“One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance,” by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, hit the jackpot this morning, getting glowing reviews from syndicated columnist George Will and Paul Beston in Wall Street Journal (available only to subscribers).
Satel and Hoff Sommers make it clear that there are many instances where an individual can benefit from the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist (Satel herself is a shrink). What they object to is “therapism.” Beston’s review begins with an anecdote that captures the essence of therapism:
“In the months following 9/11, television ads featuring celebrities such as Alan Alda and Susan Sarandon encouraged New Yorkers to seek mental health services through Project Liberty, a heavily funded federal initiative created in response to the attacks. ‘Feel free to feel better,’ the motto went, and at the time it seemed likely that many people would take up the offer. Eight months into the program, less than a 10th of the estimated 1.5 million New Yorkers in need of counseling had bothered to come in for help.
“Project Liberty accelerated its outreach. A psychiatrist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine characterized the new attitude: If patients weren’t going to come in, she said, ’you’ve got to go to them.’ One psychotherapist, uncomfortable pushing treatment on people who insisted that they were fine, was told that ’future psychiatric symptoms could still develop.’ Project Liberty’s position seemed to be that New Yorkers were traumatized but just didn’t realize it.”
Therapism takes many forms–the insistence that you need a shrink when you might think otherwise, the belief that sharing your feelings is always better than repression, and the notion that human beings are fragile creatures who might be traumatized for life by, say, having a school paper graded in red ink (red is a stressful color).
Sommers and Satel postulate that in therapy nation “psychology can and should take the place of ethics and religion.” But some of therapism’s tenets–that repression is bad for, example–don’t hold up. Some studies show that repressors actually are better-adjusted and perform as well as sharers.
As George Will notes, advocates of therapism tend to be affected by their own political views:
“The ’caregiving’ professions, which postulate the minimal competence of most people to cope with life unassisted, are, of course, liberal, and politics can color their diagnoses. Remember the theory that because Vietnam was supposedly an unjust war, it would produce an epidemic of ‘post-traumatic stress disorders.’ So a study released in 1990 claimed that half of Vietnam veterans suffered from some PTSD — even though only 15 percent of Vietnam veterans had served in combat units. To ventilationists — after a flood damaged books at the Boston Public Library, counselors arrived to help librarians cope with their grief — a failure to manifest grief is construed as alarming evidence of grief repressed, and perhaps a precursor of ’delayed onset’ PTSD.”