At the least, it’s good for business. For the therapy business, that is. As America, Great Britain and other nations have gotten themselves mired in what Frank Furedi called a “therapy culture” everyone’s problems have become medicalized. And we pretend that science can solve all problems and that we need to worship at the altar of the goddess Athena.
Instead of facing problems or trying to solve dilemmas, we rush off to therapy and try to get in touch with our feelings. Since the activity can only aggravate one’s problems, the therapy culture will prescribe… more therapy. Can't anyone recognize a racket when they see it?
People, especially college students have not been encouraged to work on their problems. They have not been offered help in adjusting to new social conditions. They have been taught to see themselves as potential or actual therapy patients. They have been traumatized; they are vulnerable; they are victims; they need to be coddled; they need to receive mucho empathy; they need to get in touch with their feelings; they need therapy. If not therapy, certainly they need medication.
Strangely enough, for all the progress that we have made in the medical treatment of depression, especially with SSRIs, young people, in particular, seem to be drowning in emotional distress.
In a recent article for The American Interest, Furedi describes how the therapy culture has invaded universities:
Since the 1960s, universities have been in the forefront of promoting theories and practices that encourage people to interpret their anxieties, distress, and disappointment through the language of psychological deficits. Until recently, however, how students and faculty coped with their existential problems remained a personal matter. Today, the therapeutic outlook pervades campus culture so thoroughly that it influences how courses are taught, which topics are discussed, and how verbal exchanges are regulated. Teaching, some educators believe, can be trauma inducing, and so they have adopted an explicit “trauma-informed perspective.”
This has happened, Furedi continues, because our traditional values have broken down. The customs and rituals that informed our culture have been discredited and discarded. In their place students are being cast in a guilt narrative where we are divided into oppressors and victims, abusers and trauma victims. See which role suits you best, and act accordingly. Of course, this gives everyone a common meaning, but at the cost of making people less able to deal with life.
Western societies have become ever more uneasy with the values and behavioral codes of the past, and ever more open to alternative ways of giving meaning to human experience. Since the 1960s, the erosion of common webs of meaning, through which communities deal with the uncertainties of existence, has indeed created a demand for a new etiquette.
It isn’t just the thought that counts, Furedi explains. Today’s culture warriors are imposing new customs and behaviors, a new code of etiquette:
The objective of re-socialization through altering the norms that undergraduates grew up with is now actively pursued by universities through the imposition of language codes, rules of conduct, and workshops and campaigns oriented toward discrediting students’ values by “raising awareness” about their supposed defects. If this sounds a little like the “consciousness raising” presumptions of the Sixties, that’s because the “long march through the institutions” is not just a slogan.
In the past people who had social problems. They might have had difficulty adapting to a new community. Now, these have become medical problems. As I said, it’s good for the therapy business. But, since science cannot tell you what you should do, it cannot set your moral bearings.
Once everyday life is interpreted through a medicalized idiom, the meaning of pressure and stress often acquires a pathological dimension. Feelings and emotions that were once considered unexceptional can acquire a more threatening dimension in a medicalized culture. What Lukianoff and Haidt describe as a “greater willingness to seek help” is itself actively promoted as a virtue in a medicalized setting.
The representation of existential problems as medical ones has an important influence on the way individuals perceive their health. The relationship between the medicalized narrative of wellbeing and its impact is a dialectical one, in that it does not simply frame the way people are supposed to feel and behave; it also constitutes an invitation to being “not well.” That is why the sensibility of being “not well” has today become part of many people’s identity.
And yet, medicalizing and psychologizing the problems, pretending that they can be solved through science deracinates people, depriving them of their moral sense and their moral grounding. They turn everyone into a mental health provider or consumer. Once mental illness is the norm, young people in particular will be more likely to conform to the new norm… and will not only recognize their neurosis or narcissism or personality disorders… they will be more likely to contract these disorders.
Would it not be better if students were capable of taking some simple advice? Would it not be better if they were encouraged to deal with the problems and dilemmas that are part of everyday life?
The problem is not the banal exhortation to relax, or to stay focused, which could be acquired for free from any sensible parent, friend, or clergyman. It is the application of a medical label to a very normal condition, and the consequent artificial professionalization of the advice. The unstated corollary of this labeling is the assumption that sitting and preparing for an examination may be harmful to your wellbeing, whatever that term has come to mean.
That the 21st-century version of personhood communicates a narrative that continually raises doubts about people’s emotional capacity to deal with physical and emotional harms. The transformation of distress into a condition of emotional injury has as its premise the belief that people are extremely fragile in the face of the vicissitudes of everyday life.