Creating a Mass Market for Psychology
By Robert Sibley
Books in Canada, July 2001 pp.38-39
"To be cured against one's own will of a state we do not regard as a disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason, or those who never will, and to be classed with infants, imbeciles and domestic animals."
WHEN A TRAGEDY occurs at some school, office or worksite, policemen, firefighters and paramedics will rush to the scene to provide much needed services and save lives if necessary. Increasingly, however, we see another "helping" professional, the trauma or grief counsellor who has been called in to save psyches.
Somehow it is now the norm that after every school shooting (or threatened shooting), car crash or airline disaster to call in the psychologists who, in Moses-like fashion, are expected to lead survivors of tragedy, or even tragedy's witnesses, to the promised land of "wellness." Somehow in our fear-filled society we have come to believe that a stranger with a few initials behind his or her name is necessary to attaining "healing" or "closure" after we experience or witness violence or death.
Where does this notion come from? Where did we get the sentimental idea that after every tragedy - a parent's loss of a child, for example, we are supposed to be "healed"? In her book Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People, Dr. Tana Dineen answers those questions. And the answer is devastating. Well researched, sharply focused and leavened with numerous examples, her analysis of the profession of psychology should make you want to burn your self-help books and motivational tapes or, as the case may be, cancel the rest of your therapy sessions.
The book's opening paragraphs succinctly sums up her argument: "Psychology presents itself as a con-cerned and caring profession working for the good of its clients, but the effects are damaged people, divided families, distorted justice, destroyed companies and a weakened nation. Behind the benevolent facade is a self-serving industry that offers "facts" which are often unfounded, provides "therapy" which can be damaging, and exerts influence which is having devastating effects on society
"This is the era of licensed, accredited, certified, proclaimed or self-proclaimed psychologists. With degrees in psychology, medicine, social work, and nursing or with no academic qualifications at all, the expanding workforce of the Psychology Industry relies for its survival and growth on its ability to create markets and manufacture victims. Specializing in trauma, stress, abuse and addiction, an increasing number of psychologists are competing for "victim fees." Few of them ask any questions or show any reservations about their business. Most equate expert status with their own adamant beliefs which, with no pause for critical thought or responsible reflection, they present as "findings" and "facts."
Now that is a stinging indictment. And after reading Dr. Dineen's book you will be hard pressed to argue it is entirely unjustified. To be sure, Dr. Dineen is careful to acknowledge that in the hands of dedicated and scientifically-grounded researchers, psychology remains a worthy and respected endeavour. As she observes, not all psychologists allow themselves to be "swept along by seductive theorizing and popular belief."
The focus of her scorn are those "psychologists" - whether clinical psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, grief therapists, mental health workers, high school counsellors, sensitivity trainers or even hypnotherapists - who distort and misapply the research, reducing it to ego-stroking psychobabble and feel-good placebos. Unfortunately, she says, there are more and more of these kinds of psychologists and few of the more responsible ones.
Dr. Dineen knows whereof she speaks. A PhD in psychology, she spent nearly 20 years in the field as a clinical psychologist, holding positions in psychiatric facilities and counselling clinics in Ontario. She was also a psychotherapist in Toronto for many years. But she packed in her career in the mid-1990s. As she put it in a newspaper interview "I couldn't maintain my integrity in a profession that is almost devoid of integrity. This book is my apology for decades of biting my lip about the pernicious effects psychologists are having on individuals and society."
Among Dr. Dineen's most explosive argument is her refutation of the concept of recovered memories, particularly in regard to alleged sexual abuse. She cites numerous cases wherein people - usually men - have been falsely accused of crimes based on such "memories." But there is, she says, no reputable scientific evidence that these memories are anything more than fanciful inventions. Because of this and other misuses of research, she argues that psychologists should be barred from testifying in court as experts on human behaviour.
Dr. Dineen goes ever further, though. One of the more devastating analyses in her book is her dissection of the sharp marketing, political pandering and misuse of research that goes into the industry's efforts to perpetuate and promote itself. The burgeoning field of trauma and stress therapy is, for the most part, a "scam," she argues. Indeed, she regards the diagnoses and therapies of such practitioners as little more than job creation projects for the psychology industry. Therapists need patients, so they create disorders with which to label erstwhile clients. Eventually, of course, everybody can be described as "abnormal" and in need of treatment.
The psychology industry is also fond of inflating symptoms, augmenting their scope far beyond the original condition they once described. For example, the word trauma once referred to a physical injury. But now, after considerable "semantic inflation," trauma covers anything that upsets us. Ditto for addiction: it no longer refers to drug or alcohol abuse, but also to those who like sex too much, play video gambling too often or even indulgent in too many trips to the local mall.
That's right, even shopping is now considered a psychological problem. A California psychologist has claimed that extreme shoppers are not responsible for what they do because they suffer "compulsive shopping disorder."
It gets more pathetic. Feel guilty at getting rich during the high-tech boom? Another California psychologist says you are suffering "sudden wealth syndrome." Look into the mirror too often? You are not conceited you have "narcissistic personality disorder." Are you a bad-tempered lout in the morning? Tell the spousal unit it is only "intermittent explosive disorder."
Psychology may once have been part of science's laudatory effort to mitigate life's hardships, but Dr. Dineen's book ably demonstrates how the psychology industry has gone, well, crazy in its attempt to pathologize every aspect of the human condition and turn every upset into a disease in need of therapeutic treatment.
Dr. Dineen is not the first psychologist to question the merits of her profession, of course. For example, the late Garth Wood, an eminent British psychiatrist, wrote in his 1983 book "The Myth of Neurosis" that many patients in psychoanalysis would get as much benefit from confronting their problems as they would from being "in therapy." He was particularly incensed by the "insidious myths" of psychotherapy and the "unstoppable streams of verbiage intelligible only to the arcane practitioners of these disreputable "disciplines."
What sets Dr. Dineen's book part, takes it beyond the isn't-this-awful level, is that she asks the larger question of what the colonization of society by the psychology industry portends. Her final judgment is scathing: "The psychology industry is separating people from their families, promoting stereotypic and hostile views of men and women, degrading friendship and generally promoting distrust and suspicion."
Ultimately, what Dr. Dineen's book exposes is the steady sentimentalization of society. To be sure, that is not a word she uses, but when understood comprehensively it helps to account for the kind of fearful narcissistic society she sees "psychologists" producing. "The theories of the psychologist industry exist as totems which reduce people to whining, weak, passive and vulnerable children, more intent on nurturing their inner child that on strengthening their resolve as adults."
That's a pretty good definition of a sentimentalist. A sentimentalist is someone who denies reality, someone who evades the concrete facts of the world. Sentimentality inhibits rational judgment in favour of emotional satisfaction. Patients are particularly tempted to react sentimentally, denying, say, a diagnosis of cancer by seeking out bogus therapies. Such a reaction can masquerade as courage. But denial is not courage. Denial avoids the facts; courage faces them. Refusing to despair is well and good, but willful self-deception is cowardice.
Such sentimentalism might be tolerated if it were confined to a deluded few. But western societies are increasingly driven by sentimentalists of all persuasions and ideologies promoting social-engineering schemes. Sentimentalists are particularly attracted to political programs that promise utopia without struggle or sacrifice. They assume that good ends can be achieved without unpleasant effort, self-discipline or patience. More and more, we are a society in which any misfortune that befalls us is somebody else's fault. So we grab a lawyer to sue those who trespass on our egos or elect politicians who feel our pain or run to therapists who will assure us we are victims of something (life perhaps?) and therefore aren't responsible for anything. The result, says Dr. Dineen, is a society of damaged and dependent people, divided families and weakened communities. As she writes, "The psychology industry casts a long shadow over life in North America ... While psychologists say 'trust me,' they question and often discourage one's trust and reliance on family and friends. As a substitute they offer artificial empathy, cultivated warmth and phony genuineness, through which they can persuade people to see life they way they see it, and to live their lives in a psychologically ordered fashion."
How did this come about? Apparently, in our increasingly secularized world, psychotherapy has replaced religion in the sense that, like religion, it is what we turn to when we need to cope with the vagaries of existence. But, unlike religion, psychology seeks to eliminate the very experiences that define what it is to be human. At the core of human experience is the mystery of the grandeur and the misery of self-conscious mortality. Unlike animals, humans know they will die. Yet, if they have courage, they also learn that awareness of death gives life its juice and joy. It is because life is so painfully transient that it can be so achingly meaningful
Psychotherapy seeks to deny humans the very experiences that allow them to appreciate the rich depths of life. And that, of course, means it is a threat to human freedom. As philosopher Leon Kass states, the ultimate goal of psychotherapy is "to order human experience in terms of easy, predictable contentment." But for those haunted by death, character and courage - those ingredients of genuine freedom - are essential in order to live with the knowledge that death is inevitable. Psychotherapy, however, makes emotional security easy by negating the certainty of death, and thus eradicating the need to practise those moral virtues necessary for being free.
Obviously, this implies that the conduct of the psychology industry has political consequences. Indeed, individuals freed from moral responsibility are no longer citizens (in the political sense of the word), but patients or victims who need someone else to manage their lives. As Dr. Dineen writes: "The psychology industry considers and treats people as children who, regardless of age, experience or status, must be protected, guided, sheltered and disciplined." But by smothering individual responsibility for the sake of self-esteem or wellness, psychotherapy creates a depoliticized society of contented creatures who need only to be organized and pacified.
And that is a form of tyranny. It may produce a society that looks and feels much nicer than that established by, say, communist China, but it is still a tyranny, albeit a soft one. As C.S. Lewis once put it, "Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercises for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive."
Dr. Dineen's book exposes the threat to human freedom posed by those rushing to rescue our poor, shivering psyches.