Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Downside of a Bipolar Decade

Start with a confession: In nearly 90 years, I have found psychiatry a mixed blessing at best. “Treatment” for myself and those I love has usually led to disappointment and at times alarming damage to our lives.

In only one instance have I seen a casebook recovery through therapy and medication, and even that, I suspect, was an inflation of garden-variety resistance to growing up to depressive illness.

My prejudices aside, what can a fair-minded person make of a 40-fold increase in the diagnosis (and misdiagnosis) of Bipolar Disorder in American children over the decade following the social trauma of 9/11/2001?

First is the self-interest of mental-health professionals and the advertising power of their partners, the pharmaceutical industry with interminable TV ads for concoctions that guarantee happiness, followed by a speed-reading of terrible possible side effects.

Then broaden the lens to a view of the culture at large. As a Netflix generation migrates to an in-the-know appreciation of the worst in human nature (pace Breaking Bad” and the overwrought portrayal of Carrie Mathison in “Homeland”), an unearned cynicism replaces the dumb-but-happy dopiness of pre-World War II Hollywood. (When today’s movies revert to that happy-endingism as in Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips,” web sites rush to debunk them.)

From the far end of life, all this seems such a waste: a pill-propped antidote to facing and dealing with the anxieties, ambivalence and ambiguities that always have and undoubtedly always will challenge sentient human beings.   

If I am sour about psychiatry as a profession, my life has been enriched by its most gifted practitioners as writers.

In the 1960s, the psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm was preoccupied with what he called "The Myth of Care." Amid social upheaval and rage about Vietnam, the author of "The Art of Loving" and "The Sane Society" kept searching newspapers and TV screens for images of people reaching out, helping and comforting one another. His thesis was that such impulses are deeply ingrained in all humans and waiting to come to the surface when circumstances call them up, that they are their true feelings below a surface of selfish discord.

In next decade, Willard Gaylin wrote a book titled “Caring,” in which he made the case that ”Civilization is, at least in part, a form of crystallized love.” Dr. Gaylin’s persuasive argument was that “Man survives because it is his nature to care. Man survives because he cares and is cared for.”

We need such wisdom now in our lives rather than peace of mind that can be bought at a pharmacy.

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