Extreme Embitterment: The Anger Epidemic Rages Eastward

Even progress has its dark side, its negative shadow.

Posted May 16, 2010

What causes someone to one day go out and brutally kill as many ostensibly random victims as they can? Pedestrians. Diners. Co-workers. Fellow students. Shoppers. Women. Sometimes even little children. Here in America, we've seen this dreadful pattern repeatedly for decades: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, the Omaha mall shootings, Fort Hood, etc. (See my previous posts.) And we've become almost inured to such nasty news at home.

But now, suddenly, there have been six vicious attacks on school children in China over the past sixty days. In the most recent horror, a 48 year-old man with a kitchen cleaver attacked a kindergarten class in Nanzheng county, hacking to death seven children, two adults, and wounding twenty more before committing suicide. The first incident in this shocking outbreak of carnage occurred in March when a 42 year-old male murdered eight elementary school children in southern China. Other assaults included a jobless man infuriated over a series of personal and professional frustrations slaughtering twenty-nine children and three adults at a different kindergarten. Evidently, the epidemic violence so prevalent in the United States and more recently slowly spreading eastward into Europe is now clearly raising its ugly head in countries like China, where such crimes were at one time almost totally unheard of.

China is experiencing an enormous economic boom during recent times. Along with this explosive growth and financial success come far more societal complexity and stress, as we westerners know all too well. Life loses its simplicity, becoming much more demanding, and this can be extremely traumatic not only for individuals, but for a culture as well. Citizens can feel overwhelmed by the radical changes in lifestyle. But while the country surges ahead economically, it lags sorely behind psychologically. In such massive existential crises, mental health suffers. (See my previous post on Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder.)

Clinical psychology barely exists in Chinese culture. Indeed, psychology and psychiatry are misunderstood, frowned upon, distrusted and devalued by the general population. Psychotherapy is a relatively foreign concept. The need for psychiatric treatment is deeply stigmatic. Chinese physicians are, for the most part, poorly trained in mental health matters. Only very recently are there encouraging signs in China of growing interest in western psychology and psychotherapy. If there can be said to be any positive side to these shocking tragedies, it would be their forcing the Chinese culture into recognizing the critical importance and collective and individual value of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy. One study published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet last summer stunningly estimated that more than 170 million Chinese suffer from mental disorders of some kind, with more than 90 percent of those afflicted having never received treatment. So far, rather predictably, the official response of the Chinese government has been to beef up security throughout the country. But this is certainly no serious solution to their perilous psychosocial crisis.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that despite the prevalence, popularity and widespread acceptance of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy here in the west, we continue to witness this same epidemic violent behavior with mounting intensity. Contemporary psychopharmacological and psychological treatments fail miserably to prevent or mitigate such mayhem here in the west because they still do not comprehend how to deal effectively with frustration, anger, rage, resentment and embitterment. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that "nothing consumes a man more quickly than the emotion of resentment." Most mental disorders stem either directly from--or secondarily generate--anger, rage, resentment, hostility or bitterness. There is no question that, if left to fester unconsciously, anger, rage and resentment about having been traumatized become bitterness and hostility, which in turn give rise to self-defeating, sometimes passive-aggressive, destructive, vengeful, aggressive or even violent behavior.

Pathological embitterment is a dangerous state of mind that can and does motivate evil deeds like those occurring recently in China and elsewhere. (See my prior posts on anger disorders.) Bitterness, which I define as a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. Bitterness is a kind of morbid characterological hostility toward someone, something or toward life itself, resulting from the consistent repression of anger, rage or resentment regarding how one really has or perceives to have been treated. Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization. Embitterment, like resentment and hostility, results from the long-term mismanagement of annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger or rage.

What precipitates such appalling and destructive outbursts of madness? Most of these recent incidents in China have been attributed to interpersonal conflicts, unemployment, stress and mental illness. The perpetrator of the kindergarten killings, who was apparently embroiled in some financial disagreement with the school, is alleged to have been behaving bizarrely prior to his assault. But can these evil deeds be simplistically blamed on psychosis or stress? Or can mental disorders and evil deeds be the consequence rather than cause of how we mismanage stress, frustration, resentment, anger or rage? And why were these attacks directed against kindergarten children, the most vulnerable victims possible? Perhaps because the perpetrators themselves felt so powerless, helpless, victimized and vulnerable in the face of flux and inevitable change. Were they angrily and childishly lashing out against the new China, symbolized by the newest and next generation?

Frequently the precipitating trigger for these fatal eruptions of madness, of precariously repressed rage, is some stressful life situation or existential crisis in which the ego defenses seem to suddenly breakdown or dissolve, unleashing the formerly contained murderous impulses. Today in China and other Asian nations, we are witnessing what happens especially to psychologically susceptible members of a culture under pressure and in transition. A perfectly polite, well-mannered Malay man, with no prior history of mental illness or violence, "out of the blue" takes up traditional weapons and slaughters five people for no apparent reason. Last year, in eastern Japan, a person was stabbed to death and at least seven others injured by a man who went on a rampage wielding two knives near a shopping mall. Several months earlier, a knife-wielding sixteen-year-old boy assaulted five people in another Japanese shopping area.

In Malay culture, there is a specific term for this at once mystifying, terrifying, fascinating phenomenon: the amok syndrome, in which a person is suddenly, uncharacteristically and almost irresistibly possessed by a blinding, homicidal rage. This "running amok," in which the person more or less indiscriminately attacks and kills others--sometimes subsequently committing suicide--sounds remarkably similar to some of the lethally violent outbursts occurring in America and now other increasingly westernized cultures like China and Japan. Presumably, the affected individual--due to cultural, moral or religious prohibitions--has denied his or her aggression, anger and rage to such a degree as to become dangerously predisposed to destructive possession by the long-dissociated fury. Not unlike the evil, murderous Mr. Hyde hijacking the good and kind Dr. Jekyll.

Synchronistically, prior to the Chinese school massacres, there were reportedly an alarming rash of knife attacks in Japan's schools, the worst occurring in 2001, when a man with a history of mental illness murdered eight children and wounded fifteen teachers and students at an Osaka elementary school. In 2008, Tomohiro Kato, a 25-year-old male factory worker was charged with deliberately ramming pedestrians with a rented truck and then randomly stabbing seventeen bystanders, killing seven, in Tokyo's popular Akihabara district. (See my prior post.) In this case, the killer literally telegraphed his intentions by posting several explicit messages on an internet bulletin board just prior to his attack.

These are the kinds of cases typically seen by forensic psychologists and psychiatrists daily here in the west. Despite the extraordinary drama surrounding them, they have tragically become a routine part of our work. I fear that China, Japan and other rapidly developing cultures are starting to see a scarily similar trend: the destructive madness and evil of so-called senseless violence stemming from chronically unexpressed resentment, anger and rage. The rage epidemic is on the march. Anger disorders are proliferating. Violent acts are becoming more common. Both the American and Chinese governments would do well to heed these ominous signs and symptoms and collectively begin to address the mental health of their embittered citizens. This will require far more than merely providing more psychiatric medication and increased police security. It will require effective psychotherapeutic treatment of anger disorder (see my prior posts) and greater psychological sophistication societally to win this ongoing war with the bitter frustration of change. Even progress has its dark side, its negative shadow.