We've all heard the expression, "The cure is worse than the disease." Well, what happens when the "cure" promotes the disease?
After the 9/11 terror attacks, for instance, the grief industry lobbied for millions of dollars in federal funds, insisting that up to 2 million New Yorkers would need professional help to overcome the trauma. Despite free services being widely advertised (and offered to people who were "traumatized" by merely watching the events on television), there was no significant increase in the number of people seeking psychological help after the twin towers fell.
In fact, the most notable effect of the terrorist attacks in the immediate aftermath was not a psychically damaged city but a unified, giving, caring and defiant one.
In "One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance," Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "The War Against Boys," and Sally Satel, author of "P.C., M.D." take on the notion that human beings are fragile and can't get through any "traumatic" experience without professional help.
The sight of "grief counselors" flocking to the site of a publicized tragedy like vultures to a carcass has become ubiquitous these days and now taken for granted.
But new studies have examined this recent phenomenon, Sommers and Satel note, and the results offer evidence to challenge the basic premise of such programs: that the rehashing of the event with a barely trained counselor can prevent long-term psychic damage caused by a gruesome event.
In the opening chapters, Sommers and Satel outline how we came to the point where the assumptions of the grief industry were accepted as fact. Pointing out that if you take just the bestselling pop-psychology books of recent decades, living in this society is an inherently traumatic event for everyone from young boys and blue collar men to adolescent girls and middle-aged women. The authors estimate that fully 77 percent of Americans fall into one category or another that has been called "in crisis."
The early chapters of the book explore the myth of the fragile child, the overemphasis on self-esteem in therapy and ascribing bad behavior to psychological causes, as well as the effects these beliefs have on such institutions as schools and the courts. This territory has been covered better before - not the least by Sommers and Satel themselves.
The book makes its mark in a dynamite second half, as the authors examine "emotional correctness," the notion that grief must be open, examined and shared in order to be valid - and everyone must follow that formula to avoid long-term damage. Sommers and Satel document the harm this has done to people who consider this process tortuous and propose the common sense - but out-of-style - idea that it's healthy for people to deal with grief in their own way.
Emotional correctness began to be forced on people with the post-traumatic stress disorder movement in the 1960s and '70s. Like any condition with a constituency, it was oversold, but not only by those who had a financial interest - it had the additional support from anti-war groups looking for another arrow in their quiver.
After proposing that most Vietnam veterans had PTSD and needed counseling, the reasoning evolved that if war traumatized all adult participants, tragedy certainly must damage children. This then morphed into the notion that everyone's fragile psyches not only could benefit from outside professional help after nearly any tragic circumstance, but also that counseling is imperative.
A generation earlier, however, psychiatrists had studied children after London's Blitz during World War II and concluded they were resilient enough to recover largely on their own with time.
Sommers and Satel touch on another problem several times in the book - that of pseudo-professionals possibly making things worse for people with real problems. These people, armed with faith that self-obsession is the way to mental health, confidently do everything from grief to marriage counseling, encouraging the kind of navel-gazing that real psychologists discourage.
Again, the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks provides the best example of how this has run amok. Actual psychologists and psychiatrists were turned away from helping in New York City because they weren't certified by the International Critical Stress Foundation - which requires only a high school diploma for its counseling certification course.
While the authors' warnings should be taken seriously, the alarmist subtitle of "One Nation Under Therapy" may have the wrong verb tense. After all, if people's self-reliance actually were being eroded by the cult of the fragile psyche, the post-9/11 therapeutic efforts would not have been such a flop.
The draining of public coffers, however, is quite another story.