PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine.
   
American Enterprise Institute.
American Enterprise Institute.
 

Sharing Way Too Much
The Wall Street Journal | April 21, 2005

By Paul Beston

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.

Such thinking is a hallmark of what Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel call "therapism," their term for theories and practices whose common theme is the fragility and helplessness of human beings. And as they describe in their excellent "One Nation Under Therapy" (St. Martin's, 310 pages, $23.95), a substantial portion of "the helping culture" believes that events much less severe than 9/11 require therapeutic attention as well. According to some practitioners, most of the American population is emotionally damaged. Many of us, it seems, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady first diagnosed in Vietnam War veterans but now extended to include almost any remotely upsetting experience.

By now, most of us are familiar with the tenets of therapism. Children in schools must be shielded from competitive environments, lest their self-esteem be damaged. Society will become healthier as people learn to share their emotions, no matter how unwelcome these may be to others. The only thing worse than suppressing one's feelings is passing judgment on someone else's. Suffering or discontent of any kind is not ennobling but pathological and must be treated.

The authors trace the roots of therapism to several sources, none more influential than the work of psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow gave us the doctrine of self-actualization, while Rogers took the science of self-love to new levels. Both men helped to inject an aversion to moral judgment into American culture. The authors quote from a group session run by Rogers in which one of the participants confesses that he had raped his sister. One member of the group is repulsed, but the others chide her for her response to the rapist, which Rogers describes as "shutting him out psychologically." As Ms. Sommers and Dr. Satel rightly conclude, such nonjudgmentalism, originating as openness to the problems of others, "induces a moral inertia that can be the opposite of nice."

Ms. Sommers and Dr. Satel clearly relish taking on the platitudes of pop psychology. They cite studies showing that, in fact, emotional "repressors" fare better than emotional "ruminators"; they scoff at the idea that self-esteem correlates with personal success, let alone ethical conduct; and, citing 9/11 and other disturbing events, they argue that most people recover from even deeply traumatic experiences on their own. They are not opposed to therapy in principle and concede that psychological counseling can have positive, if limited, effects.

Nor do the authors doubt the benevolent motives of grief counselors and their ilk. But good intentions are not enough; they may even be dangerous. "At the heart of therapism," the authors write, "is the revolutionary idea that psychology can and should take the place of ethics and religion." Indeed, there is a strong whiff of Leninism in "psychological debriefing," a process in which counselors lead group sessions that prod people to share emotions about traumatic events. Those who don't wish to participate are deemed to merit special watching, since they cannot be considered truly healthy. To use the old Marxist terminology, such people are suffering from false consciousness.

By endorsing such practices, therapism runs the risk of violating individual autonomy and the imperatives of the inner life, creating a kind of therapeutic collectivism. Ms. Sommers and Dr. Satel make plain the threat that therapism poses to the American Creed, which they describe as a combination of "self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity, and the valorization of excellence." There is nothing very helpful about a helping culture that would lead us away from such virtues.

Mr. Beston is a writer in New York.

One Nation Under Therapy : How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance.
One Nation Under Therapy : How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance
by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel
St. Martin’s Press
(April 1, 2005)
   

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