Features Australia

Australia’s nervous breakdown

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

A colleague who had recently arrived from the Middle East wondered why it seemed that everybody was on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Australia, one of the most prosperous, peaceful places on Earth. His observation was not based on patients presenting to him, but the culture at large.

Mental health advocacy groups trumpet figures like one in four people suffer a mental illness. Broadcasters read out phone numbers for suicide hotlines after distressing news. Democracy is halted for fear of upsetting gays.

I thought he had a point. The undercurrent of our debates on the limits of free speech around race or sexuality is the growing construction of vulnerability. My field of the psychological sciences must wear some of the blame. The limits are placed on the view that citizens can be psychologically harmed if they experience offence and are no longer able to engage as autonomous, rational citizens.

It sounds like bollocks because it is. If I had a gay patient that consulted me because they were upset about something that a traditional marriage advocate said, my response would not be to encourage the shutting down of public debate.

I would treat the person for his individual vulnerabilities and symptoms, which are rooted in his personality and identity. The aim is to better help them cope with adversity and the perception of verbal attack. But hampering democratic debate is exactly what my esteemed colleagues Ian Hickie and Patrick McGorry have advocated regarding the gay marriage plebiscite, contributing to its potential demise. They did so with the justification that homosexuals have higher rates of mental illness and constitute an at-risk group. This is an over-reach by two people who have otherwise done important work in mental health promotion. They are being co-opted away from health care into the politics of identity.


If such a view was accepted during the civil rights debates last century, women would still be languishing in the kitchen and blacks would be sitting at the back of the bus. They also constitute groups with higher rates of mental illness and can therefore be considered more vulnerable. I wonder how Martin Luther King might have reacted if he was told to refrain from too passionate a debate lest there was blowback against psychologically fragile Negroes.

The field of mental health is important beyond its application in the day to day treatment of people suffering psychological problems. The discipline informs our views on human nature. Just as we are going through disruptive times, we are also going through a time of changing ideas in the relationship of people with adversity and suffering. This is more pronounced given the cultural decline of organised religion with its conception of Man as a moral being. Psychological Man has a personality, not a character. The significance of this is that anybody now experiencing emotional distress can more easily blame it upon the outside world, be it their boss, their biology or societal structures. This is a critical driver of this age of resentment-based, identity politics.

Grace Collier wrote recently in the Australian of a man who wrote jokingly about not wanting to see older women in yoga pants, only to find himself bombarded with people at his house in small town America protesting his ageist intolerance.

The humorous but troubling episode highlights a dramatic shift in Western culture with regards to sensitivity to harm. University of Melbourne psychology professor Nick Haslam writes of ‘concept creep’, by which he refers to how terms like abuse, prejudice, addiction and mental disorder ‘now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before’. Haslam believes this is a key factor driving heightened sensitivities, particularly in a diverse society with a plethora of perceptions around any given statement. The loosening of the definitions of these terms always begins with pleas for greater compassion or caring, but the aim is to stifle and control. A critical area of concept creep in my work is in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The diagnosis began after the Vietnam War to help veterans who were seen to have been mistreated by American society and government. The term was driven by politics and good intentions, and not science.

Several decades later its meaning has shifted from the front line of war to adversity more generally, be it a job loss, a robust argument or even childbirth. These difficult but normal experiences are now described by my patients and the public as traumatic, with the cause being interpreted as arising from events in the outside world. The category has become an archetype for suffering with dramatic implications for our relationship with adversity.

A stunning example of the term’s migration from the front line of war to civilian life can be seen in the leftist haven of Victoria. The Police Union in alliance with paramedics are now lobbying for a law that enshrines any worker’s psychological injury to be automatically accepted as being caused by the innate trauma of the work. Much like after Vietnam, the idea is driven by politics and not science. Nobody would deny police and paramedics do difficult, sometimes traumatic work, but if this law catches on it would be a boon for compensation lawyers. The notion of psychological harm in public discourse is a corruption of the John Stuart Mill idea of freedom’s limit being the point where it causes harm to others. It was never meant to apply to psychological harm and is becoming a thorn for democracy in our more psychologised times.

The complainants against Bill Leak and those who believe homosexuals are not resilient enough to withstand robust discussion contribute to a shrill hypersensitivity in modern debates. All of it is then magnified by social media, which only heightens people’s sense of self righteousness. This growth in subjectivity is couched in the language of caring and compassion, but its goal is social tyranny through greater regulation and intervention. It harms us all for it paints us as lacking agency and, over time, that is exactly how we start to behave.

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