Proposal for a new psychology of oppressed Americans: Mental health symptoms induced by political tyranny and rapid social changes.

(Nota bene: This was intended to be a group project over at FDL. The results are reported here. I began with reporting from my own personal experiences.)

Societies undergoing rapid change from political democracy to tyranny experience severe and traumatic social stress. Individual citizens are subject to these acute stresses involuntarily. The dosage of the stress is unpredictable and originates from outside of the individual. A range of psychiatric symptoms (fear, sadness, anergia, anger) can be induced by these exogenous stressors such as the betrayal of trust, broken political promises, and the loss of civil rights. Criteria for inclusion in this psychology would be psychiatric symptoms determined to be in response to political and societal crises.

Past psychologies of oppressed peoples.

For Americans, the loss of representative voice through meaningful elections, have past correlates in the experience of African nations colonized by European states, in the exploitation and dominance of the Phillipines by Americans, and in the experience of citizens living through transition from democratic hopes to rule through military dictatorship. The purpose of this proposal is to begin to re-conceptualize the mental health difficulties of citizens going through these externally induced societal problems. Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth) wrote extensively about the inner experience of Algerians when they were colonized and oppressed by the French. Hopefully, his work can serve as an initial set of concepts for research here.

Initiating a new paradigm: The work of others on income inequality.

My inspiration for this research originates in the work on income inequality of Wilkinson & Pickett, authors of The Spirit LevelThe authors wrote that violence is often a reaction to disrespect coupled with the absence of any social status or social standing within one’s community. If status-less-ness can can lead to violence, and if other stressors such as unemployment can lead to loss of motivation, the loss of relationships and alienation of others, then a case can be made for studying the responses of citizens to severe political and societal changes. The latter changes can be a threat to self, identity and well-being every bit as much as job loss and/or by an instance of being humiliated by community members.

Criteria for Inclusion of psychiatric symptoms.

Brainstorming about this proposal for a new psychology of oppressed Americans, involves the task of finding valid criteria for inclusion for psychiatric symptoms. The most frequently referenced idea was that the psychiatric reactions to oppression had their origin in external factors. Because of their origin in external stressors, the symptoms “names” needed to be reconfigured to convey that they are not the result of individual intrapsychic conflicts. That said, there may be symptoms which are the result of internal reactions to suppressed feelings, which if they were communicated to the outside world, might lead to danger to the bearer of the suppressed feelings (rage). Here are some suggested symptom clusters:

Social Depression and the Fear of More Loss.

It is sadly moving to see the distress of others for whom there is only fear of more loss. The communication with others is muted, abbreviated interactions seem to be the new norm, and a person appears to be hanging-on to what is left of their personal possessions and life. Risk averse, attention is focused on taking care of immediate needs and the requirements of the job or immediate activity. When asked about ’causes’ for his/her hopelessness, the response is that past efforts led nowhere.

Denial and Repression.

The person who appears numb to the narcissistic wounds to the self due to for example, a loss of privacy and loss of a voice in society,  appears to fill the void (of not responding) with hobbies, activities, meetings and media. Repressive state tactics by the State and police do not register, but the plight of cholera victims in Haiti seems more real and something that he can do something about. He protests to the interviewer that he can still travel and make money through business dealings. He worries about increasing crime rates in his neighborhood, but not why lawlessness is increasing as income disparities intensify.

Fear of the State and its agents of violence.

With a loss of social trust, civil rights, personal freedoms and with the looming specter of martial law in case a domestic permanent “war economy” is declared, the individual is left in a precarious state. Who is then to be called when criminal activity needs to be stopped or reported? Who is there who can be called a trusted authority figure? Or is any contact with the State a call to be monitored, surveilled, and to be arrested oneself? Unlike ‘anxiety’, this new fear and avoidance appears to be a logical response to a real danger. In addition,  dissent is silenced through legislation which abuses the legal system, making it illegal to engage in 1st amendment activities. To spontaneously protest is to expose oneself potentially to a violent response from police agents of the State.

Rage and Self-censorship.

Since martial law conditions are an insult to self-esteem, sense of fairness, privacy, safety of one’s person and one’s family, rage is constantly being generated by the real and virtual, and the bureaucratic check-points of the intrusive security state. One is reminded constantly of the precariousness of the basic conditions upon which life depends including just travelling to the store and getting home unmolested by authorities who operate without supervision and limits. Under authoritarianism, the powerful are not constrained in their denigration of the powerless. This generates rage. According to Fanon, if acted-out in violence, this rage is dangerous because it evokes a police response of excessive, punitive force. Hence, self-suppression is an adaptation agreed on in advance by all those who have no power under the new system. They are fully aware that if they commit an act of violence,  they can expect no justice if they protest to corrupt judges, political hacks, annoyed police, and lawless jailors.

Loss of “personal space” and stress responses.

To be stopped and frisked on the street by suspicious Police officers is humiliating and frightening. To know that all of your communications and where you are communicating from are being logged and monitored is demeaning. To be lied to in euphemisms which defy reason (torture is okay because they renamed it enhanced interrogation), is registering within each individual, who are well aware of the difference between right and wrong. This registration evokes a stress response on a physical level. A continuous stress response doses the body with damaging stress hormones. In the accounting system of a human life, oppression’s effects exact a cost on both physical and  psychological levels. It all “registers” in the body.


Endless international wars, economic depletion at home, threats by the State to commit to new wars, demonization of innocents in other countries, demonization of minorities and aliens at home, and immersion into an atmosphere of political impotence, all exact a cost to the individual citizen. He/she is thrust into the external toxic stew and a personal reaction is unavoidable. Internally, just as a sense of fairness, trusting others to be available if there is a crisis, and an expectation of reciprocity…..just as those carry their possessors safely and securely through their days….so distrust and an expectation that one will be exploited or harmed, and no sense of being able to draw on others for help…. may lead some people to feel helpless and alone in facing the smallest difficulties. How one copes with these intense feelings can make a big difference in the quality of life for oneself and one’s group.

Displaced Emotions.

Fanon wrote about the intensity with which Algerians (the oppressed) fought with each other instead of fighting with their oppressors.  He understood this as an outlet for feelings which were originally directed toward the settlers who had brutally mistreated the Algerians. There is a great deal of visible conflict within the political biosphere in the U.S.. Oligarchic media have successfully used the divide-and-conquer strategy to set Americans up to fight each other, including old and young. Making friends of opponents is a high achievement of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Urban youth have been able to overcome racial barriers between poor whites and poor minorities within Occupy. In rural areas, racism still serves the oligarchs’ goals of whipping up hatreds. Additionally, the acceptance of unsatisfying, token solutions to deep problems by the still-employed-class creates an unnecessary target for class antagonisms. The jobless ask themselves why those with jobs appear not to care about them.

The cost is high.

The cost to the individual in psychological and physical health is high when societies descend from democracy to tyranny. We can draw on historical examples for guidance in understanding the impact of this shift for the powerless. In my brainstorming, I came up with symptom clusters (all of which were initiated by political and societal changes) which included social depression, denial and repression, fear of the State and agents of violence, rage and self-censorship, loss of personal space and stress responses, helplessness and displaced emotions.

Thank you for taking the time to read the proposal. I wrote this to help myself to understand what is happening to Americans’ mental health as we face major changes in our society. All of these ideas are tentative. My hope is that by thinking about mental health impacts of this crisis, that we can find improved ways to take care of each other beyond our most innate instincts toward kindness.

Updated April 5th, 2012

Recursive inclusion of readers associations and concepts.

Reasonless traffic stops.

One reader was traumatized by a traffic stop and an attempt to search their RV for no given reason. The shock of this experience resulted in helplessness, a feeling of “who do you go to?” when the police are the problem.

Daily chronic stress.

Another reader spoke of the gradual, additive effect of being stopped and frisked by police, commenting that this had led to a PTSD in itself, an emotional shock which changed his/her beliefs and caused them “never to feel safe again.” The concept ofdaily chronic stress fits well within the larger construct of external societal stressors such as living under martial law. This concept can also be applied to the corrosive stress of poverty and unemployment.

PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD has a murky history. The VA has denied soldiers benefits for PTSD claiming that they had pre-existing Personality Disorders, thus blaming the victims of war. It is my preference to grab the part of the construct which refers to the emotional shock of external events and begin with that criteria. Current thinking narrowly ties and aligns PTSD to a violent event. So can we redefine violence as any emotionally shocking event?  Poverty is violence. Hunger is violence. Getting the message that your life and your talents are of no value to your society is violence.

Medications. Treatments for our pain.

A reader asks what our relationship should be to controversial medications. That is not an area where I have any current knowledge, but she asks valid questions. How should we respond to our distress? Are we not further crucifying the poor for self-medicating with illegal drugs?

Psychology should be for use by everyone and for the betterment of human beings, not tyrants.

A reader reminds us that the ultimate goal of psychology is to improve our lives. And not be used to belittle, control, subdue, exclude, deride, torture, or be used as an excuse to imprison other human beings. NB-(From the same writer who said, “Of whom shall we say, he had no humanity?”)

Updated April 6th, 2012

Sexual Humiliation as a tool for control and intimidation.

From yesterday’s news : Naomi Wolf writes in the Guardian that the new permission for police to strip search any new arrestees by the Supreme Court is a new method of intimidation; this new threat to invade personal body space is meant to chill Occupy Wall Street protestors and people who want to attend protests. It is my preference to make this a separate construct from rage and self-censorship, because I firmly believe that this kind of humiliation is unique, traumatic and endures in PTSD symptoms. However, I am convinced that vindictive or vengeful rage will result as a response to this kind of humiliation. There is likely to be established a firm connection between this kind of humiliation and abuse and subsequent rage. Only the future will tell if this is true. I added class war under the phenomena of displaced emotion. Perhaps it should be under something called ‘resentment’.

At this point, the list of  suggested symptom clusters for research includes the following:

(Indentations are suggested included or related constructs, though they all seem to relate in strong ways to each other)

_____Social Depression and Fear of More Loss.

_____Emotional shock.

_____Denial and Repression.

_____Fear of the State and its agents of violence.

_____Sexual Humiliation.

_____Loss of personal space and Stress Responses.

__________Daily Chronic Stress


_____Rage and Self-Censorship.


_____Displaced Emotion.

__________Racism. (“bicycling”: rage at those below, sucking up to those above)

__________Class war: rich vs. 99%,  middle-class vs. poor.

_____Distrust and doubt of official media.


Updated April 7th, 2012

Distrust and doubt of official media.

G. Greenwald’s insight regarding State-run media and war promotion suggests that a profound distrust of formal, official media would be an appropriate defense against being deceived. Doubt about the truthfulness of official stories reminiscent of Russian propaganda during their communist years would seem to be a natural defense against lies. From the literature of powerful countries occupying weak countries, we learn that the purpose of “state-run media” in a post-democratic America would be to justify its own aggression, to de-legitimize opposition and dissent, and to sing its own praises. Once these purposes are well-learned through several state-run media campaigns such as the media promotion of the Iraq war, the Libya war and now the Iran war, public distrust  of the media would seem appropriate and justified.

_____Distrust and doubt of official media.

Updated April 9th, 2012

Information divulged from a FOIA of the SERE program and of the Bush torture program shows a clear intent to humiliate, disgrace and induce learned helplessness in torture victims by U.S. soldiers and intelligence operatives. That document can be found here.  The threat of being stuck in a box and told that a stinging insect is being put inside with you, is the epitome of the intimidated American citizen: here.  Greenwald writes about the abuse of detention of journalists and political critics at the border by HS police. The intent is to intimidate and instill fear and ultimately to control critics and to silence them. We should include government stops, searches and intimidation in the list of oppressive tactics used to silence critics and to instill fear.


Link to the original post at FDL:

Proposal for a new psychology of oppressed Americans: Mental health symptoms induced by political tyranny and rapid social changes. | MyFDL

Related post on the psychological impact of income inequality.

Post on income inequality and its relationship with a host of social  and health problems.

Income Inequality: When inequality increases, communities lose trust.

Income Inequality: Mental health and drug use.

Income Inequality: Physical Health and Life Expectancy

Income Inequality: Violence.

Income Inequality, Racism and Imprisonment.

Surveillance: The Unbearable Awareness of Total Surveillance.

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