Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Psychology and Politics: Can Therapy Heal Britain's "Broken Society" ?

Could psychotherapy save England?

David Cameron, Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader of the U.K., spoke recently at a youth center about the horrifying outbreak of violent rioting, looting and lawlessness in London and other parts of England during the past few weeks. What he said was astonishing. Astonishing, for me, because the way he addressed this destructive eruption of rage, this ugly expression of our globally spreading anger epidemic (see my prior posts), these revolting evil deeds, sounded more like a psychologist than politician. Mr. Cameron's lay analysis of the situation evidently led him to conclude that, while multidetermined, one of the fundamental underlying causes of this unprecedented and widespread vandalism--which he claims was not really about race, poverty, police shootings, recession, rising unemployment or government austerity measures, etc.--has to do with the insidious breakdown of the British family.

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According to Mr. Cameron, many of the looters and rioters come from broken families, and were raised by single mothers without fathers in their homes. He explicitly recognized and acknowledged that these rioters were alienated, angry and raging individuals, who, in his opinion, had never been properly morally educated, exhibited impaired impulse control, and therefore, behaved badly. Indeed, the Prime Minister defined the problem primarily as one of irresponsible, bad "behavior," while duly noting that these rioters, like all of us, are part of a social system gone awry, what Cameron dramatically calls a "broken society." And what will be one of Mr. Cameron's main and immediate political policies enacted to fix or heal Britain's "broken society"? Psychotherapy. Cameron stunningly stated that there are currently at least 120,000 severely dysfunctional families in the U.K. (I am not sure where he got this statistic, nor the criteria on which it was based, but suspect it could actually be a conservative estimate.) He added  that the government's social workers and various public health agencies are completely overwhelmed dealing with the myriad and ubiquitous problems created by these families rather than targeting and treating the underlying or "deeper" causal issues themselves. Combatting the regenerating heads of the mythical Hydra rather than attacking it at its heart. Which is precisely what Mr. Cameron quite forcefully, passionately and convincingly proposes must start happening. Now. But how?

Cameron has been criticized and taken considerable heat for allegedly trying to make political hay around these riots, accused of being insensitive to the plight of the poor and not accepting sufficient political responsibility for what is not working in Britain. Like the United States, the U.K. is experiencing serious economic crisis and social upheaval. And, apparently, like the American people, the British, especially the poor and underprivileged, have been suffering, frustrated and angry about what's going on in their country and culture. In Norway, also just weeks ago, one young man, Anders Breivik, (who was himself estranged from his father and raised by his mother) violently acted out some of the collective anger and resentment of his society (see my prior post), as have so many mass killers here in America and, increasingly, around the world. (See my prior posts.) Such socially-related violence seems inevitable. Given the dismal state of the  U.S. economy and the financial hardships not only of the poor but the once comfortable middle-class, it is a wonder we haven't yet seen more of this sort of violent social protestation here. People are angry, very angry, yet stoic. Especially the Brits, with their famous "stiff upper lip" philosophy. But there's only so much injustice, oppression, frustration and economic distress citizens are willing to swallow. Especially without some specific goal, meaning or purpose. (During World War Two, citizens, especially in London, endured much greater sacrifices, but had good reason for willingly doing so in the name of national defense.)  So it may well be that British society is slowly beginning to break down under such constant pressure, as Cameron suggests.

While Prime Minister Cameron almost certainly oversimplifies the situation, he put his finger on something vitally important: We must, as a society, get to the deeper roots of our anger and rage. (See my prior post on "Anger Disorders.") These roots undoubtedly extend far beyond family dysfunction, and include existential factors like frustration in seeking meaning, purpose, significance, security, recognition, power, dignity, self-expression, freedom, etc. But the "family crucible" is a great place to start. Every nuclear family is a self-contained, delicately balanced psychological ecosystem. A change in one family member affects the equilibirum or homeostasis of that living system. And a change in the system affects the individual. For better or worse. The pioneers of family therapy--Murray Bowen, Virginia Satir (pictured here), Jay Haley, Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, et al.--discovered that in dysfunctional family systems, a particular, susceptible individual will act-out the family's problems, tend to be scapegoated by other family members, and unconsciously take on or be forced into the pathological role of the "identified patient" or IP. The IP's, often children or teens with behavioral and academic problems or psychologically troubled adults, are typically the ones presented to mental health professionals for treatment. But savvy clinicians, especially those acquainted with and trained in systems theory, understand that in order to successfully treat such identified patients, sometimes the whole family--or, in other cases, at least the spouse--must participate, either in conjoint (group) sessions or individual psychotherapy.

Whatever the later personal or societal sources of anger or rage may be for the adolescent or young adult, traumatic experiences such as divorce, domestic violence, abandonment and child abuse occurring within the family system set the stage from a very early age. The family is not only the transmitter of social values to the next generation. It is the sacred container wherein the psychological well-being of each new adult generation is significantly determined. Difficulties within the dysfunctional family frequently include overt or covert parental aggression against children, which ultimately begets further aggression and abuses against society. Because we unconsciously or automatically tend to parent children in ways similar to how we ourselves were parented, abused children often grow up to be abusive adults and parents themselves. Chronic childhood mistreatment or neglect creates a pathological generation comprised of the "walking wounded" : psychologically crippled, angry, resentful, bitter adolescents and young adults who, while ostensibly functional, can be wickedly cruel to others, antisocial, oppositional, as well as self-destructive. This vicious cycle must be stopped. Anger or rage are natural and normal emotional responses to physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment or rejection by either or both parents. Such hurtful, traumatizing and infuriating treatment of children commonly occurs in families in which substance abuse, depression, anxiety, sociopathy, pathological narcissism and other mental disorders are present in parents. By the time such narcissistically injured children reach adolescence, they are already angry, especially with authority figures, and, therefore, more prone to rage and violent behavior under stress. They are ticking time-bombs, walking tinderboxes, ready to explode or implode at any moment. And society today, both here and in Great Britain, is rife with such wounded, angry and embittered people, products of severely dysfunctional family systems. (See my prior post on Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder.) So any public program designed to deal more productively with severely dysfunctional families will have to begin by addressing this festering anger, rage, resentment and embitterment more directly and constructively.

In my professional opinion,  Prime Minister Cameron could do much worse than focusing his efforts and considerable resources on helping such dysfunctional families. But to do so, to truly root out the underlying issues in these distressed and frequently chaotic families, will take far more than conjoint family therapy sessions. It will require regular referrals for individual psychotherapy rather than mere medication, something that, here in this country as well as in Great Britain, has over the past decade become more and more scarce and increasingly superficial. What Cameron is calling for is not more of the same symptomatic treatment, but real in-depth therapy that can get at and significantly impact the core issues. Indeed, such a bold and psychologically sophisticated public policy supporting and empowering the use of psychotherapy specifically to heal social ills could simultaneously serve to resuscitate and revive the struggling field of psychotherapy itself, which has been in rapid decline, devalued and all but replaced by the popularity of psychiatric drug therapy. (See my prior post.) Hopefully, this sort of revolutionary and  progressive political agenda would make mental health care, especially psychotherapy for families, couples and individuals, the desperately needed priority it must become if we are to move toward ameliorating our rage epidemic and mending our "broken society." Are you paying attention, President Obama?

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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