We’ve all heard the hand-wringing about the loneliness crisis on the rise in the United States; one in five of us Millennials say they have no friends and over half of us said it’s because we’re shy and so it’s hard to make friends. Amazingly, almost 30% of us said it’s because we “don’t feel like we need friends.” I don’t relate to that last one at all.
Though I do resonate with some other theories about why my generation may be driving the loneliness numbers up—social media over-reliance, the pedestalizing of hustle culture and the rampant advice to cut “toxic” people out of your life (with the permission to define “toxic” however you want), to name a few—there’s one factor I haven’t seen proposed anywhere else: the existence of the mental-health industry.
The damage hustle-culture is doing are obvious by now. Everyone is made to feel that they have no time for anything but work (worse and worse work at that). It isn’t just because the people getting all the positive media attention are people who pat themselves on the back for getting no sleep and spending no time with family (if they have one) but who get a hell of a lot done.
It’s also because late-stage, unbridled capitalism, which I’ve written about before, is getting impossible to keep up with unless you can figure out how to make money in your sleep (which, by the way, you should be shorting yourself on if you want be loved and have your existence validated). Social media over-reliance is more complicated—it depends on how you use it—but generally, it’s mostly fuel for comparison, where everyone else’s filtered, air-brushed, vacation-filled lives filled with perfect partners and amazing careers always crushes your normal, maybe-not-even-that-bad life.
The encouragement that appears on nearly every lifestyle blog at some point or another to cut “toxic” people out of your life, when the definition of toxic may be merely that they aren’t “serving” you (so does this mean that “you” don’t have to serve anyone and the highest goal in life is to be served?) may need some explanation. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, what’s toxic is not a single person but the dynamic between two people who may otherwise be very good people but are terrible together.
Advising people to label others as “toxic,” as more and more therapists are “empowering” people to do, is leading people to make very entitled, selfish decisions and do really shitty things to each other in the name of “self-care.” Again, I’m not at all saying that people should put up with abusive behavior. But the label “toxic” is being thrown around without much consideration for the fact that you’re sticking it to a person.
You have a right to be treated well by the people in your life and a right to stand up for yourself if that’s not happening; you don’t have a right to be abusive simply because you’ve experienced abuse.
The way the mental-health industry undermines both the idea and the practice of friendship isn’t easy to see. On the one hand, well-meaning loved ones want those who are suffering from mental and emotional distress to be well—not only because it’s easier on them as caregivers, perhaps, but also because they probably really do care.
But the only thing our culture, which is extremely emotionally abusive, tells its subjects about mental health is that it requires “treatment” by “professionals” and could involve horrendous things like medications or involuntary hospitalization “for the good” of the person who is in distress. Thus, people are trained that asking “have you taken your medications?” is a caring question, that encouraging people to seek “professional” help is showing concern, that helping people get connected to therapy or other “services” is loving. It is not.
One of the main reasons it’s not is because, as Martin and Deidre Bobgan write in Psychoheresy: The Psychological Seduction of Christianity, the “skills” that research has shown “good therapists” possess—flexibility, open-mindedness, positive attitudes toward people, and interpersonal skills—are skills anyone can develop, and are what we should expect in friendships.
You remember those free relationships you have with other humans you like and who like you, right? The ones our society completely devalues and encourages us to throw away the moment they become “toxic” or stop “serving” us, whatever that means.
Our society does not provide any tools for creating and maintaining healthy friendships, which is not surprising since it doesn’t value friendship much at all, other than “supporting” people in “seeking professional help.” The existence of such “help” allows people to abdicate responsibility to the people in their life they call their friends. There’s no need to learn how to become better friends, and how to contribute meaningfully to relationships. Instead, people believe that someone else is providing the support, care, and action that people in terrible situations need from the people closest to them.
In my former partnership, I was deeply emotionally neglected, isolated, and gaslighted. I was made to feel guilty for having the human desires of companionship, support, and acceptance for who I am (which I was also made to feel that I should apologize for). When I began expressing little glimpses of my troubles to my friends, the few who believed me encouraged me to seek couple’s therapy. They thought this was being supportive. They thought this “support” was sufficient.
When the first therapist refused to believe my side of the story and instead began “supporting” my ex in “standing up for himself” (which he had no trouble doing, actually), I told my friends. All they offered was, “Find another therapist.” My ex and I tried five therapists, none of whom saw past the surface dynamic being set up and stoked intentionally by my former partner.
After therapist number three, who my ex could so easily manipulate I couldn’t believe she had a license to practice therapy, I stopped talking to my friends about it. Or about my abusive marriage altogether, because the only advice they offered ad nauseum was to “just keep trying therapy.”
And those were the ones who believed me and believed they were being supportive. They foisted off doing the work of caring, listening and taking action on my behalf to a “trained professional” because the mental-health industry has been successful in getting the general public to believe that professionals can “help,” that if such “help” isn’t working it’s because you haven’t found the “right” help yet and that the untrained “lay” person will make it worse if they try to get involved in any way with relational or emotional “problems.”
This is the subtler but more pervasive way the mental-health industry undercuts true friendship: deference to “the experts.” Folks cherry-pick which experts we’ll defer to, of course, but, because of how scary and violent the media constantly tells us those with “mental illnesses” are, people are generally all too happy to point a struggling friend in the direction of a professional rather than learning how to be a support themselves. And the professionals are all too happy to receive more revenue—I mean clients they can feel nice and fulfilled about “helping.”
If, as the common thought goes, it is the relationship that is the healing agent in a therapy dyad rather than any skills or training the therapist has, then all “therapy” is the monetization of an otherwise deeply sacred connection between people. And in a culture that is actively against human connection, it’s no wonder people not only don’t push back against this but direct their friends toward it whenever anything “difficult” comes up.
The violation continues. More and more mental-health professionals and coaches are creating groups and “communities” on social media where they claim to be facilitating that connection humans need among members. These are often (though not always) subscription-based groups so, while the connections you may or may not make among group members is free, you are charged for access to the opportunity to build such connections, which you may or may not be successful at.
So it’s just like what real life used to be/should be, except now you have to pay. Every one of these groups I’ve investigated has also been subject to the “facilitator”—either a self-appointed “coach” or an actually credentialed “professional”—soliciting advice about what they should put in their upcoming book that will focus on people “just like” these members so they can continue their healing journey.
Essentially, these professional helpers want free advice from people who are likely struggling financially (given the statistical connection between poverty and disability/illness/mental and emotional distress plus our current [lack of] social safety net and the state of “services” in this country), to include in a product (a book) that they plan to profit from with no clear plan for compensating the individuals who they want to contribute to the work.
The danger isn’t just in inflicting those who get their existential validation from exploiting people and calling it helping onto struggling people who just need a damn friend. The danger, as I mentioned above, is also that fewer and fewer people are concerned with being a good friend.
I’m not saying that friendship will solve all the world’s problems, but I am saying that it will make communities stronger. I’m not saying strong communities are all we need to change the way we care for those who struggle with what we’re currently still calling “mental illnesses” because I don’t know that for sure. What I am saying is that we haven’t tried it.
And the reason we haven’t is because the mental-health industry couldn’t be more eager to take the “burden” of truly caring about each other off our hands so it can monetize what should be basic human compassion, caring, and concern for those around us. It’s no wonder people are lonely: the definition of a “good friend” these days is someone to maybe grab drinks with after work on Friday (or whatever COVID version of that we’re pretending is “connection” these days) but will likely flake out the same day with a self-flagellating apology that compels you have to take care of them, if they bother to say anything at all.
Asking for anything more, like emotional support, consistency, or being known by each other is either “too much,” “needy,” and “high maintenance,” or the sign of a “mental illness.” Asking for anything like real human companionship is labeled co-dependency; our society thinks that such a need can be “serviced” by a “professional.”
The professionalization of mental-health care has not made friendship better, even as it claims to improve people’s emotional well-being and facilitate self-actualization; it guts friendship by making it so easy to deflect any remotely “needy” friend onto someone else. As long as there is someone “trained” in this or that specialty, there is no felt need to learn how to care for each other the way each of us show up in the world. Because there are therapists that can “fix” people, our excessively avoidant, emotionally fragile culture tells us, the need for love is a sign that you need therapy.
It is time to consider the implications of a system that turns basic human needs for belonging and acceptance into something only professionals who are highly trained can do effectively—for profit. Just because the therapeutic relationship can sometimes go very well doesn’t negate the overall impact it’s having on the state of friendship and the willingness of people to take on the “inconvenience” of learning how to genuinely care for those in their midst, whoever they may be, however they may be experiencing their lives and the world.
It isn’t just about saving us from a system that cannibalizes those it defines as out of the bounds of normal (which, you may have noticed, is more and more of us). It’s about how this system is blocking us from having a world we want.
I’d like a world where I can count on my friends. I’d like a world where counting on my friends and wanting to be loved without having to exchange money for it doesn’t get me rejected for “expecting too much” or diagnosed with a DSM label. But how wild would it be to have a world where we could count on strangers as fellow human beings who recognize us as their own?
Dismiss me as idealistic, naïve or stupid if you like, but think about how many needs currently being either unmet or met by an exploitative system (the mental-health field and capitalism both fit here) could get met. Think about how many legitimate defense strategies and coping mechanisms—that we presently are compelled to not only keep in place but hone by the state of distrust, oppression, and corruption—we could release. Think about how much peace we might be able to find if, when we saw another human, our instinct was to care rather than cower or ignore.
It starts with rightfully taking back our power to care for each other from the experts we’ve elevated to a place they haven’t, despite their gobs of education and training and licenses and credentials, really earned.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.