This is the personal blog of Rick Staggenborg, MD. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Take Back America for the People, an educational 501.c3 nonprofit established by Dr Staggenborg.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Recent studies have confirmed what many of us in the field of treating what are commonly considered mental illness have longed believed: Much of what is considered “mental” illness is in fact symptomatic of a morally sick society that does not assure that basic needs of its members are met. 

Ironically, former McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm called worry over the impending financial crisis at the end of the 2008 election “mental depression.” Although the term itself is nonsensical if he meant that depression is “all in the head,” he was in fact closer to identifying the problem than he could have suspected. The irony is in the fact that Gramm was a champion of the very economic policies that fostered the conditions these studies show are the cause of much of the rise in rates of depression and other stress-related conditions.

Gramm lost his official position as McCain’s economic adviser in the wake of his grossly insensitive comments. The bursting of the housing bubble proved to be a worse blow to the economy and to the middle class than anyone had expected, including the creators of the Ponzi scheme of derivative-driven economics that devastated the American and world economies. 

Missed by most commentators in the fallout of his crudely accurate comments was the fact that he bore significant responsibility for the disaster. As the chief sponsor of the bill to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, he led to the effort to break down the barriers between traditional business banks and financial institutions that enabled them to conspire to gamble with the money of their clients.

It is small wonder that candidate McCain sat glassy-eyed at the emergency economic summit with President Bush in late 2008 at which he insisted on being present. Even after being disgraced in the similar Savings and Loan scandal a few years earlier, he still did not understand the intent of the deregulation. It was being pushed by predatory capitalists from Goldman-Sachs and Citicorp who saw massive profits from an unregulated derivatives market, the scheme that eventually took down the economy.

Americans from across the political spectrum were appalled at the bank bailout, where tax dollars were used to recoup the gambling losses of banks that made bad loans and sold them to unsuspecting investors. Unfortunately, few realize the extent to which the bailout represented the result of allowing a system of crony capitalism and corporate welfare to corrupt the US Senate and office of the President. Bush scrambled to rescue the bankers who were essential tools in the war machine that he was using to carry out the Plan for a New American Century. When the bailout proved inadequate Obama boosted the price American taxpayers paid with a second bailout that replenished the coffers of bankers. After the firestorm of protest, a deeply divided Congress managed to unite to kill real reform.

The rest of the story was too difficult for most to follow, particularly those who were deluded into thinking that one major party or the other was working to correct the essential problem. The proposed fixes by leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties were to either re-regulate the rogue banks or to free them even further from regulations that supposedly hampered their ability to recover and fuel the recovery we are still awaiting. 

In the end, the rules of the game remained essentially unchanged. No one has been asked to pay for the cost to the public of the criminal misuse of account holder funds and the conspiracy to defraud investors in derivatives. These costs include a run on the taxpayer-funded FDIC that guaranteed the value of savings accounts that had been raided to cash in on the derivatives craze.   The bailout money that wasn’t divvied up with their foreign partners did not go into new credit to build business, but back into the false economy of the stock market. Meanwhile, there is evidence that the bubble is building again despite the loss in value of millions of homes for whom there are no buyers.

Of course, the corporate media has dutifully served as stenographers for the political leaders of both parties who scrambled for political advantage in casting blame for their collective failure. In the false equivalence of the corporate media, lies of one side are given equal credence as half-truths from the other. This has enabled them to successfully conceal from much of the general public the truth that both parties are in the pockets of Wall Street. It was Congress that made bankers players in the game of stock market roulette using our tax money and the life savings of those who had no way of seeing what was about to unfold. Only the People can make Congress do its duty. Given the two-party duopoly of electoral power, voters registered their disgust with both by either staying home or voting for corporate-sponsored Tea Party candidates. Instead of backing true reformers outside of the two-party system, one set of corporate tools was replaced by a new group of corporate fools.

Despite the rhetoric from both sides about putting Main Street over Wall Street, the economy continues to reel over the tremendous numbers of home foreclosures, expected to increase by over 50% this year as the anemic protections for homeowners expire. The consequences of the collapse of the economy are clear to average Americans, but the solutions far from clear. The heat of the rhetoric of the right has been turned up to the point that violence has become increasingly common. The slaying of a nine year old child, a respected federal judge and the shooting of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords and others is only the latest example.

As outlined in their seminal work The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, British epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson make a strong case that the stress of living in an age of increasing economic insecurity in the US is driving rising rates of mental illness such as that of Gifford’s would-be assassin. Their studies show a direct correlation between dramatically increasing income disparity between the richest 1% and the rest of us and skyrocketing rates of mental illness and suicide.

This book should be required reading for any mental health professional interested in creating a more effective mental health care system. Their research shows that the best way to reduce the rate of mental illness is prevention. Those of us working on a political level to address the ills of a psychopathic social and economic system thus seem to be on the right track. We need to help people talk to each other in a non-judgmental way to address our common problems if we want to avoid future tragedies like the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson rampage.  

The morality of our current economic system aside, reform would also save us all of the economic and emotional costs of mental illness. The economic costs of depression and anxiety are almost incalculable. Those who have attempted to quantify the costs have shown that treatment costs and lost work productivity run to many billions of dollars per year. The costs of imprisoning the mentally ill who do not receive adequate treatment and commit crimes small and large as a result adds billions more to the price we all pay for maintaining a system that is fundamentally unfair to those least able to succeed in a mercilessly impersonal economic system that we have allowed to be created in the name of a globalized free market. 

Perhaps the most pointed evidence for the relationship between social inequality and mental illness is the fact that despite the evidence of the effects of our savagely winner-take-all economic system, many of those most affected continue to see the solution as more of the same policies that created the mess. Deregulation didn’t work, they say because banks weren’t deregulated enough. Tax cuts didn’t work because the government still collects taxes, albeit barely enough to service the ever-expanding debt.  For a few more dollars in their pockets, they angrily defend the rights of the economic elite who have rigged the process to accumulate ever more of the common wealth while their own needs go unmet. 

Government has come to serve the interests of corporations, yet the supporters of limited government are angry that displaced workers might receive health care or extended unemployment benefits. In their ideological fervor, true believers of modern social Darwinism are willing to offer their own children on the altar of the globalized free market to the God of unregulated capitalism. 

The only reason that such thinking is not considered delusional is that if a large enough group of people share a system of beliefs, it is considered sane to believe in it. The system of beliefs that American society has adopted are so wildly inconsistent with each other and our professed values that it Americans are not insane, the nation itself has become insane.
If we are to heal America, we must think of the solution as a form of group psychotherapy on a mass scale. The first principle of psychotherapy is to establish a sense of safety for anyone willing to take part in the discussion. 

If we can learn how to conduct a national dialogue that is premised on the idea that we share the same problems and are willing to help each other find solutions to our common challenges, together we  can find a way to re-establish a nation of, by and for the People. 

It is a basic principle of family systems therapy to look beyond blaming individuals and focus on solutions that work for all of us. America is indeed one large, dysfunctional family whose members are also citizens of the world. If we can find a way to heal our psychological wounds, democracy may yet survive and human civilization with it.

Readers interested in the social psychology of contemporary American politics may like this short essay from Stop the Madness: The Diary of a Soldier For Peace in the War to Take Back America


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for your support, Krepta. For some reason, I am no longer getting notices of comments so just came across this.