Is There a Link Between Coercion and Mental Illness?

by William Skink

I came across a very interesting Alternet article titled The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness. Then, from my free-associative Twitter feed, I read another article about the crisis in our detention facility.

Here is a bit from the first link:

Modernity is replete with institutional coercions not present in most indigenous cultures. This is especially true with respect to schooling and employment, which most Americans, according to recent polls, find alienating, disengaging and no fun. As I reported in July, a Gallup poll released in January 2013 reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become, and by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. Critics of schooling from Henry David Thoreau and Paul Goodman to John Holt and John Taylor Gatto have understood that coercive and unengaging schooling is necessary to ensure that young people more readily accept coercive and unengaging employment. As I reported in the same article, a June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have checked out of them.

Unengaging employment and schooling require all kinds of coercions for participation, and human beings pay a psychological price for this. In nearly three decades of clinical practice, I have found that coercion is often the source of suffering.

Here’s one situation I’ve seen hundreds of times. An intelligent child or teenager has been underachieving in standard school, and has begun to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. The child often feels coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which is boring, to do homework that has no value they can see, and to stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating. Depending on the child’s temperament, this coercion results in different outcomes—none of them good.

Some of these kids get depressed and anxious. They worry that their lack of attention and interest will result in dire life consequences. They believe authorities’ admonitions that if they do poorly in school, they will be flipping burgers for the rest of their lives. It is increasingly routine for doctors to medicate these anxious and depressed kids with antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.

Other inattentive kids are unworried. They don’t take seriously either their schooling or admonitions from authorities, and they feel justified in resisting coercion. Their rebellion is routinely labeled by mental health professionals as “acting out,” and they are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Their parents often attempt punishments, which rarely work to break these kids’ resistance. Parents become frustrated and resentful that their child is causing them stress. The child feels this parental frustration and resentment, and often experiences it as parental dislike. And so these kids stop liking their parents, stop caring about their parents’ feelings, and seek peers whom they believe do like them, even if these peers are engaged in criminal behaviors.

And why are we, as a society, so quick to medicate? Money of course. From the same link:

Once, when doctors actually listened at length to their patients about their lives, it was obvious to many of them that coercion played a significant role in their misery. But most physicians, including psychiatrists, have stopped delving into their patients’ lives. In 2011, the New York Times reported, “A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients.” The article points out that psychiatrists can make far more money primarily providing “medication management,” in which they only check symptoms and adjust medication.

So much needs to change if we want to have a healthy, well-adjusted population. The coercion inherent in our late-stage capitalist system produces misery, even among the monetary winners.

Another article has been making the rounds online. It’s about addiction and the role isolation plays. From the link:

If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

So here’s a quick summation: our society is sick, and those who can’t be coerced into adhering to the status quo are isolated. Addiction in our society runs rampant, and we further isolate people by throwing them in jail. Treating the symptoms is pointless if we continue ignoring the core problems.

Will we start addressing these core problems before it’s too late? That remains to be seen.


  1. Turner

    As the smarter kids in my high school went on to prestigious colleges to pursue money-making careers, I worked in a factory for a year while attending a JC part-time.

    Bored with the factory work, I went on to a four-year school, graduated in six years, and drifted somehow into a teaching career.

    I never regretted my career choice, though it scarcely felt like a choice. Working with students turned out to be the best job I ever had and maybe the only one I’m any good at.

    It never paid much, but it was meaningful, useful, non-alienating work. I read and appreciated reformers like Goodman and tried to make my classrooms, to the extent is was allowed, in-community experiences. I consciously avoided making boring, irrelevant assignments.

    Of course, I was lucky enough to work in schools with decent administrators and few standardized expectations.

    Some work isn’t worth doing. Some is. Alienated workers need to find work that makes them feel good. And they shouldn’t be afraid of not being viewed as “successful” by their money-grubbing acquaintances. Lower-middle-class life isn’t half bad.

  2. JC

    “late-stage capitalist system”

    The more I read at places like Zero Hedge, the more I realize that we have progressed into “end-stage capitalist system”.

    Breakfast talk with my SO this am revolved around how we need new philosophers and writers talking about the economy we need in 50 years, not how to “fix” the one we have now.

    That was the lesson of occupy. How to begin to think out of the box about what an economy might look like in 50 years, given that the one we have now has failed.

    • Big Swede

      Just read a post at ZH about the rise of robots.

      You’d think we have a division between the classes now? Wait for robots replacing the lower skilled worker.

      • JC

        Even unemployed lower skilled workers know how to shoot a gun and rise up in revolt.

        • Somehow I don’t see Occupiers trained in urban warfare.

          • Son of a liberal: ” What did you do in the War On Terror, Daddy?”

            Liberal father: ” I fought the Americans, along with all the other liberals.”

            • JC

              Son of a neocon: “What did you do in the War On Terror, Daddy?”

              Neocon father: “I fought the Americans by asserting executive privilege and getting the Pentagon to buy drones from my corporations and kill dissidents without a warrant.”

              • Don’t like executive action? The Cruz is your man.

                “Over and over again this president has disregarded the law, has disregarded the Constitution and has asserted presidential power that simply doesn’t exist and that ought to worry regardless of whether you agree with his policies or not,” Cruz said ahead of Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday at the Capitol.

          • JC

            That’s not who you have to worry about.

  3. When God made a liberal.




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