The Mental Illness Epidemic: Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane
“The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians.” — Lewis Mumford, 1951
Related: 1 in 5 U.S. adults dealt with a mental illness in 2013: “Nearly one in five American adults – 43.8 million people – had a diagnosable mental illness in 2013, federal officials reported Thursday. The report also found that 10 million adults had a serious mental illness, 15.7 million had major depressive episodes, 9.3 million had serious thoughts of suicide, 2.7 million made suicide plans and 1.3 million attempted suicide. …”
Why Are So Many Americans So Crazy?
Over half of surveyed Republicans said they believe that the president is a socialist Muslim who wants to take away gun rights and turn over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. What’s deeper, though, is the vitriol of those beliefs, with a substantial number of Republicans believing that Obama resents America’s heritage (47 percent), is the “domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of” (45 percent), wants to use an economic or terrorist event as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (41 percent), is doing some of the same stuff that Hitler did (38 percent), and may, in fact, be the Anti-Christ (24 percent). Daily Beast
By David Seaton
Just to begin by giving a quick answer to the question posed by the title of this post, “Why are so many Americans so crazy?”. The answer is that living in a cloud of misinformation, they are beingdriven insane.
There is always the temptation to see certain people as reasonable when they aren’t. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18,” was the favorite bible passage of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it describes the basic attitude of all successful negotiators. The lesson learned from the epic battle to pass a more than tame and mediocre health bill or the reaction to legalizing human beings that have risked their lives to come to America, is that it is impossible to negotiate with whipped up insanity.
All of this insanity, from Tea Party to Obama being Antichrist is about using racism to distract people from seeing clearly what is right in front of their faces.
Essentially what we have is Rupert Murdoch in the role of Joseph Goebbels nightly on Fox.
The idea is very simple, classic really. The system is in crisis, social inequality is widening and hardening, so stimulating paranoia and racism is a simple and effective way of keeping people from thinking about things like taxing the rich in order to get good public schools, affordable health care and other such Bolshevik twaddle.
To understand this craziness we have to turn it inside out. The first thing about it that catches my attention in the Harris and similar polls is that a significant portion of the American population is totally paranoid and extremely suggestible. If we discount genetics and/or some hallucinogen that has been added to the water, we would have to look at objective factors to account for this vulnerability.
Color in the United States is just a “warning signal” that history has walked into the room. But even history doesn’t explain it all. Our history of slavery is pretty horrible, but slavery was horrible in Cuba and Brazil too. However, Cubans and Brazilians are much more relaxed about color. Americans, though, are not really relaxed about much of anything.
Our culture is Calvinist: brittle and inflexible even in its hedonism, where, with predestination, the devil literally takes the hindmost.
Although in many parts of Europe, for example, losing, being maudit, is considered romantic, the worst put down in American English is to call someone a “loser.”
Therefore, Americans are obsessed with “winning” and “losing.”
This makes American racial tension different … I think America’s racism has something to do with America’s puritanical streak, with its hatred of vulnerability and the vulnerable slaves were “losers” par excellence.
The vulnerability of the “other,” whomever that other might be is the origin of the sickest of fantasies.
This role has been passed onto the slave’s descendants.
To begin with America’s cult of competition, of dividing people from childhood into “winners” and “losers,” has created an entire nation within the nation of losers: an enormous mass of people who feel terrible about themselves. The American Dream is based on social mobility, but a great many Americans have not “moved” up since they arrived, even many who arrived during colonial times. At this moment many are on an express elevator moving down.
Since colonial times the subjugation and humiliation of African-Americans has provided a valuable tool in defusing social tensions in the rest of the population. It all goes back that far.
Probably the most valuable service to domestic peace that slaves provided even, or especially, for those who didn’t own them, was the role of being someone even the most miserable white person could feel superior to.
The real problem in America is not racism in itself, the problem is a society or a culture that divides human beings into “winners” and “losers” and punishes the losers so mercilessly. These unfortunates simply cannot survive psychologically without their “whipping boy.” Racism is a tool of social control. The classic “divide and rule.”
That is the dirty little family secret of American capitalism: keeping the races at each others throats prevents the social democracy that exists in practically every other country of similar economic development.
God knows that America is full of desperately miserable white people. Not all of them are poor, not by long shot.
For losing and feeling miserable in America is not just economic, a study of marketing messages will give you an idea of the infinite ways that an American can be a “loser,” while “pursuing happiness” (forever “chasing,” never catching).
The entire American consumer economy, which is 70% of the total, is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure. A person of color might blame all the frustrations of life on race prejudice and he or she would be right in most cases. The white loser, and they are legion, hasn’t ever had even that safety valve.
Those whites who fear they might be “losers” themselves, and if we look at the economic and psychological facts of life in today’s American, that might include most American whites, desperately need someone to look down upon as a psychological safety valve and of course, since time immemorial African-Americans, even the lightest skinned among them, have served that purpose. Their status as loser was even pleasing to the abolitionists that wanted to “uplift” them.
For literally hundreds of years, besides this role as the official ultimate-loser, no other role beyond entertaining or lifting heavy loads was permitted them.
In 1952 an African-American author, Ralph Ellison published a ground breaking novel, “The Invisible Man”, whose title many critics feel defined the experience of people of African descent in America: that of being invisible and voiceless. In the years that followed, the people of color in the United States raised their voices and became visible, to the great and continuing discomfort of many whites. The white people of the US south who once voted solidly Democratic have punished that party’s leadership of the civil rights movement by voting solidly Republican ever since … the key to the victories of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The “Conservative Revolution,” that only favors the rich, is based on the resentment of poor whites and gives the wealthy the necessary numbers to win elections.
With Barack Obama this resentment is coming to head.
Up till now, American “identity” politics was always played with surrogates: WASP or “waspable” white men wearing masks.
Thus Bill Clinton was “America’s first black president.” The whatever WASP whose turn it was to woo Latinos, would eat tacos and say “juntos podemos” with an atrocious accent etc, etc. Candidates would attempt to show that they were “sensitive” to the feminist agenda and so on. Absolutely de rigueur for all white, male and protestant presidentiables was a photo at Yad Vashem sporting a yomulka. This all came with the turf like kissing babies. It was all a game.
The problems start when the Democrats decided to use “originals” instead of the traditional, “ballo in maschera.” The whole charade begins to fall apart without the WASP surrogates.
All of this resentful white anger has been directed heretofore against surrogates: the Jimmy Carters, the Ted Kennedys, the Walter Mondales, the Dukakises, the Gores and the Kerrys; and all the racism was disguised in euphemisms like “state’s rights” or “liberal” or “elitist” or “un-American.”
Now for the first time the American white ultra-right have got the chance to actually organize and march against a real black man who incarnates all the euphemisms, instead of a surrogate.
Even a “JFK meets Sydney Poitier” figure like president Barack Obama, or especially like Obama, is an unbearable provocation — a lifetime membership card in the “loser” club — for millions of American white people.
What is to be done? How to proceed.
Take a look at the two quotes below. I think that between them they hold the germs of program for the American left… if such an animal really exists.
“Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests.” Robert Reich
“The deeper point — the ones the tea partiers haven’t courage nor the brains to see — is that our technological age has laid bare a core fact of American life: that our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones — as cannon fodder. There is little “upward mobility.” Your children probably won’t live as well as you, much less better. Your 2nd and 3rd mortgages made them billions and then they bankrupted you. They stole your future itself. Leonce Gaiter
The ideas expressed here are not very complicated, they would be practically self-evident if so much time and media effort plus financial fiction had not been expended in clouding all these realities.
When Robert Reich speaks of health care saying that America’s “economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America,” he is underlining one of the principal facts of our world today, i.e. non-state actors, like multinational corporations, effectively controlled by a small percentage of the share holders and/or a management elite, are often more powerful than elected governments. This means, as Reich points out, that empowering government, which we elect, is the only defense we have against these unelected, non-state actors, who are indifferent to our welfare, whose only motive is profit.
Leonce Gaiter makes clear that this relationship with the non-state actors is an oppressive one and that with the bursting of the credit bubble and the destruction of the “wealth effect” created by endless credit, many people are finding themselves to be much less “middle class” then their advertising created fantasies led them to believe. Their treasured self-image is well tarnished and they are discovering that, as Gaiter says, “our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones–as cannon fodder.” So in this crisis any person who lives from his salary and whose only patrimony is/was the house he lives/lived in, is, in the words of Marx and Engels, “at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Alas, few are equipped either by temperament or by training to face with “sober senses” either the “real conditions” of their lives or the “relations with their kind.” This lack makes them easy prey for movements like the Tea Party that fill the paths to truth with the traditional red herrings of American racism disguised as libertarianism.
This nauseating and supremely effective tactic is being trotted out once again.
At this moment the fundamental role of progressive Americans is to expose and root out the true causes of racism.
The day when Americans in similar economic straits cease to see skin color and see clearly and soberly what they all have in common, in the same way that the wealthy and powerful minority always have: on that day will the battle for social justice in the United States be more than half won.
Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane
It’s not just Big Pharma.
In “ The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” ( New York Review of Books, 2011), Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discusses over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, pathologizing of normal behaviors, Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, and the adverse effects of psychiatric medications. While diagnostic expansionism and Big Pharma certainly deserve a large share of the blame for this epidemic, there is another reason.
A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.
While historically some Americans have consciously faked mental illness to rebel from oppressive societal demands (e.g., a young Malcolm X acted crazy to successfully avoid military service), today, the vast majority of Americans who are diagnosed and treated for mental illness are in no way proud malingerers in the fashion of Malcolm X. Many of us, sadly, are ashamed of our inefficiency and nonproductivity and desperately try to fit in. However, try as we might to pay attention, adapt, adjust, and comply with our alienating jobs, boring schools, and sterile society, our humanity gets in the way, and we become anxious, depressed and dysfunctional.
The Mental Illness Epidemic
Severe, disabling mental illness has dramatically increased in the Untied States. Marcia Angell, in her 2011 New York Review of Books piece, summarizes: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”
Angell also reports that a large survey of adults conducted between 2001 and 2003 sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health found that at some point in their lives, 46% of Americans met the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.
In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”
In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. By 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.
The CDC, on May 3, 2013, reported that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010)
Living in America will drive you insane — literally
Data suggests the US is experiencing an epidemic of crippling mental illness. We may have only ourselves to blame
BRUCE E. LEVINE, ALTERNET
We are today disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, often one which they will have little enthusiasm about. And increasing numbers of us are completely socially isolated, having nobody who cares about us.
Returning to that June 2013 Gallup survey, “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement,” only 30% of workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.” In contrast to this “actively engaged group,” 50% were “not engaged,” simply going through the motions to get a paycheck, while 20% were classified as “actively disengaged,” hating going to work and putting energy into undermining their workplace. Those with higher education levels reported more discontent with their workplace.
How engaged are we with our schooling? Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. As the pollsters point out, “If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.”
Life clearly sucks more than it did a generation ago when it comes to student loan debt. According to American Student Assistance’s “Student Debt Loan Statistics,” approximately 37 million Americans have student loan debt. The majority of borrowers still paying back their loans are in their 30s or older. Approximately two-thirds of students graduate college with some education debt. Nearly 30% of college students who take out loans drop out of school, and students who drop out of college before earning a degree struggle most with student loans. As of October 2012, the average amount of student loan debt for the Class of 2011 was $26,600, a 5% increase from 2010. Only about 37% of federal student-loan borrowers between 2004 and 2009 managed to make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent.
In addition to the pain of jobs, school, and debt, there is increasingly more pain of social isolation. A major study reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,” examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives we consider close enough to trust with personal information and whom we rely on as a sounding board). Authors reported that in 1985, 10% of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. This study confirmed the continuation of trends that came to public attention in sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.
Underlying many of psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization—culminating in a loss of autonomy and community-connectedness. Do our societal institutions promote:
- Enthusiasm—or passivity?
- Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
- Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
- Empowerment—or helplessness?
- Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
- Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
- Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?
Research (that I documented in Commonsense Rebellion) shows that those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled; and that ADHD-labeled children are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD.
As I discussed last year in AlterNet in “Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein? How Anti-Authoritarianism Is Deemed a Mental Health Problem,” there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities. Thus for many M.D.s and Ph.D.s, people who rebel against this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.
The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive.
When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.
For some Americans, no doubt, the conscious goal is to get classified as mentally disabled so as to receive disability payments (averaging $700 to 1,400 per month). But isn’t that too a withdrawal of cooperation with society and a rebellion of sorts, based on the judgment that this is the best paying and least miserable financial option?