring #YesAllWomen have raised their voices to declare an end to Kabuki Theater. They have pointed out, at last, that a discussion about “mental health” in the conventional sense is a fig leaf covering up what we really need to talk about: the nature of power, privilege, and misogyny in our culture.

Without the raised voices of #YesAllWomen, we would be shaking our heads now at how the mental health system had failed without confronting the fact that such killings also emerge out of a culture that is poisonous to female sexuality. Instead, that polite veneer has been ripped off. As Rebecca Solnit noted on Democracy Now, “This is not an isolated event, but part of an epidemic.”

Certainly, the shooter fit perfectly into culture of misogyny and rage—but more than that, he seemed to have no sense that there were even other options.

"One of the sad things is that he seemed to have incredibly conventional ideas about what constituted happiness and well being and his entitlement to them,” she said. “He seemed to have no resources, no model of alternative ways to meet your needs, to relate to human beings.”

Moving this out of the realm of “mental health” in the usual sense—meaning drugs and institutionalization and neuropsychology—places it more firmly in the purview of existential-humanistic psychology. It is a time when we, too, should be raising our voices, because the providing of alternatives, and helping those in need find them, is surely our calling.

Most of the mental health system is completely unequipped to provide alternative perspectives on culture, sexuality, and happiness. On the contrary, it tends to reinforce social norms. A man who is given a pill to address the anger stemming from his misogyny is doing nothing to address his misogyny. A woman who is given anti-depressants to ease the anger and fear she feels living in a misogynist culture is being denied the validity of her emotions and the use of her anger to advocate for change.

Psychopharmacology—our dominant psychiatric paradigm—is actively opposed to the very idea of social change. It is designed to make one acquiesce to the way society is, rather than reconsidering culture and one’s place in it.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, too, primarily exists to socialize people to what is, rather than to help them find the strength to change it.

Only psychodynamic therapy—and in particular existential-humanistic therapy—comes with the central idea that personal growth may trump social convention. That a calling to struggle against injustice, both in the world and in one’s own psyche, may be the only appropriate response to an unjust world.

Much in the way that we wouldn’t tell women living under the Taliban that they should take a pill to be more comfortable with their enforced illiteracy, or Egyptian dissidents that they should practice cognitive techniques to become better adjusted to military rule, we should understand that too often the “mental health system” is an enforcer of the status quo.

Our community is equipped to help others to be change agents. To help people find their own capacity to engage in necessary struggle. This is a challenge we should take up. This is a time when we should speak out.

-- Benjamin Wachs

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