We’re all familiar with what happens at schools whenever there is trauma _ a suicide, a shooting, a natural disaster, the death of a classmate in a car accident. Within hours, trained grief counselors inevitably descend on the schoolchildren, urging them to delve deep into the tragedy and share their feelings about it.
Whenever I see news reports of these things, my response is always the same: that’s silly. For starters, how on earth are these counselors, who typically don’t know these kids from Adam, possibly going to help the children think rightly about what happened, and how they should approach it? (For one thing, they can’t even mention the “G” word _ God.)
Perhaps worse, are the kids who really weren’t that close to the tragedy going to start thinking they should be traumatized? That somehow the loss of a classmate they didn’t even know is all about “them”? Maybe instead of thinking about themselves, they should be thinking about, say, the family members of the lost child and how they can do something concrete for them like providing meals or babysitting for younger family members.
But that’s not the message of the trauma counselors. Their message is: “This is all about you and you are fragile _ you might not be able to handle this.” In fact, according to the authors of the bold new book, “One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance” (St. Martin’s Press), that’s the message of “therapism” in general. In their daring and excellently written (and often quite amusing) work, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel describe, well, a nation at risk from an overly therapeutic culture.
Sommers is the author of previous sacred-cow-tipping books, including “The War Against Boys” and “Who Stole Feminism?” Satel, a practicing psychiatrist, wrote “P.C., M.D.: How Political Correctness is Corrupting Medicine.”
In this new book, they go after a nation increasingly devoted, it seems, to the weakness in the human spirit.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than when it comes to kids. The authors recount, for instance, that in 2001 the Girl Scouts introduced a “Stress Less Badge” for girls ages 8-11. “They can earn the award by practicing ‘focused breathing,’ creating a personal ‘stress less kit,’ or keeping a ‘feelings diary.’ ”
Good grief. What if our ancestors had been told to keep busy keeping a “feelings diary”? They might have never gotten around to, oh, say, taming the West. As far as I know, no one told my mother to keep a feelings diary about her childhood during the Great Depression, and my father’s letters home as a teenage soldier during World War II are filled with accounts of his activities, not his feelings about them. Nor did anybody later try to convince either of them that they were victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
They coped _ and they both seemed to survive just fine.
Today, it seems no one, especially kids, are supposed to “cope.” The authors look at how schools are doing everything from banning dodgeball at recess to lessening competition and increasing self-esteem in the classroom to “de-stress kids.”
Do they really need it? In contrast, the authors look at the effect on children of the nightly bombing of Britain in the early days of World War II. Psychologists, including Anna Freud, daughter of the famous Sigmund, personally observed that the children managed quite well. In fact, it was those separated from their parents and sent to the countryside away from the bombings who showed the greatest agitation.
The point of “One Nation Under Therapy” is not that certain kinds of therapy and medications are not helpful. They certainly can be. The authors’ point is that we now ask mental-health experts to do for us what we once looked to the human spirit to accomplish. And this hasn’t been a great swap. For one thing, we now often lose the chance to face adversity head-on _ and really triumph over it.
So, in the chapter on “September 11, 2001: The Mental Health Crisis that Wasn’t” _ which looks at the effects, from unnecessary to downright negative, of “over-medicalizing” the tragedy _ they write that “… the ethos of therapism (is) pathologizing normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are very fragile beings, and urging grand emotional displays as the prescription for coping.”
The authors remind us of what British historian Paul Johnson calls the spirit of the American Creed. “… the Americans, are, above all, a problem-solving people. They do not believe that anything in this world is beyond human capacity to soar to and dominate. They will not give up.”
Sommers and Satel don’t call for an end to therapy. They offer a much-needed call for a rediscovery of the human spirit.
(Betsy Hart is the author of the forthcoming “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _ and What to Do About It.” E-mail her at letterstohart(at)comcast.net.)