The Ultimate Oxymoron: Industrial Civilization and Mental Health
Carolyn Baker is a featured guest in Andrew Harvery's Evolver Intensives webinar, "Turning Hope into Action: The Path of Sacred Activism," a series of 5 live, interactive online video sessions that starts on March 24, 2011. To learn more about this course, click here.
[Industrial] civilization does not occur among healthy people.
-Ken Carey, Return of The Bird People
In the days following the tragic Tucson massacre where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded and several other individuals were shot and killed by suspect Jared Loughner, mainstream media has simmered with interviews and sound bytes regarding the status of mental health treatment in the United States. It is now apparent that Loughner was a troubled young man whose emotional issues intensified in recent years, and as a result of his bizarre behavior, he was dismissed from Pima Community College and prohibited from returning without passing a psychological evaluation.
In the ensuing discourse since the massacre, we have been incessantly reminded by media that mental health issues are as real and valid as physical illness and should not be viewed with disdain but rather treated by mental health professionals as any physical ailment such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer would be treated by a physician. Yet even as journalists and mental health and political pundits banter about mental health treatment in the United States, they fail to address, or perhaps even understand, the deeper questions.
This article is intended to address those questions, the implications of which extend vastly beyond the January 8 Tucson tragedy.
The Loughner Generation
Almost no one has noticed that Loughner is a member of a generation which has virtually no economic future in this country. Were he to continue attending college, as a member of the working class, in order to graduate, he would almost certainly need to finance his education by way of student loans and complete his degree program by accumulating tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Upon graduation, he would most likely join the masses of unemployed or underemployed college graduates who will be student loan debt-slaves for the rest of their lives with income levels that will force them to default or live in poverty in order to pay off the loans. We can only speculate about how long young people in this nation will continue to pursue a college education under these circumstances and what the social, economic, and political implications will be of millions of youth rejecting the higher education shell game.
Naturally, one might wonder what has prevented millions of other young people of Loughner’s generation from erupting in displays of mass mayhem regarding their future, but a bit more research on their public school education experience and the pressures foisted on them by the college-to-cubicle philosophy of higher education answers the question. College is no longer a venue for learning, but rather an assumed guarantee of employment. College life is all about preparing for the big “J,” and there is little time for all-night discussions, student protest, or deeply pondering what mortgaging one’s future over the course of four years is all about. What is more, the pressure to “do whatever it takes” to graduate is so intense that more than 70% of students admit to cheating in order to make the grade.
Was Jared Loughner thinking about this when he mowed down 19 people on a sunny January morning last week? Probably not. But as with all socio-cultural phenomena, individuals who erupt violently may not be fully aware of the impact their milieu has on them. And since the Tucson tragedy, we have seen an increasing number of stories in the news media regarding the repercussions of economic crisis in nations throughout the world and growing speculation regarding the possibility of civil unrest as a result. For example: The Great Food Crisis of 2011; A World In Breakdown; and Global Food And Commodity Prices Spark Worries On Security, to name only a few.
Economic Collapse, Big Bad Pharma, And The Death of Therapy
Moreover, there is almost no mention in the current media mental health discourse of the death spiral of psychotherapy in the United States. While mental health treatment in the nation was never fully accepted without stigma, it may have been most widely embraced in the 1970s during the Carter Administration when the National Mental Health Systems Act was passed. Only a few years later, the act was repealed by the Reagan Administration, and mental health and substance abuse program funding was cut by 25%. While Reagan himself did not stand at the door of mental health institutions and tell patients to flee, the repeal had the same results in terms of the priority mental health treatment received in subsequent state and federal budgets.
With the advent of managed care in the 1990s, insurance companies limited the number of mental health sessions that would be covered for insured patients, severely curtailing coverage and duration of treatment. These limitations have remained in place, and in many cases increased, over the past two decades, and in 2011 with some 50 million uninsured individuals in the United States, receiving mental health treatment generally means paying for it out-of-pocket--an expense not likely to have priority in a milieu of massive unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and skyrocketing food prices.
Not surprisingly, at about the same time as managed care emerged, the pharmaceutical industry debuted a new array of anti-depressants known as SSRI’s or Seratonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and others, which not only alleviated symptoms of depression for millions of mental health patients, but were increasingly used to treat a wide variety of emotional disorders among children and adults who had never darkened the door of a therapist’s office.
In 2011, each day brings yet another story of a state or states teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and spending cuts that are nothing less than amputations or inexorable eradications of all manner of health programs.
Thus, in a world of profound economic collapse, fewer people can afford mental health services, yet as a result of personal and societal economic meltdown, more need them than perhaps at any time in our history since the Great Depression. Psychotherapy and psychiatric hospitalization as we have known them are becoming increasingly difficult to access and within the next decade may well become non-existent--a gargantuan reality rarely addressed in media discourse about “mental health stigma” and “mental health treatment.”
The Madness of Industrial Civilization
The larger issue unaddressed because it is un-named and willfully unexamined, is the paradigm of industrial civilization itself. Historians note that civilization began with sedentary, agricultural communities which evolved into cities. Cities are by definition, communities that are not self-sufficient and depend on external venues for resources. Increasingly, cities became non-agricultural and dependent on other communities and nations for their survival. Disconnection from the land base facilitated what Thomas Berry calls a “use relationship” with nature and other members of the earth community, including humans. Once relationship devolves from relatedness to using the other, we are well on the road to madness because relatedness means seeing, appreciating, valuing the innate qualities of the other. Use inherently means not seeing the other and its/his/her attributes but objectifying the other and perceiving the other only in terms of how the other can benefit oneself. Such is the essence of dysfunctional relatedness.
Supplanting relatedness, use became the modus operandi of modernity and particularly of growth-obsessed, profit-driven industrial civilization. That which profit could acquire--stuff, possessions, and power replaced relatedness as the essential elements of meaning and purpose. These, it was assumed, would bring unprecedented happiness and fulfillment. Yet myriad studies in the 20th and 21st centuries indicate the opposite. The level of satisfaction and sense of well being in a society does not increase with the level of growth or economic prosperity.
In Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything: Waking Up To A Century of Declines (2007), he notes that “While a historical GDP (gross domestic product) chart for the U.S. shows general ongoing growth up the the present (GDP correlates closely with energy consumption), GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) calculations show a peak around 1980 followed by a slow decline. If we as a society are going to adjust agreeably to lower rates of energy flow--and less travel and transport--with minimal social disruption, we must begin paying more attention to the seeming intangibles of life and less to GDP and the apparent benefits of profligate energy use.”
In fact, I would argue that as growth-driven civilizations decline, the madness engendered by use relationships and the vapid meaninglessness of acquiring possessions and power are increasingly laid bare. Industrial civilization is inherently crazy-making, and Jared Loughner is merely another poster boy for its paradigm.
Yet in our mental health discourses, we fail to consider what Derrick Jensen beautifully observed, long before the Tucson massacre:
I’m continually stunned by how many seemingly sane people believe you can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Perpetual economic growth and its cousin, limitless technological expansion, are beliefs so deeply held by so many in this culture that they often go entirely unquestioned. Even more disturbing is the fact that these beliefs are somehow seen as the ultimate definition of what it is to be human: perpetual economic growth and limitless technological expansion are what we do.
When I was a psychotherapist in private practice in the 1990s, I learned that 80% of mental health clinicians who had spent precious years and resources training to become psychotherapists would leave that field within five years of entering it. I have no idea what the statistics are for this phenomenon in 2011, but I do know that given America’s economic meltdown and the inability of states, counties, and cities to fund mental health services and the inability of individuals to pay for it out-of-pocket, the psychotherapy profession is becoming an increasingly thankless one.
As the collapse of industrial civilization exacerbates, I anticipate epidemic levels of depression, suicide, and indiscriminate violence. Human beings blindsided by society’s and their own unraveling will be desperate to be heard, comforted, and reassured that they are not alone. Anyone who is collapse-aware and even a little bit emotionally stable may become the “therapist of the moment.” This will not look like two people sitting quietly in a tidy office and talking for 50 minutes. It may look like a group of human beings sitting in the street or in a community garden all night discussing how they will eat the next day, and the “fee” may be a bag of potatoes or a bottle of vodka. Such individuals will definitely behave in an “uncivilized” manner, but they probably will not be mentally ill.
Mental health necessitates taking a stand in the face of madness in order to live and love in relatedness with other earthlings--whether human or non-human. The paradigm of industrial civilization is inherently mad and proliferates mad people. Many of us have been called “crazy” for the past decade because we have named the madness of civilization and where it is taking us. Today, we may be perceived as “less crazy” since most of what we forecasted is now everyday, tangible reality--just as we said it would be. As industrial civilization accelerates its death spiral, our work is to imagine a new world of connectedness and to become a new human species. Measured by the criteria of the American dream turned nightmare, we may not only not be deemed crazy, but may be perceived as living and learning in ways that resonate with an aspect of the psyches of fellow earthlings that they are coming to recognize as essential to their emotional and physical health. Heinberg’s “seeming intangibles of life” could also be called “the sacred,” and they have been systematically marginalized by modernity for millennia. The sacred must now constitute the foundation on which any alternative to industrial civilization is constructed, for therein lie the fundamentals of sanity and wholeness.
Carolyn’s latest book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition is now available with foreword by Andrew Harvey. She is also the author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse (2009). Please visit her website at www.carolynbaker.net.
Image: Brain Pill by Ian Boyd, courtesy of Creative Commons license.