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Crisis or Crisis Mongering?

Agreements and disagreements about the rising tide of emotional pain.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Why I Don’t Believe Reports of a Mental Health Crisis by Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D.

In a series of recent blogs, I have written about what I have come to call the college student mental health crisis (CSMHC; see here, here, and here). Importantly, not everyone agrees with this analysis. For example, fellow PT Blogger (Your Neurochemical Self) Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning is a skeptic. From her perspective, my analysis of the CSMHC is an example of “crisis-mongering”, which she believes just adds to the problem. (See also here).

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Dr. Breuning believes that the documented increases in “emotional pain” are the consequence of a “combination of rising expectations and the substitution of mental health professionals for other emotional self-regulation tools.” This is an interesting analysis, and I believe there is much potential validity to it. I definitely agree that rising expectations coupled with poor coping skills are probably a good way to frame key aspects of the problem. I would add that poor understanding of our emotions and human character in general, along with the peddling of the Disease-Pill model of mental health by the psychopharm industry should be added to this analysis. It is for these reasons that I am arguing for a broad, societal approach that emphasizes education about human psychology designed to foster resilience and enhance more adaptive living.

It seems, then, that there is much that I might find in agreement with Dr. Breuning. However, the rest of her analysis is so specious that I must separate myself strongly from it. Here are just some of the positions that she EXPLICITLY argues for:

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I, and everyone else who has pointed out the dramatic rise in suicidal behavior, stress, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and problematic substance use over the past three decades are crisis mongers who generate such statistics in the effort to bolster our quest for money. (Full disclaimer…I am indeed beginning to look for grant monies to study this problem; however, if you think this validates her argument, you need to go back and take Logic 101).

Service providers like me do not believe in the “personal power” of everyday individuals. Instead, we see everyone as a victim, and we teach folks to focus on blaming the system, which unfortunately enhances an adolescent sense of powerlessness.

If, as a mental health service provider, I did not embrace the “victim theory” of mental illness, then I would be “shunned and excommunicated” from my profession.

Mental health services like psychotherapy inhibit the natural process of learning via consequences.

The approach of all mental health professionals is to promote the idea that doing what feels good will solve everything.

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These claims are so out of touch with the general philosophy, training, and approach to professional psychology that I will not waste readers’ time disputing them. If anyone seriously thinks these claims have validity, espeically applied to professional psychology, I would like to hear from them. It is worth noting that Dr. Breuning is described on her blog site as a “Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management”. Although her professional background does not, ipso facto, provide evidence that she is misguided, I am nevertheless inclined to interpret her claims as stemming from a profound ignorance about the nature of professional psychology and leave it at that.

Let’s end on a positive note, however. Putting aside the specious claims noted above, I believe she does offer a potentially powerful analysis about this issue. Rising expectations and naïve and unrealistic notions of happiness, coupled with ignorance about the nature of the human condition, poor knowledge about human character and emotion, and poorly developed resiliency skills are, in my professional opinion, very likely to be at the heart of the dramatically increasing rates of “emotional pain”, to use Dr. Breuning's term. (See my analysis of the possible causes of the documented mental health problems). And I completely agree that people are not passive victims of the current situation, nor should everyone run out and get therapy.

But these points do not, in any way, make the “crisis” less real--they in fact do absolutely nothing to “invalidate” all the data pointing to increasing mental health problems. Thus, I stand strongly by the claim that there are serious mental health problems facing this generation. That said, taking Dr. Breuning's concerns about "crisis goggles" and fear mongering seriously, I would certainly be open to discussions about the most useful framing of the rising tide of emotional pain/distress. For example, perhaps we should call it a "problem" rather than a crisis. But that seems to be another discussion. 

Ultimately, Dr. Breuning’s substantive arguments point to the fact that we need a broad-based, interdisciplinary educational movement that fosters insight about the current situation and gives folks realistic ideas about their lives and natures and the most effective tools that enhance emotional self-regulation. And that solution sounds just about right to me.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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