The Sane Society
Published on November 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

I have a number of friends with mental health issues, and you'll never hear me suggest that the mental health system is without merit. Treatment and medication can really help people.

But I do sometimes wonder whether our approach to mental health issues is really as good as it could be. And I worry that perfectly normal emotions are being treated as mental health problems, because of the persistent myth we have in this country that people should always be happy.

I'm not the only one asking these types of questions.

In a piece on Slate, KJ Dell'Antonia responds to a recent report suggesting that one out of every woman has a prescription for some form of mental health medication, saying, "'Normal,' whatever that is, can't possibly be a state that 25 percent of women can only reach with the assistance of a prescription. ... One in four suggests that either women, or our doctors, are being sold on an ideal of mental health that's unrealistic. We don't need more prescriptions. We need to revisit what ordinary, erratic, imperfect mental health means."

Dell'Antonia's assessment reminded me of a 2008 AlterNet piece by Bruce Levine that poses the question "Has American Society Gone Insane?" Levine suggests that many Americans are having difficulty adjusting to life because our society is unhealthy. He writes:

"For many Americans who gain their information solely from television, all critics of psychiatry are Scientologists, exemplified by Tom Cruise spewing at Matt Lauer, 'You don't know the history of psychiatry. ... Matt, you're so glib.' The mass media has been highly successful in convincing Americans to associate criticism of psychiatry with anti-drug zealots from the Church of Scientology, the lucrative invention of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

However, Americans who gain their information outside of television and beyond the mass media may be aware of a secular, progressive tradition that is critical of how psychiatry has diverted us from examining societal sources of our malaise. This secular, humanistic concern was articulated, perhaps most famously, by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980).

In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm wrote, 'Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of 'unadjusted' individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself.'

Is American society a healthy one, and are those having difficulties adjusting to it mentally ill? Or is American society an unhealthy one, and are many Americans with emotional difficulties simply alienated rather than ill? For Fromm, 'An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility (and) distrust, which transforms man into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives him of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he submits to others or becomes an automaton.' Fromm viewed American society as an increasingly unhealthy one, in which people routinely experience painful alienation that fuels emotional and behavioral difficulties."

In my mind mind, these are questions well worth pondering, especially as the number of Americans being treated for mental health issues continues to rise.

In a piece on Salon this week, Alice Karekezi interviews Stephen Joseph, a psychology professor and author of the new book "What Doesn't Kill Us," which argues that PTSD is overdiagnosed. He suggests that PTSD was once a rare diagnosis, given mainly to war veterans, but is now given to people who have experienced fairly common traumas, such as the death of a loved one or an injury.

He says:

"The suffering is very real. We’re not saying that people don’t have difficult emotional experiences and aren’t suffering. What we’re saying is this is not necessarily a disorder that people are experiencing, and if people think like that, it can be very disempowering to them."

The whole interview is pretty interesting, and can be found here.

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