Troubled Americans Rely on Drugs, Drink, Self-Concern and Pursuit of Career or Money, Psychologists Say at Convention : Society's 'Quick Fix' in a Plethora of Worries

Times Staff Writer

Americans are doing a pretty good job of keeping a lid on their worries. The problem is, the bottom may fall out.

In a nutshell, that's the opinion of psychologists from around the country about their fellow citizens. The psychologists see a population in which many--if not most--are almost adamantly avoiding looming personal, domestic and international troubles in favor of instant gratification and self-deception.

Drugs, drink, denial and the single-minded pursuit of career or money have become major means for many Americans attempting to insulate themselves from the world at large, they add. And, some conclude, rampant concern for self is ripping up the social fabric, tearing hardest at minorities and the poor.

Turning to the 'Quick Fix'

"People are kind of frightened and they're covering it up with a quick fix," said Stanley Graham, a New York psychologist who listed cocaine and alcohol as two of the most worrisome forms of escapism. "We're all set to get very scared. We're not prepared for a downturn in the economy; we're not prepared for war. We're not set to deal with those things because we're in a state of repressed hysteria. . . I'm scared (that) an economic thing, a moderate recession, would be enough to shake the country into a depression, a psychological depression."

If there is no depression-causing crisis, if the country moves along much as it is now, Graham predicted that more and more people will resort to "more and more bizarre behavior," perhaps leading double lives as "straight arrows by day" while acting out drug-induced fantasies by night.

Some Refuse to Generalize

In interviews, other psychologists attending the American Psychological Assn.'s convention here echoed Graham's comments when asked what they see when they look at the United States in 1985. While some declined to comment, saying the subject was too large for generalizations, most spoke readily, as if they had been pondering the subject for a long time. Others made relevant statements in press conferences, speeches and papers during the five-day gathering that ended Tuesday.

Drugs and alcohol abuse, the nuclear threat, violence, the federal budget deficit, the disease AIDS, job dissatisfaction and a grab-bag of international and domestic problems were cited as symptoms or causes of the anarchic state of the country's mental map. However, as one psychologist noted, the image may be skewed because "people don't come to us for laughs or pleasure."

Whatever the specifics, there was agreement that many of today's social, economic and political problems are driving people apart--individually and as members of groups or classes--and potentially creating a host of mental health problems.

Stanley Krippner of the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco said that the "general confidence" in the country masks a "dysfunctional" side of the United States. "A lot of Americans simply deny and will not face some very severe problems," Krippner said, listing nuclear war, the national debt, drug abuse and the condition of minorities.

'A Very Mixed Report'

"I would have to give a very mixed report," Krippner said. "Things look fine for the short-term psychological picture, but down the road there almost certainly will be problems."

Lenore Walker of Denver, chairwoman of the association's women's caucus, said she's worried that the country's outlays for defense while "spending virtually nothing on preventive mental health" will reap a harvest of psychological and physical problems, particularly in stress-related illnesses. Health insurance cost-containment programs have made the problem worse, she said, by forcing people to delay or forgo expensive psychological therapy.

Jacqueline Bouhoutsos, a professor of clinical psychology at UCLA, said the country is suffering from "anxiety neurosis" over "a tremendous number of life-threatening problems which strike at the very heart of the people."

'People Are Afraid'

"AIDS is tremendously anxiety provoking," she added. "People are afraid now of contamination. It's like the plague, it has some of the same overtones; it has a retributional aspect. It's having a direct effect on behavior. People are limiting their sexual activity. . . . There is a fear of getting involved sexually, and that is a kind of social comment."

Herbert Freudenberger, a New York psychologist in private practice, said that total immersion in careers or drugs or other pursuits indicates an overemphasis on individualism. "There is a decrease in values and morality" that is reflected in "the me-ness of society," he said. "There's not enough we-ness and the use of cocaine to me is an expression of the me-ness." Freudenberger added that he sees cocaine as a middle-class blight responsible for the disintegration of families and individuals.

"Middle-class guys are taking cocaine without realizing the consequences," he said. "Before they know it they're into it for a lot of money, several thousand dollars a week or more. They can't pay their mortgages; their wives leave them."

Indeed, at times the psychologists sounded like moralists, decrying the breakdown of traditional codes of conduct that once made social navigation less dangerous.

Ernest R. Hilgard of Stanford University called it "the lack of coherence in our cultural standards," adding that social dilemmas now range from the trivial--how to dress for a garden party--to the significant--how to raise children. "You always have to wonder how you're doing," he said. "You don't know what to expect of other people either." In general, "there's too little sense of community and social responsibility," Hilgard said.

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner, in a speech prepared for delivery Monday, argued that there is perhaps too much comfort and not enough challenge for the generally affluent population of the United States and the Western world generally.

'Little Left to Escape'

"We not only resist the constraints imposed by tyrannical governments and religions, we resist seat belts, hard hats and no-smoking signs," Skinner said in the prepared remarks. "We escape not only from painful extremes of temperature and exhausting work but from the mildest discomforts and annoyances. As a result, there is very little left to escape from or act to prevent."

Freudenberger and others noted that the problems of this country are not limited to urban areas and the affluent segments of society. In fact, a group of psychologists from the heartland held a press conference Tuesday morning to discuss "the farm foreclosure crisis and other health issues in rural America." The farm crisis, they said, is increasing stress and taking other emotional tolls on the nation's farmers.

One disturbing element is the search for scapegoats to blame for farm foreclosures, low crop prices and high interest rates that have depressed the agricultural economy. "I have the children of farm families as patients in New York," Freudenberger said. "They come back from a visit home and tell me, 'You won't believe this, but my Uncle Bob is ranting and raving about blacks and Jews causing all his problems."'

Harry Levinson, who operates the Levinson Institute in Cambridge, Mass., blamed poor leadership for fragmentation in the country at many levels--community, corporate and national.

Lack of leadership is so serious, he maintained, that the country needs "new social devices for resolving community and personal differences." New methods are especially needed to reduce the influence of special interest groups "who operate at crisis times with crisis agendas." He also called for establishing "commissioners of conciliation and direction who understand their communities" to mediate controversies at the local level.

In business, Levinson said, there has been "a significant failure to grasp the subtleties of human motivation" so that many workers feel alienated from their employers. "Managers are relying on reward and punishment or leaning heavily on exhortation and persuasion. People are being urged right and left to be excellent without being told why. They don't know where their organizations are going and these organizations are agglomerations of people who seek in work significant meaning in their lives."

Levinson and others were critical of the Reagan Administration, blaming it for a variety of public ills, ranging from widespread denial of pressing problems such as the federal deficit to an increase in the suicide rate.

"There seems to be only an ideological point of view," Levinson said. "Issues are decided without evaluation. The personality of the President is built around pleasing the audience without any great ability for conceptual thinking."

Ralph K. White of George Washington University, in a speech Sunday on "The Lifespace, the Stream of Thought and War," maintained that "selective inattention" is the way both Americans and Russians have managed to stay on the brink of nuclear war.

" . . . in light of recent evidence that nearly all of us, both here and in the Soviet Union, do acknowledge the horrors of nuclear war," White said, "I would add that a great many people on both sides, after acknowledging the horrors, turn their minds away again, back to their everyday concerns, and manage not to think or act in ways that might prevent the catastrophe."

White also claimed that selective inattention is the way the Administration has avoided taking stronger measures to curb the budget deficit. His speech was one of many devoted to the issues of peace and war at the convention and nuclear war made nearly everyone's list of pressing psychological issues.

UCLA's Edwin Shneidman blamed inattention of another sort for what he said he believes is a clear recent rise in the suicide rate. It is, he said, a "cold and sobering sociopolitical fact that more liberal federal leadership tends, in general, to tolerate and support sociological and psychological approaches to what are called social problems, of which suicide is clearly one." More conservative administrations tend to seek medical and biological solutions to suicide, Shneidman said. He decried "the medicalizing of what is essentially a psychological malaise," adding, "Suicide is not a disease like measles or AIDS. Thus, the dramatis personae along the Potomac are very relevant to public policy on suicide prevention."

Whether they were discussing suicide or nuclear war, most of those interviewed agreed that violence in all its forms is having a profound impact on people's minds. By becoming used to violence, accepting it as a part of daily life, people have become hardened, they said.

"Violence is a given," said Freudenberger; "it's part of the environment."

And Gail Wyatt of UCLA said, "I think someone has to communicate that violence is learned. Violence begets violence. People learn that it is a way of expressing feelings, of solving problems. Violence perpetuates itself."

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