Asking what’s gone wrong with our kids is an ancient endeavor, but these days we must deal with what seems to be an unusually troubled younger generation awash in a “youth mental health crisis.”  Abigail Shrier, in Bad Therapy:  Why Kids Aren’t Growing Up (New York:  Penguin Publishing Company, c. 2024; Kindle Edition) offers a thoughtful analysis that merits attention.   While acknowledging some youngsters need serious psychological treatment she’s concerned about “the worriers; the fearful; the lonely, lost, and sad.  College coeds who can’t apply for a job without three or ten calls to Mom.”  They’re not mentally ill but they’re doing poorly and look for “diagnoses to explain the way they feel.”  Rarely does this help, but:  “We shower these kids with meds, therapy, mental health and ‘wellness’ resources, even prophylactically.  We rush to remedy a misdiagnosed condition with the wrong sort of cure” (p. xii).  

Shrier remembers how she was reared.  Parents spanked when necessary and rarely worried about their kids’ feelings.  They were told where to go, how to dress and behave.  Probing their kids’ psyches for some “repressed identity” never occurred to them.  “But as millions of women and men my age entered adulthood,” she says, “we commenced therapy.  We explored our childhoods and learned to see our parents as emotionally stunted.  Emotionally stunted parents expected too much, listened too little, and failed to discover their kids’ hidden pain.  Emotionally stunted parents inflicted emotional injury” (p. xv).  Resolving to do better, her generation determined to rear “happy” kids.  “We resolved to listen better, inquire more, monitor our kids’ moods, accommodate their opinions when making a family decision, and, whenever possible, anticipate our kids’ distress.  We would cherish our relationship with our kids. Tear down the barrier of authority past generations had erected between parent and child and instead see our children as teammates, mentees, buddies” (p. xvi).   And to do so they trusted a bevy of “wellness experts.”   

       Such experts were anxious and willing to help!  Therapy would solve all problems.  To provide more help than professional therapists could give school administrators jumped into the “crisis” and urged teachers to counsel and coddle their students, becoming “partners” with their parents in providing emotional comfort.  Shrier and millions more “bought in, believing they would cultivate the happiest, most well-adjusted kids.  Instead, with unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record.  Why?  How did the first generation to raise kids without spanking produce the first generation to declare they never wanted kids of their own?  How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma?  How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair?” (p. xvii).  How indeed?  

The answer was therapy and more therapy.  Tragically, Shrier thinks, this resulted in an epidemic of iatrogenesis, illustrating how “healers” often make things worse.  “Well-meaning therapists often act as though talking through your problems with a professional is good for everyone.  That isn’t so” (p. 8).  Talking doesn’t always help, as careful studies dealing with policemen, burn victims, breast cancer patients, and grief-ridden mourners show.  Folks who say they don’’t want to talk about their problems are often much wiser than those who insist they do!  Unfortunately we’ve been persuaded that lots of us are sick.  Most Gen Zers think they have mental health issues and almost “40 percent of the rising generation has received treatment from a mental health professional—compared with 26 percent of Gen Xers” (p. 17).  To meet their needs “wellness centers” have sprouted on most college campuses and professors are routinely advised to make allowances for all sorts of mental health problems.  Yet the problems proliferate with no indication that treatments succeed.  

   This suggests, to Shrier, that we’ve been overwhelmed by “bad therapy.”  She thinks this, in part, because of scholars like Camilo Ortiz, a “tenured professor and leading child and adolescent psychologist.”  His research shows that “individual therapy has almost no proven benefit for kids.”  If anyone needs help it’s the parents,  who too often “unwittingly transmit their own anxiety to their kids.”  However,  “numberless psychotherapists not only offer individual therapy to young kids, they practice techniques like ‘play therapy’ that have shown scant evidence of benefiting kids. In fact, there’s very little evidence that individual (one-on-one) psychotherapy helps young kids at all” (p. 40).  

Consulting Ortiz and other scholars, Shrier lists 10 Bad Therapy steps:  (1)  Teach Kids to Pay Close Attention to their Feelings—in fact they should learn to distrust their emotions and often repress them;  (2)  Induce Rumination—in fact rehashing often harms a person; (3)  Make “Happiness” a Goal but Reward Emotional Suffering—in fact happiness comes as a result of doing things well; (4) Affirm and Accommodate Kids’ Worries—in fact they need to confront and deal with them; (5) Monitor, Monitor, Monitor—in fact they need to be supervised less and left alone much more than they are; (6)  Dispense Diagnoses Liberally—in fact we need to stop labeling kids’ disorders (e.g. ADHD) and treat them as ordinary aspects of growing up; (7) Drug ’Em—in fact drugs such as Ritalin should be administered only as a last resort; (8) Encourage Kids to Share Their “Trauma”—in fact, the less they share the better they fare; (9) Encourage Young Adults to Break Contact with “Toxic” Family—in fact few families are truly “toxic” and severing oneself from those who love them best rarely helps anyone; (10) Create Treatment Dependency—in fact interminable therapy sessions enrich counselors while harming kids.  In sum:  “Bad therapy encourages hyperfocus on one’s emotional states, which in turn makes symptoms worse” (p. 64).

Compounding the bad therapy kids may get in counselors’ offices, the nation’s schools are redesigning themselves as therapeutic care centers, flying the flag of  SEL (social-emotional learning).  Add to SEL the “restorative justice” President Barack Obama urged in his 2014 “Dear Colleague Letter” threatening schools with loss of funding if they continued to suspend and expel a disproportionate number of minority kids.  This presented schools with a quandary:  How do you maintain order without punishment?  The Dear Colleague Letter spelled out the solution:  “‘restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions.’  Violent kids were rebranded as kids in pain.  Schools stopped suspending or expelling them.  And a newly invigorated era of mental health in public schools was born. ‘Restorative justice’ is the official name for schools’ therapeutic approach that reimagines all bad behavior as a cry for help” (p. 94). 

Consequently, says Shrier:  “For more than a decade, teachers, counselors, and school psychologists have all been playing shrink, introducing the iatrogenic risks of therapy to schoolkids, a vast and captive population” (p. 71).  Teachers—even in math classes— may very well begin the day by asking their students how they’re feeling and even engaging in forms of group therapy urging them to confess their deepest anxieties.  “Sometimes described by enthusiasts as ‘a way of life,’ social-emotional learning is the curricular juggernaut that devours billions in education spending each year and upward of 8 percent of teacher time” (p. 77).  In SEL sessions kids’ parents are often blamed for a variety of problems and often referred to as “caregivers” or “service providers” who fail to treat their clients well.  Some “experts” even dismiss parents as “morons” incapable to rightly parenting.  Meanwhile, under their” guidance kids behave worse and schools appear increasingly anarchical.  

And their parents, determined to be “gentle” with their children cooperate with the teachers and therapists who declare they know how kids should be reared.  Earlier generations, however, “had a more masculine style of parenting.”  Dads usually did the disciplining but moms certainly did their fair share.  “This is the style I’ve called ‘knock it off, shake it off’ parenting.  The sort that met kids’ interpersonal conflict with ‘Work it out yourselves,’ and greeted kids’ mishaps with ‘You’ll live.’  A loving but stolid insistence that young children get back on the horse and carry on” (p. 168).  The “Battered Mommy Syndrome”—kids punching and kicking their parents—was unheard of.  Three-year olds weren’t asked for advice, nor did children dictate the dinner menu.  Youngsters were rarely considered particularly “sensitive” or “brittle” since they usually proved quite resilient in even difficult situations.  

Indeed they can be resilient if only they’re left alone to grow up as kids have done for centuries.  They don’t need drugs or counselors or constant monitoring.  Shrier has determined to relax and let her kids take risks, fall down and get up without dramatics, make friends on their own, etc.  She’s persuaded that many alleged childhood “disorders” can be corrected by assigning chores and demanding respect for elders.  Above all she urges readers to discern and flee bad therapy.  One a broader scale, perhaps all of us should free ourselves from the bad therapeutic culture advancing upon us in virtually all our institutions.

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Much that Abigail Shrier describes in Bad Therapy was discerned by one of the finest thinkers of the past century, Philip Rieff, in his The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c. 1966), wherein he  warned educational and religious leaders to beware of psychological nostrums.  We’ve witnessed his prophetic insights as what Christian Smith called “moralistic, therapeutic deism” has secured a dominant position in the cultural landscape.  In our world, Rieff said,  “hospital and theater,” fitness centers and films, are replacing family and nation.  “Religious man was born to be saved,” he noted, but “psychological man is born to be pleased.  The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe,’ the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ‘one feels,’ the caveat of the therapeutic” (p. 25).  Within the Christian tradition, this trend surfaced as early as 1857, when “Archbishop Temple put into clear English what had been muddled in German ever since the time of Schleiermacher:  ‘Our theology has been cast in a scholastic mould, all based on logic. We are in need of, and are actually being forced into, a theology based on psychology” (p. 42).  

       Ancient and Medieval civilization developed through the subjugation of our sensual desires, choosing to follow moral standards rather than pleasures.  The highest kind of knowledge is attained through faith—knowing and obeying God.  The good life in conforming to creation and the Creator.  This tradition of self-discipline and responsibility—labeled by Rieff a “dialectic of perfection, based on the deprivational mode” celebrating martyrs and saints, “is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode” (p. 50).  Rather than restraining himself, psychological man seeks to “be kind” to himself.  An egoistic ethic of self-esteem and tolerance replaces the ethic of repentance and sanctity.  The “ideal man,” from Plato to Tocqueville, was understood to be a “good citizen,” sacrificing his own interests for the welfare of others.   In the emergent therapeutic culture, however, the “ideal man”—as is evident everywhere from the Oval Office to the box office—knows how to amuse himself.     Beginning with Francis Bacon, however, a new approach, progresively shaped by psychoanalytic theory, has exerted control.  According to this theory, we must learn how to change what is, to “create our own” reality, to craft whatever suits our desires.  Marx wielded philosophy as a hammer and sickle for social change. Freud proffered clients insights whereby they could choose whatever seemed desirable. Jung and Adler and hosts of lesser folks followed suit, and our world is largely ruled by folks who want to rule!                                            This led Rieff into extensive discussions of Jung, Reich, and D.H. Lawrence–thorough, penetrating, illuminating analyses. He showed, persuasively, how the “sexual revolution” has its roots in the likes of such intellectuals, and he makes clear how effectively they have subverted Western civilization.  As a result of adopting this therapeutic approach, many folks in our society lack the arresting sense of sin which typified the classical culture.  Indeed, it is “incomprehensible to him inasmuch as the moral demand system no longer generates powerful inclinations toward obedience or faith, nor feelings of guilt when those inclination are over-ridden by others for which sin is the ancient name” (p. 245).  No longer haunted by sin, modern man feels no need for salvation, no desire for a Savior.  So churches emphasize “religious” experiences and advertise “spiritual” therapies designed to help vaguely distressed people feel better.  Many, indeed, have “become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution–under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic” (p. 251).  Such, Rieff insists, is quite wrong-headed and needs to be rejected, but it’s what’s happened under the reign of modernity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * In My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, c. 2006), the first volume of a trilogy entitled Sacred Order/Social Order, Philip Rieff explored the fact that “cultures give readings of sacred order and ourselves somewhere in it.”  Throughout human history, James Davison Hunter explains, all cultures have been “constituted by a system of moral demands that are underwritten by an authority that is vertical in its structure.  . . . .  These are not merely rules or norms or values, but rather doxa: truths acknowledged and experienced as commanding in character” (p. xix).  First World (pagan) and Second World (Judeo-Christian) Cultures—to use Rieff’s categories—humbly aligned themselves with a higher, invisible Reality:  the Sacred.                                                     The modem (what Rieff labels “Third World”) culture shapers, working out the position espoused by Nietzsche’s Gay Science declaring that “God is dead,” have negated that ancient sacred order. Turning away from, indeed assailing, any transcendent realm, they have rigidly restricted themselves to things horizontal—material phenomena and human perspectives.  Rather than reading Reality, they actively encourage illiteracy regarding it—e.g. idiosyncratic “reader responses” to “texts,” the venting of personal opinions, and the construction of virtual realities.  Their relentless attacks upon the sacred are what Rieff calls “deathworks” that are both surreptitious and ubiquitous, shaping the arts and education, dominating movies and TV, journalism and fiction, law schools and courtrooms.  As he says: “There are now armies of third world teachers, artists, therapists, etc., teaching the higher illiteracy” (p. 92).                                                                     

Throughout his treatise, Rieff weighed the import of the raging culture war.  This Kulturkampf “is between those who assert that there are no truths, only readings, that is, fictions (which assume the very ephemeral status of truth for negational purposes) and what is left of the second culture elites in the priesthood, rabbinate, and other teaching/directive elites dedicated to the proposition that the truths have been revealed and require constant rereading and application in the light of the particular historical circumstance in which we live.  And that those commanding truths in their range are authoritative and remains so” (p. 17).  He especially emphasizes that: “The guiding elites of our third world are virtuosi of de-creation, of fictions where once commanding truths were” (p. 4). By denying all religious and moral truths, they have established an effectually godless “anti-culture.”                  Rieff’s analyses of influential artistic works (many of them reproduced in the text) are particularly insightful and persuasive. What was evident a century ago in only a few artists (James Joyce and Pablo Picasso), and psychoanalysts (Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung), now dominates the mass media and university classrooms, where postmodern gurus Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are routinely invoked.  One thing these elites, will not acknowledge:  any transcendent, ”divine creator and his promised redemptive acts before whom and beside which there is nothing that means anything” (p. 58).  Nietzsche folly understood this, propounding “a rationalism so radical that it empties itself, as God the Father was once thought to have emptied himself to become very man in the Son.”  (p. 70).                         Rieffs grandfather, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, “was appalled to discover not only in the remnant of his family in Chicago but in the Jewish community of the family’s Conservative synagogue . . .  that the Jewish sense of commanding truth was all but destroyed.  Those old traditions were treated as obsolete, replaced by the phrase that horrified my grandfather most:  everyone is entitled to their own opinion” (p. 82).  The nihilism of the Nazis flourished in Chicago!  To Rieff, Auschwitz signifies “the first full and brutally clear arrival of our third world” (p. 83). But the death camps, both Nazi and Bolshevik, were simply the logical culmination of Hamlet’s ancient view that “there is nothing good or bad in any world except thinking makes it so’” (p. 83).   What was manifest in Auschwitz, Rieff says, is equally evident in the world’s abortion mills!  In one of Freud’s letters, we read a “death sentence, casually uttered, upon sacred self:  ‘Similarly birth, miscarriage, and menstruation are all connected with the lavatory via the word Abort (Abortus).’  How many things,” Rieff muses, “turn before my eyes into images of our flush-away third world” (p. 104).  Rejecting “pro-choice” rhetoric, he insists: “The abortionist movement does bear comparison the Shoah [the Jewish Holocaust].  In these historic cases both Jews and ‘fetuses’ are what they represent, symbols of our second world God.  It is as godterms that they are being sacrificed” (p. 105).      My Life among the Deathworks, says Hunter, “is stunning in its originality, breathtaking in its erudition and intellectual range, and astonishing in the brilliance of its insights into our historical moment” (p. xv).  It is however “difficult, intentionally so,” because “Rieff wants the reader to work for the insight he has to offer; to read and then reread” (p. xvi). The book rather resembles Pascal’s Pensees—a collage of aphorisms and illustrations (many of them paintings) rather than a systematic development of a thesis. The book does, however, richly reward the reader’s persistence.

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Philosopher Mark Goldblatt would consider bad therapy a result of philosophical developments  leading to the declaration: I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism (New York:  Bombardier Books, c.  2022; Kindle Edition).  He cites G.K. Chesterton’s words from a century ago:   “We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.”  Reason is drowning in a sea of emotion wherein everyone decides what is true or false,  right or wrong, on the basis of how it feels.  This is not exactly a unique moment, however, for Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?”  He seemed to be tossing aside the possibility of Truth’s existence in any transcendent sense.  To him truth was simply instrumental, finding out what works to one’s own advantage.  He had the power to kill Jesus and did so, washing his hands in the process.  So it follows that today’s subjectivism is amply evident and clearly rooted in the perspectivism of Friedrich Nietzsche, who called Pilate the “solitary figure worthy of honor” in the New Testament.  In Goldblatt’s view, we are now “having a Pontius Pilate moment.  What is truth?  Whatever you will.  Whatever you can.  Whatever you dare” (p. 7).  Many of the major issues confronting us are, most deeply, questions of truth.  Is truth a clear seeing and accepting of what is—a “correspondence” between what I think and Reality—or is it merely what I imagine things are or ought to be?  Is truth objective or subjective?  “Objective truth is revealed by a careful examination of evidence and the application of logic to that evidence.  Objective truth is true regardless of our subjective feelings about it because it is anchored in the object of the belief or proposition; it is a relationship between out-there and in-here, an alignment between the two” (p. 15).  Philosophically it’s a form of realism.  Subjectivism, however, is a branch of idealism that “foregrounds not reality but perception.”  Following George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived. Esse est percipi.”   As Goldblatt shows, many modern movements—Black Lives Matter, Transgenderism, et al—share this subjectivism.  MY truth is THE truth!  And feelings are triumphant!