- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

ONE NATION UNDER THERAPY: HOW THE HELPING CULTURE IS ERODING SELF-RELIANCE

By Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel

St. Martin’s, $23.95, 310 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

Good news — the human condition is not pathological. Believe this, even though countless humbugs in various branches of the head trade have been working for decades to convince us otherwise. And they’ve enjoyed some undeserved success at this.

Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel have the goods on these villains — psychiatrists and psychologists as well as all manner of social workers, counselors, workshoppers and still lower orders of mental health practitioners who seek to convince Americans that they are too emotionally fragile to maneuver the bumpy road of life without endless tender ministrations from them. Children especially must be protected from every rough edge they might encounter.

“Under Therapy” is an important read, though not a happy one. It demonstrates, with supporting evidence, how some very bad ideas whooped up by mental health professionals have taken hold in America (and much of the West) based on questionable evidence, in some cases no evidence at all.

Ms. Sommers (“The War Against Boys,” “Who Stole Feminism?”) and Ms. Satel, (“PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine”) outline the modern plague of “therapism,” where mental health practitioners, some with dubious credentials, attempt to convince us that apparently normal, well-adjusted children and grownups are in fact emotionally damaged and in need of mental health treatment. In this book, we see how the resulting culture of therapism is eroding America’s traditional stoic, self-reliant, can-do approach to life, the approach that made the United States the great nation it is.

For the most part the national media act as unwitting enablers for these worthless, sometimes harmful nostrums and their purveyors. They pass this stuff on uncritically because they share the ideas behind therapism, such as replacing the old reliance on religion and ethics with reliance on secular relativism and psychology. These are the ideas of the cultural left. So therapism isn’t just a nuisance or a form of light comic relief for thoughtful people, but a battle front in the culture war. Ms. Sommers is a former philosophy professor and Ms. Satel is a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine. Both are resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute.

We see a country in the grips of therapism when:

*Teachers put as much or more emphasis on building up students’ self-esteem than to teaching them anything — often producing self-obsessed know-nothings with high opinions of themselves but little chance of living a successful life in a complicated, competitive world.

*Kids at school can’t play dodge ball (dodge ball!) because it’s too competitive and might cause stress. Only “safe and affirming” games can be played and these more often than not are games no kid with the slightest spirit or energy would want to play.

*Every bad behavior known to man is converted to a syndrome and a mental health diagnosis, obliterating the distinction between madness and badness, and allowing malefactors hauled up before criminal courts doctor approved excuses for almost any behavior, no matter how wretched.

*Battalions of “grief counselors” swoop down on schools or work places — like locusts on old Pharaoh — when anything bad happens.

*Every addiction is said to be the result of a brain disease, before which the victim is helpless.

*A recent president of the United States took every opportunity to say, “I feel your pain.” He didn’t really mean it, but what is instructive is that he thought this was a politically productive thing to say.

*Combat veterans, especially Viet Nam vets, are considered psychiatric time bombs because of the psychic damage their combat experiences caused them.

*Americans in so many contexts are encouraged, sometimes badgered, to “open up,” “let it all hang out,” express your feelings,” even if no one particularly wants to hear about them.

*Psychobabble is all around us. People natter on about “closure,” “self-actualization,” “finding your inner this or that,” “validating your feelings.”

This obsession with feelings began with Rousseau, and was a bit of a shuck even back then. It gained strength with Freud, who hatched an early form of the modern “talking cures.” It flowered into full dopiness during the back half of the 20th Century with the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, the godfathers of the “human potential movement” which gave birth to such oh-so-1970s fads as Rolfing, primal scream therapy, and such-like, the names of which now seem as quaint as disco or Nehru jackets. These therapies are mostly out of favor now, but the ideas on which they’re based linger on in the culture.

Ms. Sommers and Ms. Satel affirm that there is real mental illness and that many people benefit from psychiatric and other mental health treatment. But most don’t need any kind of mental health treatment and wouldn’t benefit from it. Most traumas of life are self-limiting and healing takes place over time with no intervention from anyone. In most cases the support of friends, family, and colleagues are all people who’ve suffered traumas or losses need. This is how for millennia the human race not only survived but multiplied exponentially without a single psychologist or grief counselor.

“Under Therapy” isn’t an ad hominem screed making fun of psycho silliness and the charlatans plugging it (though many of them richly deserve it). The authors present anecdotal and research evidence demonstrating that the intellectual basis for therapism just isn’t there. Readers will learn that research shows emoting doesn’t always reduce psychiatric symptoms, and often makes them worse.

Viet Nam combat vets are about as likely as their non-vet fellows to lead healthy, successful lives, and are in any case no worse off for their experiences than vets of previous wars. Students with high self-esteem are not more likely than their less self-absorbed classmates to achieve, and they may have their own problems caused by their unjustified, high opinions of themselves (sociopaths and inmates of state prisons often have very high self-esteem).

One questions the need for grief counselors and the whole trauma industry after reading anecdotes and research showing that Londoners — bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 straight days in 1940 and 1941 — and later many Israelis who survived both the Holocaust and the 1991 Gulf War scud missile attacks were able to deal with these traumas through their own inner resources.

Ms. Sommers and Ms. Satel suggest that many of these brave people, who’ve dealt with and gotten past circumstances the grief counseling crowd can’t even imagine, have a mental toughness that’s worth more than what psychotherapy can provide. Perhaps the stiff upper lip example of the WWII Brits teaches us more than 50-minute hours and grief counseling workshops. Perhaps a lot more.

Ms. Sommers and Ms. Satel conclude that Americans conquered a continent, grew a great nation, defeated fascism and built an economy for the world to envy much more on the basis of “Cowboy up” and “Get over it,” than with “Do you want to talk about it?” They warn we’d better get back to this approach if we want to remain a great nation of healthy and prosperous citizens.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.

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