By Richard Handler
Has Therapy Gone PC?
Some Distinguished Psychologists Critique the Field
Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm
Edited by Rogers Wright and Nicholas Cummings.
Routledge. 346 pp. ISBN: 0-415-95086-4
Nobody wants to be called "politically correct." The term has become the universal, all-purpose insult, used by both the Right and the Left as the definitive put-down. And perhaps no field gets such a bashing for its alleged "political correctness" as psychotherapy.
On the Right, therapists are ridiculed as ersatz mommies and daddies with professional degrees, who've turned us into a nation of victims and squirmers, whiners and wimps. Critics like Christina Hoff Sommers, in her book One Nation Under Therapy, bemoans the overpsychologized, pathologized nation that America has become.
On the Left, one hears a variation on the same theme. In Therapy Culture, Frank Furedi, an old-fashioned British lefty, rails against therapists as active agents of psychic dispossession. According to this critique, it's in therapists' interest to keep us passive and blinded to the problems in the wider social context that form the roots of our individual malaise.
So the Right castigates therapists for individuals' loss of autonomy, while the Left lays the blame for our loss of community connection to the same culprits. Both agree that we're being infantilized by a new Nanny State.
Now, in Destructive Trends in Mental Health, two distinguished psychologists long associated with progressive political struggles within the field, Rogers Wright and Nicholas Cummings, have edited a book that echoes many of the charges that up to now have come from outside the therapy profession. This isn't a book that can be dismissed as just another ideologically inspired, partisan attack.
So who are Wright and Cummings and why do they have the right to lecture us this way? Cummings is past president of the American Psychological Association; Wright is the founding president of the Council for the Advancement of Psychological Professions and Sciences--psychology's first independent organization dedicated to public policy and political advocacy. In the 1950s, both men took on the American Psychiatric Association and helped establish psychology's legitimacy as a profession on a par with psychiatry. Both also helped lobby a reluctant insurance industry to provide third-party payments for psychological, as well as medical, services. For half a century, both men have worked relentlessly, and by and large successfully, to raise the professional and economic standing of psychologists and social workers.
In their book, Wright and Cummings make some of the same overall points as do the PC critics. They, and the other authors in their book, contend that psychology, like the culture it serves, enforces politically correct attitudes that squelch research into verifiably effective treatments and curtail the range of help clients can receive. They, too, excoriate victimology and accuse psychologists of promoting it. In spite of "the impressive record of promoting racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in its membership and organizational structure," Cummings writes, "self-interested destructive trends have permeated the mental health professions, threatening harm to the patients who seek their help and betraying the society they are sworn to serve."
Their charges of runaway political correctness add up to an exhausting critique. Research into intelligence, for example, no matter how valid, is now career suicide--researchers risk snubs and pickets for being undemocratic, elitist, and even racist just by presuming to measure it. Many lesbian and gay activists want to forbid the right to treatment for troubled clients who come into therapy wishing to change their sexual orientation. The seemingly irrepressible urge to invent new psychological pathologies has produced the expanding-syndrome phenomenon: witness the wholesale application of diagnostic labels to kids, with ADD and AD/HD being the worst offenders. …