By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

The Emotional Toll of Global Chaos or Why Modern Psychology is a Fraud

Before I begin with an analysis of the faults that I have found with the assumptions of modern-day psychology, I would like to briefly explain my title. For starters, I hold psychologists in deep regard for their selfless drive to better the lives of their compatriots. It takes unquestionable strength of character and lots of courage to pursue an occupation that daily pits the practitioner against the trials and turbulence of the human condition. Effective therapists know from the start that by involving themselves in their patients’ affairs, they risk empathetic entanglement, a dangerous coincidence that exposes them not only to the pain and suffering of their fellow brothers and sisters, but to the full spectrum of the sins and impieties of a fallen humanity. Yet they persevere, cognizant of the danger but unable to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering. Without such brave individuals, society would most likely have not prevailed amidst the churning tides of societal discord that have gripped all of human civilization over this past century. Strong support from such public servants (they do serve a real public need) allows today’s society to continue to function in the face of tremendous stresses and threats.

But despite the benefits that these selfless individuals offer society, the implications of some of their practices contradict their own purported ethics. I can only express dismay at the realization that the modern approach to therapy potentially endangers the perpetuation of enlightened, civilized society. Simply put, as the title indicates, I feel that something’s rotten with the state of psychology.

I am not the first to point a critical finger at the practices of contemporary psychology. Many have done so before me and were later found to be suffering from the same mental ailments whose existence they questioned. Those who countered the prevailing sentiment within the closed communities of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have had the unfortunate luck to have chosen as their adversaries the sole members of society invested with the power to diagnose such conditions. If not discounted psychically, many have suffered one way or another from the close-mindedness of their colleagues in the field. Some have lost professorial positions, some licenses to care for the sick and some have just been given a cold shoulder. I cannot speak to the psyches of those individuals that have ventured to criticize the ever-evolving world of psychology, but it stands to reason that at least some of their discontent was solidly founded on honest inquiries done out of pursuit of truth. While I am not oblivious to the risks of pursuing countercultural dissent, I urge you, dear reader, to resist the impulse to rush to judge my intent in doing so, or to presume my fallibility where no counter-proof exists.

When approaching psychology, one should acquaint himself with its origins and critical innovations. The roots of this “science” stretch back to antiquity, probably not much later than the development of spoken language (inherent in language lies the ability to distinguish between one’s own emotional state and that of one’s fellow man). Throughout history, our social nature has provided the basis for all of society’s achievements and shortcomings. The great philosophers of Greece, Rome, Judea, Egypt and Europe all pondered the eternal questions of the psyche. As society climbed ever higher on the scale of human development, the effect of its philosophies of the psyche on our understanding of ourselves and of our various governances has grown. Locke’s notions of liberty and law, for example, derive from his theories on ethics and conscience. Kant investigates much of our internal psychological constitution (desire vs. intellect) whereupon he develops his theory of ethical behavior. Historically, much of this psychological discourse has taken on a religious character. One can find it in the treatises of rabbis, imams and priests alike. From the bible (e.g. the Deluge, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David, Amnon) to today’s modern society, the questions that pertain to psychology’s spiritual quest have given rise to lively debate, fantastical storytelling and dangerous discord. Though we can credit Dr. Sigmund Freud with developing the world’s first consolidated model of psychology, his theories no longer retain the preeminence they once enjoyed. As much as I would like to introduce you to his complex, disquieting ideas, I abstain in favor of dealing with the more practical matter of contemporary psychology.

For argument’s sake, I will highlight two underlying fallacies that appear in contemporary psychological theory and literature. These do not represent the opinions of all practicing mental health professionals, but do offer us a concise way through which I may critique the basic understandings of many psychologists. Some therapists do not take any psychological constitution, or personal history, into account, and treat every patient as a tabula rasa. Others (notably psychiatrists), in quite the opposite manner, operate based upon assumptions about the genetic, biological or psychological (i.e. psychodynamic) makeup of the individual, and so leave little room for the concept of free-will. Though these classifications may seem like broad generalizations, you most likely will find that they work for most theoretical approaches to mental health treatment. I should note that these two classes of treatment don’t exclude one another. In fact, most therapists incorporate some of each approach.

If the tendency of some psychologists to rely on a deterministic model of human behavior strikes you as problematic (either morally or halakhically), I wonder how you may react to the fact that some psychiatrists assume that their afflicted patients have been somehow predestined by a weak genetic constitution (if I may, by God) to a life of suffering. To a serious, thoughtful person, this should not appear self-evident, and, as a religious Jew, I call foul. Who are they (doctors, researchers) to determine that someone hasn’t got the ‘right stuff’ to make it in the world? By what means can they identify genes and make conclusions that sum up the entirety of one’s personality?

By any account, this Calvinist-esque ideology is disheartening at best and dehumanizing at worst. Surprisingly, though, it is not based on much objective scientific knowledge.

If genetics, and only genetics, were responsible for mental disorders, we could expect rates of mental illness to remain stable for long periods of time—genes don’t spontaneously combust. How then can we explain the dramatic increase in rates of neuroses (specifically anxiety and depression) over the past two decades? One study listed in the Journal of Affective Disorders (11/2012) concluded, after extensive research, that “in conclusion, available evidence suggests we may indeed be in the midst of an epidemic of depression.” Another article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (12/2006) concluded that “rates of major depression rose markedly over the past decade in the United States,” and warned that “if the prevalence continues to increase at the rate it did during the past decade, the demand for services will increase dramatically in the coming years.” These studies show that something other than genetics can affect an individual’s mental health. While the data does not indisputably disprove the claim that genetic disposition is a significant factor in depression, it sure does lead one to question the premise of such an argument.

Alternatively, therapists, when at a loss to explain the source of a patient’s illness, tend to completely overlook the causal factors in favor of an optimistic, forward looking approach that almost entirely ignores a patient’s personal history. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT) represents the most common form of this therapy. CBT mainly focuses on reinforcing the patient’s ability to identify and weed out negative thoughts and to avoid the things in his immediate surroundings that detrimentally affect his mood. Though this method does provide the patient with some newfound confidence, by focusing only on the patient’s present situation, the therapist essentially dismisses further analysis of the etiological factors of his illness as either irrelevant, ineffective or misguided. The basic approach can be somewhat-comically construed as follows (I suggest intonating as a hippie might): “Your thoughts are buggin’ you man?? Well, man, forget them! Try harder, get up, and go!!!” Such an approach has its limitations. It sort of hovers outside the realm of reality and, while it may help patients in the short term, it struggles to sustain improvements in the long term (researchers regularly observe relapse rates of close to 50% over the course of several years). Additionally, according to the title of an article in Psychological Bulletin (5/2015), “The Effects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as an Anti-Depressive Treatment is Falling.” The authors of that article conclude that “modern CBT clinical trials seemingly provided less relief from depressive symptoms as compared with the seminal trials.” This should cause some alarm, as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy constitutes one of the cornerstones of modern psychotherapeutic treatment.

But all is not lost; we still have the ‘wondrous’ psychopharmaceutical innovations of the past few decades. Though I do not intend to debate the effectiveness of taking anti-depressant pills (some studies dispute the effect of the antidepressant SSRIs vs. placebos), I should warn the public of their side effects. Though most are minor, it pays to ask a doctor before starting a regimen. For anti-anxiety meds (i.e. tranquilizers) I suggest due care, as they possess possibly addictive qualities. Though psychiatric drugs can sometimes help treat various forms of mental illness, I don’t revel in the news that over 10% of all Americans (and astoundingly nearly a quarter of all middle-aged women!) now take antidepressants—a 400% increase over the past twenty years alone! (CDC Report [10/2011]). I find it very hard to believe that such great numbers of Americans are all genetically predisposed to fall ill! And even if that were the case, would it comfort me in knowing that vast percentages of the U.S. population need constant psychiatric intervention in order to maintain basic sanity? What would happen if a shortage of these drugs were to occur? “Oy vey!”

Hence, I write to you, dear reader, in frustration. The discipline of psychology has run out of innovative options, no-one has yet invented a cure for these diseases of the mind and spirit, and, as I see it, no-one ever will!

Though I cannot fully disprove the effect of genetic factors on any disorder, I believe a genetic assessment should be limited to its lowest possible minimum. I grant that purely physiological/neurological disorders exist and contribute to the number of those who suffer; but I remain skeptical of the blanket genetic rationale given for mental illness. While some forms of schizophrenia have been shown to derive directly from genetic factors, sometimes these factors do not express themselves in active form (phenotype) due to a lack of adequate stressors (e.g. twin studies). The same can be said for bipolar disorders, depression and anxiety disorders, and ADHD.

Although I do not object on principle to using the terms ‘illness’ and ‘disorder,’ I warn you not to draw too many conclusions from doing so. Thomas Szasz, MD, writes in his book The Myth of Mental Illness of the dangers of such an approach. He asks, “The pancreas may be said to have a natural function. But what is the natural function of the person? This is like asking what is the meaning of life.” In tyrannical psychiatry, he sees the overreach of society/government and an encroachment upon private liberties. When he hears President Clinton say “Mental illness can be accurately diagnosed, successfully treated, just as physical illness,” or Vice-President Biden say “Addiction is a neurobiological disease,” he hears the dismissal of the humanity of the disease and perhaps the extreme haughtiness of these politicians. Most people assume that mental illness is fixable, but the aforementioned trends of increasing numbers of patients must worry them too.

So, then, what really lies behind this increasingly difficult situation? What can we blame? As the title to this piece suggests, the answer lies in ourselves. I do not intend to assume the role of philosopher or theologian in contemplation of man’s tendencies for sin and disorder. But regardless of the source of our destructive impulses, humanity continues to prove its immense capability to create self-inflicted suffering. In particular, the psycho-socio-economic situation that we currently inhabit gives us all the reason to despair.

In an enlightened piece in the New York Times this past March, Richard Brouillette, a psychotherapist from New York, outlines this argument. The article titled “Why Therapists Should Talk Politics” describes the therapist’s inability to help his patients, since he knows why they have fallen ill and they had nothing to do with it. As the subhead emphasizes:“Sometimes, the patient is depressed because the world is unjust.” Brouillette observes that an increasingly competitive job-market, lower wages, and growing societal dysfunction (e.g terrorism, inequality, racism) have all contributed to the problem of mental distress. He concludes: “You would be surprised how seldom it occurs to people that their problems are not their fault. By focusing on fairness and justice, a patient may have a chance to find what has so frequently been lost: an ability to care for and stand up for herself. Guilt can be replaced with a clarifying anger, one that liberates a desire — and a demand — to thrive, to turn outward toward others rather than inward, one that draws her forward to make change.”

This clearly seems to help resolve our dilemma. Genetics explains some of the world’s misery, but the majority of disorders are human in origin. Humans affect each other’s emotional state, and nothing short of society-wide rehabilitation can effectively “cure” those who suffer from psychological disorder. While I cannot prove this conclusion, I implore anyone who doubts the extent of the misery present in today’s world to simply open their eyes.

With this understanding, we can cast a more critical eye on some of contemporary psychological theory. Today, patients can choose from many different approaches and therapies when seeking treatment. However, as I’ve demonstrated above, the common denominator of most, if not all, of these therapies seems to be their tendency of myopically placing the blame on the individual and his psychological constitution, thus sparing society the task of performing proper heshbon nefesh (introspection). Therapists, instead of explaining to their patients the true ills of society, often shield their patients from such knowledge. Perhaps they pity them. Perhaps they subconsciously repress the information out of genuine fear of its implications for their own well-being. Irrespective of their reasoning, by ignoring the societal causes of suffering, therapists risk overlooking the inherent structural weaknesses that threaten us all.

Shakespeare understood the futility of the field long before the advent of modern psychology. In The Tragedy of Macbeth (V, III), Macbeth begs a doctor to tend to his ailing wife who suffers from intense guilt over having orchestrated the murder of King Duncan.  Although in this case she is directly responsible for her illness (i.e. it was not caused by external, societal factors), Shakespeare’s general message about mental health still rings true:

Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor: Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies

That keep her from her rest.

Macbeth: Cure her of that!

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon her heart.

Macbeth begs the doctor to administer a cure that will deny her soul the suffering that reality imposes. He seeks a panacea that will magically relieve her of her pain. But, as we know, the doctor can do little to remedy such a case. He answers Macbeth, telling him not to expect any miracles. Her pain is real. In this particular situation, her guilt cannot be rectified (the king is already  dead), and her ability to feel it cannot be dulled by any drug.

We collectively have not yet sunk to the depths of Lady Macbeth. We can still hope to fix our broken world. With common purpose and collective fortitude we can change our present circumstances!

A final thought for those who pursue careers in counseling: Try your best to help your brothers and sisters in need of companionship. You don’t need to receive an education in how to act kindly. Just be a good, honest friend.

Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.

Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.

And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.” Amen

-Jeremiah 31:15-17