Friday, April 13, 2012

Erich Fromm #1: Preliminaries - critique and the need for a (post-)humanistic approach to mental health

I was going to post about Shyness

and also a book I’m reading called Solitude. Christopher Lane’s Shyness is another in the vein of several of the books and articles I’ve talked about here over the past year or so. Drawing on internal APA and corporate documents, it hammers a few more nails in the coffin of the current psychiatric model, offering yet more evidence of how fundamentally problematic – absurd, really - it is. The book could be tighter, but deserves a place on the critical-psychiatry reading list. (It’s also added a few more works of fiction to my to-read list.)

As the critical analyses taken together clearly show, to call the current corporate-dominated mental health system and culture flawed would be a profound understatement. The extent to which capitalism could come to completely take over this realm and shape it to the needs of corporations would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. The most basic claims of the psychopharmaceutical model are wrong, and it is actively harmful in so many ways. I can only imagine – hope would maybe be a better word – that people in the future will look back and think we were, well, crazy to have allowed this to continue for so long.

The powerful interests behind the system won’t let it collapse as quickly as it should, of course, so it’s vital that investigative and critical work continue. At the same time, though, there’s a pressing need to construct a humanistic model of mental health. (I’m not, I feel I need to note, making a “productive solutions vs. criticism” claim like we hear so often from accommodationists. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive, and I detest arguments that cast critical perspectives as “negative” and “unproductive” or seek to classify groups as either hostile/angry/critical or empathetic/engaging/hopeful. An ethical critique of the existing system is invaluable to social justice movements and inseparable from practical proposals for change.)

JT Eberhard recently posted about the creation of the Therapist Project, a secular therapy movement. This is a great idea, but it can’t be based on a rejection – it can’t be simply a negation of religious, New Age, or any other antihumanist or pseudo/antiscientific brands of therapy. It’s also utterly impossible for a humanistic therapy or psychology to develop within the corporate neuropsychiatric system as it stands. We need to develop an authentic humanistic approach, one that encompasses but also goes beyond clinical practice.*

As good a place as any to start in this project, I think, is with Erich Fromm. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Fromm provided an intellectual foundation for a humanistic approach to mental health that goes well beyond professional psychiatry or psychology. So I’m going to write a series of posts summarizing and analyzing various aspects of Fromm’s work. I have a number of points of difference with and criticisms of Fromm, ranging from relatively minor to fairly major, but what I plan to talk about in the initial posts are Fromm’s substantive positive ideas and how they can contribute to the construction of a humanistic movement.

I’ve been reading Fromm’s books over the past few months in no particular order and haven’t organized my notes comprehensively prior to starting, and I’m writing the posts in the series, as I continue to read, without a preset structure or plan. So the series won’t have an overarching structure, and will likely jump around a bit. Fromm’s writing is united by a set of core themes, though, which will provide some consistency. I invite questions and suggestions as I go forward.

My next post in the series will outline Fromm’s conception of humanistic psychiatry and his definition of mental health.

*Actually, as I’ll talk about in future posts, we need to develop a post-humanist approach. In fact, a humanist approach that doesn’t move beyond itself would necessarily fail. Given the serious implications for our own present and future well-being of the harm we continue to cause to other animals and to our environment, even the strictest humanist has, in practical terms, by necessity to be a post-humanist. On occasion I’ll talk about where Fromm falls short in this sense. For the most part in the series, though, I’ll refer to a humanistic model, with the implicit understanding that this is also oriented to nonhuman life.

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