Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Anxiety Industry

How on earth did we ever survive as a species for thousands upon thousands of years without the masses of psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors that we have today? How did humans ever deal with the stress, tension, grief, and depression that they must have felt while living under feudal rule or dying in droves with the plague or fighting in brutal, bloody wars? Surely the problems and difficulties they faced were far greater than any faced by us today. And yet they dealt with it themselves, comforted only by their families, communities and, gasp, their belief in God

Today, we look to the state and a bevy of university trained empathic strangers to help ease our woes.

Some may see this as a good thing - a sign that our society has evolved - an indication that we now have more compassion and take greater responsibility for each other’s well being. But do we, really? Or is it a sign that we are less caring as individuals, less capable of dealing with life’s problems and more willing to allow impersonal state licensed professionals solve our problems for us?

Witness a shooting and the state will have a trauma counselor at your door. Lose a loved one and a grief counselor will appear as out of nowhere. Get fired and “poof” an employment counselor is there to help you through this difficult time. Do you have problems with your spouse? Well, go see a marriage counselor. And if that doesn't work, and your spouse leaves you, don't worry. There are thousands of divorce counselors out there to help you.

Are you too fat? Too skinny? Too old and wrinkled? Got pimples? A weakness for booze, drugs, fatty foods? Are you too angry, too mellow, too hostile, too lazy, too active, too rude, too talkative, too shy or too inattentive? Are you having trouble sleeping? Do you lack self esteem? Do you fear open spaces, crowded spaces, the green fuzzy stuff growing on the jello in the back of your fridge? Are you sexually attracted to it? Don't worry, right now there are therapists out there who specialize in your particular disorder. They've got a name for it and a cure for what ails you.

But, do these so-called experts really do any good? Unfortunately, it is nigh on impossible to tell.

Privacy and confidentiality issues prevent these professionals from revealing anything about their clients. In addition, there is no independent mechanism in place in our society to tell what percentage of the people treated resume normal lives or how many continue to have problems after receiving therapy. Most alarmingly, we don't know how many of these people actually get worse as a result of their treatments.

So, the question is – why do we trust these anxiety industry workers when we have no quantifiable proof that they are at all successful at what they do? Oh sure, there's anecdotal evidence. The movie star on Oprah gushing over how her psychiatrist saved her life; or the ubiquitous celebrity advice givers, like Dear Abby, continually telling people to go for counseling. But is this really proof that it works? And even if it does work to some extent, is it really worth giving up your personal emotional atononomy to the care of a total stranger?

When a tragedy occurs at a school – a shooting for example – affected students are provided with mandatory counseling. Now, maybe I’m a bit old fashioned or maybe I just suffer from some psychological disorder that makes me wary of strangers getting inside the heads of my children but, shouldn’t it be my job to comfort my children? Shouldn’t I be the one who hugs them and explains to them that life isn’t fair and sometimes bad things happen to good people? Why do we need state appointed outsiders to perform this simple parental task?

Is it because we are becoming soft, sensitive, emotional weaklings, gazing endlessly at our navels, unable to deal with our own life problems without outside intervention? Are we just too darn comfortable in the life we have created here in the 21st century? It is almost as if we expect life to always be easy. And when it is not, we fold like a soiled bedspread and cry out for the help of strangers. Well, life is not supposed to be easy. Acknowledging this simple reality is a good first step towards being able to deal with your problems yourself.

Sometimes I wonder: which came first, the chicken or the egg. Did the anxiety industry grow in response to a legitimate, widespread need for its services; or did it grow of its own volition until, eventually, it became so large and influential that it was able to convince us that we couldn't live without it? Maybe it was a bit of both.

Whatever the case, the anxiety industry is here to stay. And thank god for that. How could we poor helpless humans ever live without it?


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