A Radical Approach to Mental Health

Alone“Mental health cannot be defined in terms of the ‘adjustment’ of the individual to his society, but, on the contrary… must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man”
– Erich Fromm

In The Sane Society, Erich Fromm advocates a radical approach to mental health that goes against mainstream psychiatry. He argues that the psychiatric approach to mental health assumes the problem is the individual’s inability to adapt to their environment, neglecting the fact that the social environment might itself be the problem. Building on Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, Fromm argues that individuals in modern industrial society are compelled to take on an alienating “marketing personality”. This is a self-centered approach to social relations whereby individuals focus on what they can get from others, rather than what they can contribute to others. This orientation is characterized by a lack of loving relations, according to Fromm.

In his book, The Art of Loving, Fromm defines ‘love’ as the ability to go beyond one’s own self interest and work toward collective goals. Fromm says that one must courageously throw oneself into loving relations based on faith in collective values in order to overcome feelings of loneliness that commonly plague the modern individual with the marketing personality. By engaging in loving relations, one is able to fulfill the basic needs of human beings according to Fromm: “the need for relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, the need for a sense of identity and the need for a frame of orientation and devotion.” Although loving relations are ideal, they are difficult to engage in since modern industrial society drives individuals to to engage in individualistic competition with everyone else, or drives them to seek simple pleasures and conformity to a safe, comfortable, but ultimately alienating relation. An expansion on these themes in the work of Victor Frankl can be found in my previous post on finding meaning and purpose.

Fromm’s approach to mental health is radical since it targets the root causes of many existentially oriented mental health concerns – the human need to meaningfully connect with others. Loneliness is one of the most dangerous states, and our relations with one another through the marketing personality perpetuates the failure to connect. The feeling of productivity by getting ahead of others is a temporary satisfaction that leaves one isolated in the end. The problem with mental health defined as mere ‘adjustment’ is that the psychiatrist may be working to help individuals adjust to an unhealthy social condition. Overprescribed psychiatric drugs merely work to keep the unhealthy social condition in tact by numbing the individual to its psychological effects. This is comparable to constantly taking painkillers for a sore muscle resulting from poor posture. Rather than fixing the structural problem, the drug helps keep it in tact. Although this is the valuable perspective on the problem of overprescribing, I am still aware of the usefulness of psychiatric drugs, particularly for neurochemical imbalances. But in the case of many existentially oriented concerns, culture may be the main culprit.

Fromm’s diagnosis of contemporary culture is poignant, particularly in light of recent discussions of ‘moral injury’ in military veterans. In his book, What It Is Like To Go To War, Karl Marlantes says, expecting veterans to simply ‘adjust’ to civilian life “is akin to asking Saint John of the cross to be happy flipping burgers at McDonald’s after he’s left the monastery.” Leaving a closely bonded combat unit and entering into the individualistic consumer culture of Western society places the veteran in a situation where they lose their sense of belonging. Fromm’s definition of love seems to reach its ideal manifestation in the combat unit.

In the combat unit the individual courageously commits oneself to a group, working for the collective goal. Although the individuals in the unit may face intense suffering, they maintain resilience so long as their psychological need for relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, a sense of identity, and a frame of orientation and devotion are met by virtue of their position within the unit. Upon transition to civilian life, this psychologically protective social structure dissolves and the individual may be left feeling isolated due to the culture shock. After the intensely collective and profoundly transforming experience of combat, simply expecting veterans to ‘adjust’ upon return is to neglect that civilian life itself may be the source of the problem.

Although veterans may encounter difficulties upon transitioning civilian life, finding meaningful work and communal connection after return is of course possible. Fromm’s diagnosis of modern industrial society is far from universal, and there are many instances where industry itself may facilitate a sense of professional belonging and common purpose. In the upcoming post I will explore Durkheim’s optimistic view of professional belonging in modern market relations.

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