Barry’s Blog # 287: Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy? Part Six of Nine

As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather

Don’t blame Wall Street; don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself. – Herman Caine

In a mad world, only the mad are sane. – Akira Kurosawa

God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion! – D.T. Suzuki

So, the statistics that appear throughout this essay may well be inflated. Or maybe not. Robert Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs can cause moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones:

Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.

These children and teenagers are then put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, and often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. BabyPills1 And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. He acknowledges that the psychiatric community is coming around to sharing his opinions, especially on the pseudo-science behind the “chemical imbalance” theories of mental illness. However,

Psychiatry, all along, knew that the evidence wasn’t really there to support the chemical imbalance notion…and yet psychiatry failed to inform the public of that crucial fact…Researchers haven’t identified a characteristic pathology for the major mental disorders; no specific genes for the disorders have been found; and there isn’t evidence that neatly separates one disorder from the next. The “disease model,” as a basis for making psychiatric diagnoses, has failed…the entire edifice that modern psychiatry is built upon is flawed, and unsupported by science…Even as the intellectual foundation for our drug-based paradigm of care is collapsing, starting with the diagnostics, our society’s use of these medications is increasing; the percentage of children and youth being medicated is increasing; and states are expanding their authority to forcibly treat people in outpatient settings with antipsychotics drugs…I think we have to appreciate this fact: any medical specialty has guild interests, meaning that it needs to protect the market value of its treatments…Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society.

Cui Bono? So clearly, the industry survives and replicates itself in each generation by over-diagnosing countless people, especially children, many of whom exhibit only slightly more extreme behavior than normal people, and then pushing drugs on them. It follows, then, that the statistics at the top of this essay are probably inflated, and that there aren’t as many mentally ill among us as they would indicate. Wrong.

Because very large numbers of those suffering from legitimate mental conditions never appear in the surveys. How can you diagnose a homeless person who won’t enter a shelter; or a “functioning, productive alcoholic”; or a sexual predator priest;

Martin-Shkreli

The “Pharma-Bro”

or a Big Pharma executive who jacks up the prices of critical drugs; or an openly racist member of Congress? Between 30% and 80% of the homeless receive little or no “treatment”, including 50% of those with severe psychiatric disorders,  meaning medication rather than psychotherapy.

Who is crazy? Trump responds to every mass shooting with the standard argument that the problem is not guns but the “mentally ill” people who perpetrate these massacres, which have added immeasurably (actually, very measurably) to the level of fear in society. Many on the left have taken his bait and risen to the defense of the mentally ill with statistics that refute his accusations.

They are right, but this is unfortunate, since their argument normalizes violence and implies that mass shooters are not crazy. This can only be true in a world where the DSM-5, for all its hundreds of categories, has not (yet) officially declared it so. Perhaps it hasn’t because if the actual shooters were nuts, then the dozens of others who publicly threaten to perpetrate shootings and the thousands of white nationalists who support them online must be nuts. And if those people are crazy, then the millions of right-wing and evangelical activists and climate-deniers from whom they arise must be as well. It would never stop – until we all agree that the culture, its politics, its economy, its educational institutions and its mythology are mad, and that a corrupt pharma/psychiatric industry is merely a symptom of that madness.

Beyond and below the manipulated numbers stands this base craziness. Phil Rockstroh suggests the impact of growing up in such a world on adolescents:

Inundate a teenager with the soul-defying criteria of the corporate/consumer state, with its overbearing, pre-careerist pressures, its paucity of communal eros, its demands, overt and implicit, to conform to a shallow, manic, nebulously defined yet oppressive societal order, and insist that those who cannot adapt, much less excel, are “losers” who are fated to become “basement dwellers” in their parents’ homes or, for those who lack the privilege, be cast into homelessness, then the minds of the young or old alike are apt to be inundated with feelings of angst and dread…Worse, if teenagers are culturally conditioned to believe said feelings and responses are exclusively experienced by weaklings, parasites, and losers then their suffering might fester to the point of emotional paralysis and suicidal inclinations.

Over twenty years ago, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, acknowledged a depression epidemic:

We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago…the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5…Now the average age is between 14 and 15.

Antidepressants are the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. Even if we assume that many of these diagnoses are bogus (see above), that still leaves an awful lot of unhappy young people.

In Chapter Five of my book, I quote former teacher John Taylor Gatto as I distinguish between authentic tribal initiation (“education”: to lead out) and American schooling (“instruction”: to stuff in), the primary purpose of which is to create compliant consumers. Not wanting to veer too far off topic, I encourage you to read that chapter, or look at his website. But for our purposes, this is another crazy-making American institution. So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, as Bruce Levine writes, that only 40% of high school students report being “engaged with school.” And, seen from this perspective, much teenage behavior that the psychiatric profession has pathologized and medicated really is rebellion against a dehumanizing society.

…those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled…(and) are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD…there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities…When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

But mostly, in talking about adolescents, we are expressing and enacting what I consider to be the most fundamental myth of Western culture (which I discuss in Chapter Six): the sacrifice of the children. It’s a world in which too many parents are too willing to allow too many profit-driven experts to diagnose, pathologize, medicate and institutionalize their children.

Centuries ago, American Puritans pointed to the “bad seeds” who, simply by their presence within the community, showed who was fated and who was not fated to join the heavenly choir – and who were the sources of pollution. Today, we use the terminology of “abnormality,” “development disorder,” “neurologically defective” or “brain chemistry disfunction.”

We can’t deny that large numbers of children do suffer from genetic and in-utero problems – one in forty (up from one in 68 just two years ago) are now on the Autism spectrum – and perhaps the effects of untested vaccines created and hawked by that same Big Pharma, or that electronic devices are harming them.

Clearly, however, madness predates capitalism, and the economics of corrupt institutions doesn’t explain all of it. Nor does Protestantism, which first demonized the mentally ill as “immoral” and institutionalized them in the 17th century. 

Enter Dionysus, who tells us that madness is a fundamental, archetypal aspect of the psyche. Plato spoke of the “divine madness” that comes as gifts from the gods: poetic madness was inspired by the Muses; Apollo and the Muses were the patron deities of prophetic madness; Aphrodite and Eros inspired erotic madness; and Dionysus was the patron of ritual madness. We recall Walter Otto: “A god who is mad! … There can be a god who is mad only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” James Hillman, who saw pathology as existentially human, summarized the old thinking: “…insanity is following the wrong god.” And most religious traditions, especially Sufism and Buddhism, have long honored the carriers of “crazy wisdom.”

But we have to keep coming back to American innocence.

When our personal or national self-image has no shadow, we imagine that our motivations have the purity of white sugar on white bread, washed down with milk. We have dreamed up a world – the American Dream – in which we are so good, so generous, so caring, so pure, so willing to bring enlightenment to others, that no one – except for the incarnation of pure evil, Satan himself – or his dark, ethnic surrogates – could ever doubt us. And the fear? Doesn’t much of it spring not also from the media but also from our own subliminal guilt and our unwillingness to confront our grief? Is this not the stance of an inexperienced, uninitiated, naïve youth unconsciously daring the world to smack him with a wakeup call?

So when we really are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy results in our astonishingly violent extremes. Our lost innocence (We have done so much good! Why do they hate us so?) and denial of death justify the revenge fantasies that support or ignore reactionary and genocidal behavior or treat it as if it were a football game. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Certainly since 9/11/2001, and arguably since the beginning of World War Two – three to four generations – Americans have endured (or more often ignored) the fact that their government and their young men have been waging wars and covert interventions – and dying in them – almost continually. I really don’t think that we can imagine healing our internal epidemic of mass shootings (including police murders), or the rage that motivates the shooters, or the helplessness and lost dreams below that, without addressing these external realities. Few politicians are willing to do so. The only presidential candidate to try has been Tulsi Gabbard, and the media have slammed her for the effort.

What has our awareness of what we do, regardless of why we do it, done to our souls? Caitlin Johnstone comments:

The most significant and consequential aspect of establishment propaganda is the simple, everyday practice of manufacturing normality.  Every time something horrible happens without news reporters treating it like something horrible…Every time something unimportant happens that is treated as newsworthy, normality is being manufactured…In an even marginally sane world, the fact that a nation’s armed forces are engaged in daily military violence would be cause for shock and alarm…A hypothetical space alien observing our civilization for the first time would conclude that we are insane…It is absolutely bat shit crazy that we feel normal about the most powerful military force in the history of civilization running around the world invading and occupying and bombing and killing…

Dionysus asks us, what is madness in the only nation to have used atomic weapons, and following that war has bombed nearly fifty nations, whose people, every single time (with one exception, Serbia) were people of color? A nation that dropped seven million tons of bombs on Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia? A nation that utilized free-fire zones and defoliation and made the body count its primary metric to judge military progress? Phillip Slater asked at the time,

This transfer of killing from a means to an end in itself constitutes a practical definition of genocide…Do Americans hate life? Has there ever been a people who have destroyed so many living things?

Well, that was then. And now? Dionysus might wonder what we should make of a nation in which a third of the population favors a nuclear strike on North Korea even if it killed a million people.  Twenty-four hundred years ago, Euripides (in The Bacchae) instructed the Athenians that their failure to listen to the mad god, and their own normalization of warfare, would drive their own children mad. William Hawes, (“Growing Up Insane”) writes,

…we must at least question whether collectively, we the citizenry, are as susceptible to mass delusions as our psychopathic leaders are. Our society can be effectively generalized as forming what Paulo Freire calls a culture of silence, many of whom see no problems with exploiting and despoiling other countries, looting wealth, and killing millions; and many more that are simply afraid to speak out against the indignity of the U.S. empire, in fear of socio-cultural reprisals. This culture of silence, which we are taught at a young age, indoctrinates and effectively eliminates the ability of people to form critiques of our rotten political and economic systems. This is who Richard Nixon was really referring to, when he spoke of the “Silent Majority”: citizens too naïve, dumb, childlike, and afraid to confront the injustices inherent to our system…

The mention of Nixon (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) reminds us that in this demythologized world, every single one of our major institutions has been corrupted by capitalism, democrats-are-zeroing-in-on-top-trump-aide-stephen-miller-in-the-house-russia-probe and that we have to address all political, social and cultural issues by asking Cui Bono? Who profits?

We’ve established that the mental health industrial complex drugs millions unnecessarily and ineffectively. Looking, however, through the lens of American myth, we also discover that, in true Protestant fashion, it frames mental health problems as purely individual issues and conditions everyone to overlook structural issues such as racism and systemic violence. Eric Greene argues

…this reduction serves a specific political function…it keeps those who are oppressed inward looking and forecloses knowledge of the dominant class as they exert enough force to contribute to extensive suffering and mental illness in the oppressed…This specific kind of colonization of consciousness (i.e., ideology or false consciousness), by the mental health industrial complex contributes to…the current ‘culture of incapacity’ and elicits mantras of self-blame while exploiting humans as patients for the bottom-line dollar. In short, the definition and diagnosing of mental illness is political…The clinic and the therapies provided therein act as a tool of systemic oppression. Unless clinicians actively work against dominant racial inequalities and institutional forms of oppression, our tools work to perpetuate and exacerbate them.

Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial. Waking exhausted, we reach for our devices. Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. In 1968 Muriel Rukheyser saw this:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons…

– “Poem”

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