COPING SKILLS: PART 2, IS UNCIVIL BEHAVIOR A MARKER OF EPIDEMIC MENTAL ILLNESS?
About three years ago, a rash of articles started appearing nationwide asking, essentially, why everyone seemed so angry and depressed. Of course, a variety of psychiatrists were consulted but, tellingly, hardly any philosophers or clergymen. Reasons for our collective angst ran the gamut from "a transient society," "lack of familial ties/support," and "too much to do" to "increased mental illness."
So I suppose it was just a matter of time before one of the justifications given by mental health specialists for screening schoolchildren - and, more recently, the population at large - would be: increasing anger and depression. It mostly starts, say psychiatrists, in childhood, where the first signs of sociopathy, psychosis, and anti-social tendencies can be spotted even by alert nonprofessionals trained to notice the red flags. One of those "red flags" is uncivil behavior - usually by parents. Frequently, these lapses are reported by youngsters themselves, via such comments as "mommy screaming at the telephone" or "daddy yelling at the cars on the road." Of course, such "reports" leave to the imagination whether anybody was actually on the other end of the phone when mommy yelled, or whether daddy was just venting in his own car with the window rolled up and not at other drivers. Since 1935, "behavioral eugenicists" (a branch of psychiatry specializing in eugenic, or hereditary, illnesses and abnormalities) have been warning of rampant mental illness. Dr. Franz J. Kallmann, who came to America in the mid-1930s, after having served under Ernst Rüdin, head of Hitler's "racial hygiene" program, argued in favor of "psychiatric genetics" even after he arrived on American shores to escape the Third Reich's henchmen. He claimed that if something weren't done soon, the number of schizophrenics would outnumber normal individuals.
Amazingly, accolades surrounded his outlandish pronouncements and solutions, even in such publications as the New York Times. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed as Nazi atrocities increasingly came to light after the war, and both "psychiatric genetics" and mass psychiatric screening got a black eye for most of the post-war period.
Until now. The recent prominence in the news of so-called mental health issues like depression, anger and its close cousin, school violence, dovetails with the increasing emphasis on parents in screening instruments disseminated among students, not to mention the new, controversial parent component of the New Freedom Initiative - a nationwide project to screen the entire U.S. population for mental illness and provide a cradle-to-grave continuum of quasi-mandatory therapeutic "services" for those identified as mentally ill or even at risk of becoming so. Under this plan, reported at length by Dr. Dennis L. Cuddy in NewsWithViews, Dr. Karen Effrem through Minnesota's EDWATCH, myself in Chronicles Magazine, as well as by other authors, the school will become the hub of this legislated, psychological screening process. But parents, new mothers, teachers, senior citizens and even pregnant women are prominently included, too. Similar pieces of legislation are being crafted in various states, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Ignoring for the moment the question of whether it is our society here in America, or even those societies throughout the free, industrialized nations, which are spewing forth the lion's share of certifiably berserk people (recent events in Afghanistan and Haiti come to mind), as a former teacher I wonder if the cause of mental "health" might not be better served by building a little context around certain signs-of-the-times that appear to be chipping away at our progressive, collective sanity. Instead of concentrating on heredity and predisposition, maybe we should be focusing our attention on certain critical factors of contemporary life in the industrialized world for which there exist no counterparts in primitive societies.
Whereas in the 1940s, Johnny might have written an essay on whether the pen was indeed "mightier than the sword," today he might write one (assuming, that is, he can write at all) centering on whether human beings were meant to drive on virtual obstacle courses at 55 miles per hour no less than twice per day - "flight-or-fight" response, and all that. Or, instead of having sixth-grade science classes writing snotty letters to President George Bush accusing him of ruining the planet and destroying the environment (that sort of thing was popular after the President refused to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol), we might have them composing polite queries to the Department of Transportation asking whether anyone there had considered conducting a study on the number of accidents over a particular period involving a motor vehicle and a driver attempting to read a road sign that was too small or half hidden from view.
Or, here's an item for debate (assuming youngsters still actually deliberate): Billions of dollars are being spent on rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure. Why isn't a comparable sum being targeted to America's deteriorating utility and transportation networks, especially in the cities and metropolises, where gridlock is pervasive, power lines are some 60 years old and the lights go out every time someone spits on the sidewalk?
Yes, I'm sure there are some people for whom road rage is a way of life, replacing the old gun-slinger of Dodge City vintage who came to town with a chip on his shoulder and itching for a fight. But how many so-called "Road Ragers" are some simply poor saps scared half out of their wits for the fourth time that week or day, having just made another instant life-or-death decision on a thoroughfare strewn with orange barrels and concrete barriers, negotiated a series of undecipherable lane shifts, and dodged a wading-pool-sized pothole along with other equally befuddled drivers?
How many of those kids standing in their dining rooms watching their mothers screaming into telephones or their fathers picking up the pieces of their computer keyboard off the floor have the remotest inkling what life was like when one actually got through to a live human being on the other end of the line the first time around to ask a question, or that the level of complexity in the instructions for installing a spam filter on a computer in no way resembles the relative ease of directions for assembling Junior's new bicycle at Christmas in 1965.
I discovered the other day, for example, that there was actually a way to slow down the rate at which the computer mouse highlights a paragraph. But that information didn't come in any manual, class or "help" icon on my computer. It came in the form of a live human expert sitting down with me - after I had managed, quite inadvertently and maddeningly, without ever hitting the "cut" or "paste" commands, to highlight and move several parts of words, sentences and paragraphs to peculiar new locations within various articles I was penning on my new laptop, with near-disastrous results.
A colleague quipped to me last year in his office: "No wonder they lock and seal the office windows!" Be that as it may, I suppose humans do somehow adapt, over time. Take Bill Gates; he has made billions figuring out how to give intricate, step-by-step instructions to machines to perform the tiniest function. But is he the oddball, or am I? I have no clue. Is the person who somehow maintains his sanity holed up in a windowless room with digitized equipment, which he must instruct for hours on end in mini-bytes to compose the word "c-r-a-z-y," the well-adjusted one, or is the guy who chafes every time he has to "listen to each of the 9 options on your touch-tone phone" the fellow who is nuts?
Is the nitwit who happily careens down the freeway dodging orange barrels, pretending every day he's on a NASCAR course, with rap music turned way up in his vehicle to help get him "in the groove," the rational one? Yes, I know it's supposedly illegal to do that. But maybe this guy actually is saner than my coworker friend in Houston who once told me that, well, she had no longer had a problem driving the freeway: She just took two Valium some 20 minutes beforehand and had at it! (Which, no doubt, is illegal as well).
Issues like these have no equivalent in the non-industrialized world, and they have all come about in an amazingly short period. It occurs to me that human adaptations tend to be taking one of three routes - resistance (i.e., anger, sometimes escalating to violence, at least against inanimate objects), acquiescence (utter passivity, up to and including the use of tranquilizers), or "vegging out" (doing whatever you have to, then forgetting everything - your proverbial "couch potato").
The prominent conservative organizations are no better than their liberal brethren when it comes to topics tangential to issues surrounding these problems; perhaps that is why they have nothing to offer to counter behavioral "scientists" who come up with dangerous ideas like mass mental health screening, a process which, once institutionalized, will inevitably take a precarious political turn, compromising freedom of thought and conscience for everyone. For example, at least two conservative think-tanks here in the Nation's Capitol have determined that funding for public transportation, particularly for subways in major metropolitan areas, is unwarranted. They want the money devoted to roads instead. Their liberal counterparts, on the other hand, are against roads, citing environmental factors, and want everyone forced into public transportation systems.
Both camps are asking the wrong questions. Here's what political activists should be asking:
Are human beings actually built for having the living you-know-what scared out of them at least twice a day, five days a week, for 25 years or more? If not, what can be done about it, other than, or in addition to, building roads and public transportation systems? Might not the Department of Transportation do something really useful, like attaching monetary incentives for states/cities that construct individual street signs large enough for a normal person to read at night without a spotlight attached? Would the cause of traffic surveillance be better served by exchanging speed detectors (and reallocating manpower) to unmarked reckless driving patrols that comb congested freeways in real-time for cars weaving in an out of traffic, tailgating, and cutting off other drivers? If computerized tracking devices can be assigned to the task of hunting down money launderers, white collar criminals and terrorists, might not a similar effort be directed toward apprehending and shutting down spammers and hackers who cost private taxpayers and businesses billions of dollars and countless hours of time by sending viruses, pornography and salacious solicitations? Isn't it time to replace 60-year-old utility infrastructures that no county or municipality can afford, given the mobile nature of today's population which perceives no stake in any particular "neighborhood" per se? Doesn't a national infrastructure improvement program logically coincide with the spirit of the old railroad projects, because they crisscross state lines?"
Moreover, isn't it time for those campaigning for public office to start considering the needs of the backbone of society - the folks who foot most of the bills - instead of tailoring their primary messages, for the most part, to the most negligent and irresponsible elements of society?"
Or is the problem more systemic in nature?
Is it that, to aspire to the level of a serious candidate,
one has to be so wealthy, so out of touch, with mainstream Americans,
as to be capable of hiring, for most of one's lifetime, someone
else to do everything from standing in a grocery line, to picking
up the dry cleaning, to punching all those options on the phone,
to driving your car or limo, to dealing with the idiosyncrasies
of computer upgrades?
© 2004 Beverly Eakman - All Rights
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Beverly Eakman is an Educator, 9 years: 1968-1974, 1979-1981. Specialties: English and Literature.
Science Editor, Technical Writer and Editor-in-Chief of official newspaper, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974-1979. Technical piece, "David, the Bubble Baby," picked up by popular press and turned into a movie starring John Travolta.
Chief speech writer, National Council for Better Education, 1984-1986; for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 1986-1987; for the Voice of America Director, 1987-1989; and for U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald R. Regier, 1991-1993.
Author: 3 books on education and data-trafficking
since 1991, including the internationally acclaimed Cloning
of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education. Executive
Director, National Education Consortium. Website: BeverlyE.com