I just watched a neat program, “The Face of Evil“, hosted by a journalist I like, Chris Cuomo. In the episode, he interviewed a notorious murderer he grew up fairly close to in New York, Jeremy Rifkin. About this horrific form of mental illness, Cuomo said, “Cases like Rifkin’s have stuck with me, leaving me to question how such a thing could occur. What makes someone who looks and acts like the rest of us most of the time, suddenly turn into a monster?” I see the positive values of love, magnanimity, optimism, and honor, but am also fascinated by how things can go so awry in a human heart and mind. When suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in a society and gun violence is on the rise, there is a significant problem. In this blog, I want to examine mental illness, focusing especially on “social disease” such as sociopathy, suicide, and mass shootings.
Cuomo continues: “Serial killers like Rifkin are a unique breed of perverse amorality: they often don’t process and feel like normal people. Their rationales for action often miss basic human considerations, and yet they are able to function without detection in most facets of life.”
Further, he asks: “One question that often comes up when talking about criminality of this level is the nature vs. nurture debate: is it in the criminal’s nature to behave this way, or did something happen in their environment to cause this behavior?”
Though genetics (heritability) plays a role in this and other mental illnesses, just as with the extraordinary increase in mass shootings, we cannot rule out society as a contributing factor. Mira Adler-Gillies describes it thusly in her article about the bio-psycho-social etiology of depression:
“Everyone has basic needs for food, water, shelter, clean air. There’s equally strong evidence that we have natural psychological needs. You need to feel you belong,” Johann Hari said. Those needs, he argues, are not being met. He points to research by Australian social researcher and sociologist Hugh Mackay that has revealed an explosion on loneliness over the past 50 years. Dr. Mackay argues “the biggest contributor is social fragmentation.” As the traditional bonds of social life dissolve, as community and interdependence give way to alienation and anomie, we have found ourselves living in a state of dangerous isolation.”
There is in my mind both a genetic predisposition and some favorable environmental circumstances that lead to the kind of obsessive, sadistic, and utterly immoral behaviors marking sociopathy. The Mask of Sanity was one of the earliest and most significant works on the subject, showing the dearth of empathy, love, kindness, respect, integration, and morality that marks the deeply ingrained pattern of behaviors. Not all sociopaths are killers; many are your typical banksters, lawyers, and grifters.
Dr. Seth Meyers writes this about this fascinating abnormality: “Part of what makes sociopathy so fascinating is that we understand very little about what causes it. The sociopath overall is little understood, manifested primarily in the conventional belief that the sociopath has the malicious intent to harm others. The truth, however, is more complex than a single answer allows. Are sociopaths bad people? It’s easy to utter a full-throated ‘Yes!’ for so many reasons, but the reality is that sociopaths don’t necessarily have malicious feelings toward others. The problem is that they have very little true feeling at all for others, which allows them to treat others as objects.”
One who has no true feeling when it comes to taking advantage or hurting others either has a brain abnormality (as in, the grey matter inside their cranium has some kind of lesion, immaturity, or trauma), was exposed to some deleterious effect in the intrauterine environment (e.g., maternal smoking during pregnancy), or was gravely mistreated growing up.
Thus, the cause of the disordered thinking, feeling, and behaving that marks a sociopath may be reflected in the actual brain (the frontal cortex, for example), and/or may have had its origin in a neglectful, abusive, harmful, or wholly inadequate relationship with early caregivers. This makes the etiology (the cause) of the illness in some way about values, and the way the severely mentally ill person conducts their life somehow about values.
If this is unclear, you can kind of see the flavor of values in this statement by Dr. Meyers: “Sociopaths feel deeply angry and resentful underneath their often-charming exterior, and this rage fuels their sense that they have the right to act out in whichever way they happen to choose at the time.” The fact that they put on a “mask” and take advantage and hurt others for their own stimulation or gain is notable, but the underlying emotion and psychological process is even more salient.
I believe the quotations shed some light on what being a sociopath and/or a serial killer is about, and how that is related to the “nurture” side of the equation. It is my assumption that even if one sets aside the genetic aberration or intrauterine conditions that lead to the basis of sociopathy, there is plenty of “grist for the mill” when it comes to creating a monster present in the world. The steps and the missteps can be traced back to day one, I believe. Much of this has to do with the values of the mother, father, community, and society.
It’s a bit elusive for me to clarify just how I feel mental illness is not only reflected in individuals, but also the public morality and social values. This quotation by one of America’s greatest philosophers, John Dewey, will serve as an apt intro: “That the human infant is modified in mind and character by his connection with others in family life and that the modification continues throughout life as his connections with others broaden, is as true as that hydrogen is modified when it comes into contact with oxygen.” That is a bit of a complex phrasing, but it says to me that infants (actually, prenatal infants), children, and adults are always best looked at in context; that is, they don’t grow in a vacuum. You can’t even get a plant to do such a thing. Plants are affected by sun, humidity, CO2 levels, particulate matter, toxins, pests, soil, nutrients, and water. It’s very interactive with both plants and animals (which includes human beings, some of the most social of creatures).
As a case in point, would a society such as Bhutan, or Norway, which seem to value proper mental health more than we do in America, have lower levels of social disease? Indeed, a study publicized by the Associated Press confirms that “Mental illnesses including anxiety disorders and depression are common and under-treated in many developed and developing countries, with the highest rate found in the United States, according to a study of 14 countries. …Rates ranged from 26.4 percent of people in the United States to 8.2 percent of people in Italy.”
Rod Tweedy considers how far afield from not just utopia but even a sane and functional society most of the world has gone. He writes in Red Pepper:
“Mental illness is now recognized as one of the biggest causes of individual distress and misery in our societies and cities, comparable to poverty and unemployment. One in four adults in the UK today has been diagnosed with a mental illness, and four million people take antidepressants every year. ‘What greater indictment of a system could there be,’ George Monbiot has asked, ‘than an epidemic of mental illness?’ The shocking extent of this ‘epidemic’ is made all the more disturbing by the knowledge that so much of it is preventable. This is due to the significant correlation between social and environmental conditions and the prevalence of mental disorders.”
“The United States of America and Canada actually have the highest overall crime rates in the world. That largely has to do with reports of theft and other crimes in major cities…” reported Clements Worldwide. The article also notes that “Iceland has been named the world’s most peaceful county by the Global Peace Index, because of its low crime rate, lack of armed forces and political stability. It has one of the world’s lowest murder rates, with just 26 murders being reported from 2000 to October of 2014.”
In this country, I see a noxious nexus of loneliness, bullying, suicide, murder, rape, human trafficking, drug addiction, overeating, economic stress, animal cruelty, corporate values, a lack of vacation and childcare and parental leave, job insecurity, impending automation and outsourcing, the 24-hour news cycle, all the social media sites with all their dysfunction, a competitive and “me first” attitude, racial issues that go way back, substandard medical care for citizens, far too many people and far too little solidarity, and all the political chaos and corruption. Add over 300,000,000 firearms and you’ve got yourself a real social problem.
Esquire reported that of the (startlingly high, and growing) 2,200,000 prisoners in this country (a bellwether of social disintegration and a suffering populace), 400,000 of them are mentally ill. Like diagnosable. Almost all of them obviously suffer from some kind of personal or social dysfunction, or they wouldn’t be criminals. But 400,000 hear voices, are terribly depressed, are very anxious, are drug addicts, etc. This is obviously a problem, but also telegraphs what is fundamentally wrong in American society.
Education critic and former dean of a school at Yale University Anthony T. Kronman has this to say in his interesting book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of America’s Elite: “The spiritual emptiness of our civilization has its source in the technology whose achievements we celebrate and on whose powers we all now depend.” This is not a new idea; dystopian novels have been written for over a century. Its root cause is complicated to the point of being almost inscrutable; such is the case with empires – they do not see the situation they are in until it is too late. From over 100 years ago, the great sociologist Emile Durkheim: “The malaise from which we suffer … attests not a greater economics misery, but an alarming moral misery.”
So, if I were to sum up my point in this blog, it would be that the values that mark a society has a non-negligible effect on the measures one would use to characterize and assess how functional of a society it is.
Historians can see in the long history of Rome various antecedents of social occurrences, be they decisions to invade a certain country, the “bread and circuses” routine, or the democracy being fouled and giving way to Caesar and the empire. In modern America, suicides are a significant killer of the people, and that is more than just an indictment of the availability of firearms; it speaks to our values as a society, and necessarily, the mental illness that many people experience. “Since 1999, suicide rates in the U.S. have risen by 28 percent. It is now the second-leading cause of death for your people…with 45,000 Americans dying by their own hand in 2016.
As The Week (June 22, 2018) noted, “The heartbreaking week [when Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain killed themselves] should serve as a wake-up call about what has become a national epidemic; we must start to treat suicide ‘like the public health crisis it is'” (citing a Washington Post op-ed piece). Benedict Carey wrote in the New York Times that this situation “is a profound indictment of the country’s mental health system.” That is something that those on the right and the left should be able to agree on when it comes to the awesome array of mass shootings in 2018, because it takes guns per se out of the equation. Indeed, we are on-track for nearly a mass shooting a day this year!
This all points in a progressive-political direction, I think. I find great agreement when I think of the wise aphorism coined by Frederick Douglass that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Consider also the prescient words from fifty years ago uttered by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We have flown in the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes but we have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers and sisters.” That is lamentable, and relevant, for sociopaths, suicide victims, and homeless people do not spring up out of nowhere; there is always an environmental causal element — a social element, if you will.
And now, the quotes about mental illness, values, sociopathy, public morality, love, care, human development, social disease, and abnormal psychology:
Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities, views about life.
Progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres. ~ Erich Fromm
When new learning occurs, it literally changes the architecture of the human brain; hence, the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together,” which is a well-established catch phrase in developmental neuroscience.
…America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.
In a society that venerates competition and solitary effort, the suggestion that we ought to work together is regarded as either refreshingly humanistic or suspiciously un-American.
Happiness is the natural state of humanity, declares the Muse, but man pursues it in some other guise, fame, or wealth, and ultimately cannot acquire it.
Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is. ~ Erich Fromm
Some of us have an overly positive image of ourselves. The image we cherish and carry around is of the person we want to become rather than the person we are. Like the too-negative self-image, the too-positive one also interferes with our growth. If we have come to feel that we are perfect, then we avoid acknowledging any behaviors, thoughts, or values that fall short of the ideal. If we become attached to a perfect self-image, then discrepancies between reality and perfection cause inner distress, and the brain/mind sometimes goes to extreme lengths to avoid pain.
That people with psychological disorders are distinguished by unusual neurotransmitter activity does not mean their behavior is a result of the chemical abnormality any more than finding mucus in the nose of someone with a cold proves that mucus causes colds.
Whoever it was who searched the heavens with a telescope and found no God would not have found the human mind if he had searched the brain with a microscope.
People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.
We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over… Society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. ~ Erich Fromm
Could a greater miracle occur than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
To give aid to every poor man is far beyond the reach and power of every man. Care of the poor is incumbent on society as a whole.
On Aristotle’s account, you could not possibly expect a normal psychology to arise within a pathological civic context; you cannot have a bad state and good citizens…; you cannot have bad families and good citizens, because, for the most part…the flourishing, realized humanity of the individual is a reflection of the polis itself – its laws, its customs, its values.
It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them — the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas.
Respect is carried not in great, bold proclamations, but in small moments of surprising intimacy and empathy.
Taking responsibility for change is extraordinarily difficult. It flies in the face of genetics, hormones, engrained synaptic pathways, early childhood development, random events, and other uncontrolled factors. But what else can we do? Keep doing the same dysfunctional acts over and over again, with its associated pain? Commit suicide? Thinking things through is our only hope — at least if God won’t save us from our responsibility. Luckily our ancestors spent so much time inadvertently developing the human brain that we have the supreme gift of self-observation.
Our basic genetic equipment also includes the capacity of putting oneself in the situation and thoughts of others. It is in this and similar aptitudes of social behavior and the very great capacity of our species rests.
As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also unto them likewise.
There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.
Paideia is based on the idea that a healthy democracy requires a certain sort of honorable citizen — that if we’re not willing to tell the truth, devote our lives to common purposes, or defer to a shared moral order, then we’ll succumb to the shallowness of a purely commercial civilization; we’ll be torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of extreme individualism; we’ll rip one another to shreds in the naked struggle for power.
I’m especially curious about how we can make a culture shift in our collective set of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Right now, our society is steeped in a culture of violence. What will it take to make peace the way we live instead?
I am thinking about violence and intolerance a lot these days. The human desire for vengeance is so deep that one wonders how the cycles of violence can ever by stopped. I fear humans become immune to violence after awhile. Violence becomes routine and, as Max Weber would say, “takes on the appearance of being rational.” We are in desperate need of progressive and humane values spreading as far and wide as possible.
The cure is love. What’s lacking is love. Love warms and softens the hearts of the vicious. Tenderness and affection reclaim the criminal and redeem the damned.
Only when man succeeds in developing his reason and love further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have found a new, human form of rootedness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home.
Compassion is the basis for morality.
As individuals, the greatest courage that is called for is the courage to be real. When we are real, it releases what is bound, in ourselves and others. It opens the passageways between our hearts and our brains, dissolves the blockages that constrain our imagination, and carries us down to our wellsprings of wisdom.
Value peace. Children raised in tense homes or experiencing duress in-utero appear to develop brain differences from children not so burdened. One’s inability to take responsibility for growth is subjecting one’s children to a lifetime of vulnerability.
Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul. ~ Carl Jung
Primates, elephants, dogs, rats, and even mice display empathy, indicating that the building blocks of altruism predate humanity. Chimpanzees will choose a token that gives both themselves and another champ a food treat over a token that gratifies only themselves (Horner et al., 2011).
It is well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is made up of others.
What these mass killers had in common was profound alienation from a world that seemed indifferent to their pain and humiliation, and easy access to weapons that amplified their rage. Radical Islam, white supremacy, and other ideologies can serve to justify violent vengeance, but they are optional. …For damaged souls in whom empathy has died, inflicting misery can be its own reward.
If man is to be able to love, he must be put in his supreme place. The economic machine must serve him, rather than he serve it. Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it.
The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of true suffering. ~ Carl Jung
Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can be expected from the strong.
If you enjoyed this blog about mental illness and prosocial values such as empathy, love, and primary prevention of personal and social dysfunction, look into other of my blogs in the category of Applied Psychology, here on Values of the Wise.