Hard Talk

Is psychiatry coddling the American mind?


 

A trainee recently observed that psychiatrists frequently seem motivated to protect patients from emotional and internal disruption. He suggested that we often did so by validating their maladaptive perspectives regarding their impaired relationships to society and close attachments. These maneuvers were justified by referring to the need to establish a therapeutic alliance and reduce patients’ suffering.

Dr. David Lehman, associate professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego

Dr. David Lehman

As an example, he mentioned a patient with alcohol use disorder. The patient came in with complaints that he could not stay sober with his current level of depression. The patient also complained of a family member who was setting limits. To the trainee’s surprise, the patient was not challenged on his perceived victimhood and his fantasy that a sober life should mean a life without negative effect. Instead, the patient was validated in his anger toward the family member. In addition, his medications were adjusted, seemingly confirming to the patient that one could only ask for sobriety once life is empty of pain.

The observation of the trainee reminded us of the three great “untruths” mentioned by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, PhD, in their famous book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”1 In the book they warn against the idea of fragility – what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; emotional reasoning – always trust your feelings; and us-versus-them thinking – life is a battle between good people and evil people. The authors compare these three great untruths with the cognitive distortions of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

We ponder the trainee’s observation that psychiatrists appear to encourage the untruths rather than challenge them. Part of psychiatric and all medical training involves learning nonjudgmental approaches to human suffering and an identification with individual needs over societal demands. Our suspicion is that a nonjudgmental approach to the understanding of the human condition generates a desire to protect patients from a moralistic shaming position. However, we wonder if, at times, psychiatry takes this approach too far.

Reconceptualizing shame

Shame can be a toxic presence in the overwhelmed superego of a patient, but it can serve an important role in psychic development and should not be avoided out of hand. We suggest that it can be appropriate for a patient with an alcohol use disorder to feel some shame for the harm caused by their drinking, and we question the limit of psychiatry’s current pursuit of incessant validation. As an extreme example, would modern psychiatry discourage a patient who killed someone while driving in an intoxicated state from feeling remorse and shame?

Modern psychiatry appears to have other examples of the three great untruths on display. In our work, we are often faced with patients who are prematurely placed on disability, an example of fragility. Instead of encouraging patients to return to the workforce, they are “protected” from the emotional difficulty of work. In many patients this results in a decline in functioning and worsening of psychiatric symptoms. We are also confronted with patients who define themselves by how they feel, an example of emotional reasoning. Instead of using our clinical judgments to define and assess symptoms, patients are left to decide for themselves through self-rated scales with questionable validity.2 This can result in patients having their emotional experiences not only validated when inappropriate but can also give emotional reasoning a false sense of medical legitimacy.

Finally, we commonly see patients who endlessly blame family members and others for any life difficulties, a form of us-versus-them thinking. Instead of acknowledging and then integrating life challenges to achieve recovery, patients are affirmed despite clinicians having little evidence on the veracity of the patients’ perspective. As a consequence, patients can be further isolated from their greatest source of support.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

In some ways, a mindlessly validating approach in psychiatry is unexpected since the practice of psychiatry would seem to promote the development of strong attachments and resilience. After all, connections to family, employment, social institutions, and even religious worship are associated with vastly better outcomes. Those who have become alienated to these pillars of social cohesion fare much worse. One may deplore the static and at times oppressive nature of these institutions but the empirical experience of practicing psychiatry leads one to a healthy respect for the stabilizing influence they accord for individuals struggling with life’s vicissitudes, unpredictability, and loneliness. Overcoming the fear of responsibility, living up to the demands and expectations of society, and having the strength to overcome difficult emotions should be the standard goals of psychiatric treatment.

From the knowledge gained from working with patients struggling from psychic pain, we wonder how to encourage patients to pursue those adaptive approaches to life. We argue that a stoic emphasis on learning to manage one’s affective and mental response to the inevitable changes of life is key to achieving wisdom and stability in our humble lives. This perspective is a common denominator of multiple different psychotherapies. The goal is to provide patients with the ability to be in a place where they are engaged with the world in a meaningful way that is not overwhelmed by distorted, self-absorbed psychic anguish. This perspective discourages externalization as a relatively low-yield way to understand and overcome one’s problems. One identifies childhood experiences with one’s mother as a source of adult distress not for the purpose of blaming her, but for the purpose of recognizing one’s own childish motivations for making maladaptive decisions as an adult.

For many patients, the goal should be to emphasize an internal locus of control and responsibility. We should also avoid constantly relying on society and government’s role in helping the individual achieve a satisfactory life. We wonder if this endless pursuit of nonjudgment and validation corrupts the doctor-patient interaction. In other words, focusing on medical diagnoses and psychopharmacology may be a counter therapeutic maneuver that compromises a patient’s sense of autonomy and individual responsibility for their own psychic development. Psychotherapy that ends with the patient being able to identify all the traumas that led to their sorrow has simply left the patient in the role of helpless and sorrowful victim. Instead, we should allow patients to proceed to the next step, which is empowerment and transformation. From this angle, the field of psychiatry should be cautious of encouraging movements that promote victimhood and grievance as a meaningful psychic position to take in society.

Mr. Lukianoff and Dr. Haidt use cognitive therapy as an analogy throughout their books for how to confront the great untruths. They perceive those modern forms of thinking as cognitive distortions, which can be remedied using the techniques of cognitive restructuring found in cognitive-behavioral therapy. They encourage us to recognize those maladaptive thoughts, and create more accurate and adaptive ways of viewing the world – a view that would be able to grow from challenges not just survive them; a view referred to as antifragile.3 We believe that those techniques and others would certainly be of assistance in our current times. However, the first step is to recognize our problem – a problem that is not rooted in the DSM, research, or biology but in an exaggerated intention to be patient centered. We should, however, remember that, when a patient has negative schemas, being too patient centered can be encouraging to maladaptive behaviors.

In conclusion, we wonder what modern psychiatry could look like if it made a concerted effort at also treating mental illness by reinforcing the importance of individual agency and responsibility. Modern psychiatry has been so focused on describing biological symptoms needing biological treatments that we sometimes forget that having no symptom (being asymptomatic) is not the only goal. Having a fulfilling and meaningful life, which is resilient to future symptoms is just as important to patients. We seem to have entrenched ourselves so deeply in an overly basic approach of problem-solution and diagnosis-treatment paradigm. However, we don’t need to renege on modern advances to promote the patient’s strength, adaptability, and antifragility. An emphasis on patient growth can complement the medical model. We wonder what effect such an approach would have if the trainee’s patient with alcohol use disorder was instead told: “Given the suffering you have and have caused because of your alcohol use disorder, how do you plan to make changes in your life to help the treatment plan we create together?”

Dr. Lehman is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He is codirector of all acute and intensive psychiatric treatment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego, where he practices clinical psychiatry. He also is the course director for the UCSD third-year medical student psychiatry clerkship. Dr. Badre is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in San Diego. He holds teaching positions at UCSD and the University of San Diego. Dr. Badre can be reached at his website, BadreMD.com.

References

1. Lukianoff G, Haidt J. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

2. Levis B et al. J Clin Epidemiol. 2020 Jun;122:115-128.e1.,

3. Taleb NN. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Vol. 3. New York: Random House, 2012.

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