AN Open Letter to Psycho-Therapists in Training
by Timothy Malone
Need therapy, therapy, Advertising causes need,
Need therapy, therapy, Advertising causes need.”
– System of a Down, in their song “Chic n Stu”
I recently had a conversation with a social acquaintance that, within the last year, received her M.A. in psychology and is currently training at a reputable mental health center on the Westside. We were discussing current events, when she mentioned that she had a little trouble trusting news reporting of particular social events and realities. I felt a surge of hope… Am I about to have a conversation with a therapist about the function of an advertising-based, corporate-controlled mass media system in a democratic society? I asked her to continue….
“One of my colleagues and I were discussing the environment one day. And he said to me, ‘but how do you know Global Warming is even real? The media? That really made me think. I don’t know if Global Warming is real…”
I audibly gasp. How is it possible for a therapist, who has completed her education, to hold political/environmetal views manufactured by Fox News and think tanks funded by Chevron? Here’s a bigger question; doesn’t knowledge of social realities, like the potential collapse of the ecosystem through global warming and environmental destruction on an unimaginable scale, have a potential impact on the mental welfare of her “clients?” Does the threat of the potential extinction of the species, have an effect on mental health?
What about working in a totalitarian system; a corporation? In this situation, the employee rents his body for a price set by the employer. More often than not, he/she spends the best hours of their waking lives working for the profit of someone else; a “wage slave.” Is it mentally “healthy” to work in such an environment? Is there a structural problem here, which crushes the human spirit? The institution doesn’t ask the question. It asks you about your relationship with your mother.
To generalize, because of its focus on family dynamics and the individual, social institutions and structures are excluded from psychological analysis. Can these social systems have an effect on the “mental health” (a terrible term) of individuals, groups, communities? Psychology doesn’t give a damn for social problems; at least not enough to deem their study essential for practicing therapists.
Beat philosopher Alan Watts once described the institution of the mental health professional as playing the same role as the priest in the 16th century. As the power of the church lapsed, and the corporate state ascended, a new “priesthood” was required, to insure smooth functioning of the machine. The idea is to legitimize certain behaviors and attitudes, and to deflect attention from systems of illegitimate power. The function of the priest was to keep the people in line with the wishes and desires of the church. The psychologist keeps people operating within the current political/economic system.
Are you feeling sad about your life, frustrated, depressed? The psychologist will help you to get back to work. The question is one of adaptation, not asking if people should work in this system, at all. Since Freud wrote “Civilization and its Discontents,” the tension between society and the instinctive drives of the individual has been apparent. Man must learn to channel his drives, sublimate them, in order to have anything close to what we call a civilization. Psychology can help him to make this adaptation. As an institution, psychology does not ask “Should man adapt himself to the society? What if the society itself is monstrous?”
The average American sees 1,000,000 ads by the time they are 40, according to Neil Postman. Advertisements are based on manufacturing needs. That is, they promote a feeling of inadequacy, of lack. We are bombarded with images from massively powerful corporations and media institutions that tell us that we need their products to define ourselves, to be complete, to measure our social standing. Psychologists have played a large role with their focus groups, plundering the unconsciouses of people, turning citizens into consumers. Targeted, aggressive psychological manipulation by the most powerful institutions in the world surrounds us – billboards, television, web sites, text messages, radio. We are swimming in Marshall McLuhan’s vortex. Where exactly does this fit into object-relations? How does this impact your happiness? Is happiness a desirable goal? What is true happiness?
Democratic institutions are largely a sham. Public opinion polls decisively show Americans feeling of control over their government’s decisions at an all time low. Public opinion is more often than not directly counter to actual policy. That sounds like a cause for depression, feelings of helplessness. Psychological theory doesn’t mention it. But it does prescribe Prozac, so no matter what’s going on in the real world, you feel fine about it.
Psychology/psychiatry has, over the last 30 years, attempted to tie itself to biology, to neuroscience. Can someone please bring me an MRI image of an Oedipal complex? And while you are at it, can you go ahead and bring me that study which empirically proves the existence of the thoughts in infants that Melanie Klein intuited?
After the Watts riots in 1965, several studies were commissioned to determine its underlying causes. They came back with some pretty common sense conclusions; that is, unless you have a sufficient education in psychology. They determined that a history of slavery, rampant racism, poverty, segregation, lack of employment opportunities and adequate education, and no social services led to a revolt. No shit.
The state and federal government reviewed the findings, and realized that to alleviate these conditions would require a challenge to dominant social institutions, political and economic. These are powerful, institutional actors. The government determined that such radical structural change would not be made, so they sent the psychiatrists in with the mission to “calm them down.” To prevent any further uprisings, to return them to functioning on behalf of the dominant interests of the society, who were to remain unmolested.
In some prison, in this richest state in the richest country in the world, some teenage, gang-affiliated youth of color is sitting handcuffed in the “psych office.” The prison-staff psychologist is reviewing his mental health file, which dictates his criminal history; number of times arrested, degree of violence, risk to self and others, His medication history is recorded; what drugs have been given, what he is on now. And there is a diagnosis: Sociopath. Not in the file: the history of his people in the country. Nor are the effects of structurally racist policies. His socioeconomic level is not indicated, nor is the slashing of state funding geared towards educating the child, providing enough food to eat, ensuring his healthy development. The effects of class warfare are notoriously absent. Do you think the psychologist ever thinks to himself, “is this youth’s violent outbursts, his cold demeanor towards me, his rampant criminality, an appropriate and perfectly logical response to horrific social circumstance? Can this youth ever be free to develop himself within these structural constraints? And what is my role in this equation?” Probably not; just a forced prescription of an anti-psychotic and a tranquilizer to keep him “manageable.”
This is not meant to dissuade all those interested in psychology as a profession, nor am I ignoring its accomplishments. In this short essay, I am raising some question about psychology’s use in social practice. I am attempting to reveal the “shadow” of psychology that Jung spoke of. It is a collective shadow, an institutional shadow, that manifests in our prison populations. It manifests in allowing us to accept 4000 children dying every hour from starvation while literally billions are spent on bomb, and we delude ourselves into thinking we can be happy in this reality. We think that such a social structure doesn’t impact us on an individual level when we are in the dyad. How can it not? How can psychology hope to achieve its aims, to help people, when the social system in which it is enmeshed crushes so many? It can construct bubbles. The only thing that matters is your relationship with your parents as a child and how that plays out now. You can satisfy unmet needs through the consumption of products. You can sublimate your instincts (the very ones that, if informed, may challenge Freud’s so called civilization). In a world where if the Christ actually did reappear (or if someone had an experience comparable to his), he would be labeled a schizophrenic (he says he’s the son of god, for chrissake), what is mental health? In a world where the more and more you learn about the world, you realize you have less and less control over it, and the people who make decisions on behalf of the rest are insulated from the repercussions, what is happiness? In a world gone mad with advertising, brutal wars, rampant poverty, environmental collapse, just what is the appropriate response, if not madness? Perhaps the psychologists should stop normalizing. Perhaps its time to let the schizophrenia flow.