The Sickness of the American Psyche
by Larry Malerba, DO
Green Med Info, 29 August 2015
Is the sky falling? Maybe, maybe not, but there is a deep sickness beginning to take hold of the American psyche that threatens to undermine the principles that have long held the democratic experiment together.
It appears that America is coming apart at the seams. Routine school shootings, the reemergence of overt racism, anti-government paranoia on the rise, exaggerated threats of germs and terrorists lurking around every corner, government indifference to the hollowing out of the middle class, military tactics employed by officers of the peace—signs of societal disintegration are everywhere. And now we have witnessed the murder of two journalists on live TV and must endure the relentless exploitative media coverage that inevitably follows. While it is true that there always will be social unrest and all manner of cultural crises, the current state of affairs strikes many as beyond the ordinary—and I must cautiously cast my vote in agreement.
Is the sky falling? Maybe, maybe not, but there is a deep sickness beginning to take hold of the American psyche that threatens to undermine the principles that have long held the democratic experiment together. Although there are a variety of legitimate perspectives concerning this dilemma, I will propose my analysis of the psychiatric state of the American mind, an analysis that is largely colored by my vantage point as a holistic physician with a conventional medical educational background.
One hopes that this time in history, like the sixties social revolution, is just another growth spurt of the American psyche. One hopes that the country's growing pains will eventually lead to a more mature national perspective, one that is tolerant of ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity, and one that rediscovers the importance of giving the common good the renewed emphasis that it so desperately needs. But there are destructive forces at play that pose a significant threat to our way of life.
There are a number of factors contributing to the gradual disintegration of the American character. They are, in no particular order, materialism, corporatism, consumerism, war, violence, and the modern scientific worldview (in particular, the lack of basic human values and the shortsighted form of medicine that this worldview has spawned). The common denominators that drive all of these factors are those instincts for survival that kick in when one feels one's security threatened, fear and greed.
Is it a simple matter, therefore, of reaffirming kindness, civility, and respect for others as our guiding principles? I think not, because the forces at play run deep and they have altered both the collective American psyche and individual psyches in ways that are beyond the control of many. Kindness certainly goes a long way, but it is likely to have little effect on the narcissistic personality. So, let's examine some of the forces that I allude to, forces that are stunting the maturation of the collective American character.
Broadly speaking, we can characterize the fear that eats at the Western mind in medical terms, as having both acute and chronic maintaining factors. The source of the more immediate of the two—acute fear—should be evident to most thoughtful persons. It is hard to ignore the tsunami of violence that permeates American culture. Recent headlines announced that 2015 has just marked the 204thmass shooting in the past 204 days. (1) We are a society at perpetual war, with military forces stationed all over the globe to protect our "strategic interests." Most justify it in their minds as the price we pay for freedom and peace. When the blowback comes, it reinforces our projections of "them" as the enemies of peace. As the cycle of war and violence escalates, we up the ante, convinced that more gun ownership and increased military spending will protect us from harm.
The consequence of so much violence is a culture that reflects that violence in its news reporting, with each fresh trauma, large and small, voyeuristically revisited ad nauseam by infotainment talking heads. It is also reflected in the recreational options that we choose, provided to us by an unapologetically exploitative media. Movies, TV programming, and video games expose us to unprecedented violent content that we seem more than willing to accept. Denying the linkage between war, recreational violence, and mental illness is just further evidence of how sick our society has become.
It is fair to say that America is collectively exhibiting all the signs of a full-blown case of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). (2) (3) Once in the grips of PTSD, its victims tend to perceive threats where there are none, threats that elicit varying intensities of two primary responses, fear and aggression. Our uniquely American strain of PTSD manifests as a distinct fear of outsiders, invaders from beyond our borders, people who are different from us.
I suspect that this has much to do with our unique geographic state of security, with vast oceans to the east and west, and a benign Canadian frontier to the north. There seems to be a direct proportionality between the intensity of the perceived threat that we experience and the degree of comfort and safety that we enjoy here at home. Although we remain safely ensconced thousands of miles from the nearest conflict, protected by our heroic men and women in arms, we have been unable to escape the karmic repercussions.
When not killed in action, those soldiers eventually come home, where they are left to sink or swim by a society that neglects their needs while insulating itself from the true realities of war. We treat war like a video game that, like a drone, can be controlled remotely, far from the damage that it inflicts. While many remain emotionally, morally, and politically detached from the ravages of war, military families and their friends are left to witness the torment of their loved ones, thousands of whom have been maimed physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
When reality and rhetoric come face to face, the untold millions of prescriptions of sedatives, antidepressants, and painkillers designed to pacify the American mind are no longer sufficient to suppress the clamor of the resulting cognitive dissonance. Something must inevitably give. It is an ironclad rule of the psyche that there is no free lunch; sooner or later, a price must be paid for self-deception. When it all begins to hit home, we react like entitled adolescents looking to scapegoat the nearest, most convenient target. Shocked by the events that have unfolded, we deny personal responsibility and demand instant accountability. How could this have happened? Heads must roll!
The reaction is exponentially worse when the trauma takes place in the "homeland" (this is one of those Orwellian terms that smacks of totalitarian culture, one that few Americans seem to object to). "Shock and awe" was merely the initial salvo of our prolonged and aggrieved response to 9-11. More than a decade later, we sit amidst the ruins of a decimated economy, perplexed and dissatisfied by the repercussions of our misguided efforts. Left in the wake of our quest for vengeance is an enormous gulf between the "one percent" and all the rest. This only compounds the vicious cycle as the desperation of those who can't pay their bills, have no health care, and have lost their homes increases as the rich get richer. It would be naïve not to expect fear and aggression on the part of those left behind by the rapacious corporatocracy.
With each new traumatic event, America's fight or flight response is reactivated and reinforced. It is the nature of PTSD. The civilian soldier reacts to the police siren as if he is taking enemy fire, unable for a brief moment to discern the difference between the two. A "patriot" with an arsenal of weapons is convinced that the mosque down the street is a sign of the "end of times." The twenty-four hour terror news cycle has changed many Americans' perception of reality. I've seen them in my medical office. Some are too afraid to fly anymore. Others are angry and harbor a number of irrational conspiracy theories that would never have occurred to them prior to 9-11. On both individual and collective levels, America's PTSD is very real. It has reached the point where it is beyond socio-political remediation. It has, in my opinion, become an urgent medical problem—one that is only compounded by the wholesale pharmaceutical anesthetization of unhappy minds.
This brings us to the "chronic maintaining factor" that I alluded to earlier. That factor is suppression (4). Suppression is a poorly understood phenomenon mainly because it is a taboo subject in conventional scientific and medical circles. It is, however, of great interest to persons of a holistic mindset. Whereas acute fear is usually an episodic phenomenon, symptom suppression is an ongoing influence that both produces and maintains a great deal of chronic illness, especially psychiatric illness.
Allow me to explain. The conventional medical approach to illness is a simplistic one that blindly sets out to arrest or extinguish symptoms without regard for the longer-term consequences. We are encouraged, for example, to take painkillers for headaches, antihistamines to thwart allergy symptoms, antipyretics to lower fevers, and anti-inflammatory medications to combat arthritis, even though such measures may ultimately diminish long-term health. As long as short-term symptomatic relief is achieved, physicians are able to insulate themselves from the medical fallout that the suppression of symptoms creates. And the general public usually follows suit, rarely realizing the connection between suppressive drugs and subsequent medical conditions that may arise. When new symptoms do occur, they are either downplayed as unavoidable side-effects or simply assumed to be unrelated problems that have no connection to prior medical conditions or prior medical treatments. Thus, they become nothing more than opportunities for further medical treatment. It's a great way of creating a revolving door of repeat customers.
From a holistic perspective, all of a person's symptoms, health problems, and medical history are understood from the outset to be inextricably connected, because they are, after all, happening to, or have happened to, the same individual. A symptom is not just a random occurrence; it has a purpose that we sometimes understand, like a fever generated by the immune system to combat a viral illness. Although we have limited knowledge of the true role that many symptoms play, they are all produced by a life force that acts in its best interests to maintain homeostasis and to restore health to the human organism.
The self-healing capacity of the mind-body far exceeds the limited abilities of conventional medical treatments to do the same. That is why most people recover, with or without treatment, from the vast majority of acute illnesses like colds, flus, other viral illnesses, coughs, cuts, bruises, headaches, and so on. Holistic medicine acknowledges this self-healing capacity and seeks to maximize its effectiveness, in lieu of symptom suppression. It endeavors to work in synchrony with the life force by methods that do not interfere with the natural healing process. Of course, sometimes suppressive measures are necessary, like when a person in an asthmatic crisis can't breathe. Thankfully, conventional medical treatment can open airways. However, it does not have the ability to heal a person's asthma. Its only options are to suppress it or maintain it in a manageable state on a prolonged basis.
Holistic medicine also recognizes a fundamental and obvious truth that conventional medicine purposely goes out of its way to ignore—and that is the powerful relationship that exists between mind and body. Any drug or surgical intervention aimed at the physical body, by definition, also impacts the mental-emotional plane by virtue of the fact that mind, body, and spirit constitute one seamless whole. To believe that this is not true is to embrace the mistaken metaphysical beliefs that define the materialist scientific worldview and, by extension, the conventional medical perspective.
In Part 2 of this installment, I will discuss in greater detail how the suppressive measures employed by conventional medicine have contributed to an explosion of mental illness in our rapidly deteriorating culture.
To read Part 2, please click on the link provided below: