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Issue No. 33 (April 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Confronting the social causes of
psychological depression: Too taboo?

This is a very strange country during Christmas season. Everybody wants you to believe they’re Oh-just-fine, but you don’t have to look very hard to notice an undertow.

Last December I was in line at my neighborhood post office -- an unusually long line, to be sure -- and customers began screaming at the poor sales clerks that the line was moving too slow.

I went to a mall that same week to do some Christmas shopping, and counted 37 shoppers before spotting one who looked like she enjoyed what she was doing.

Called some hospitals around town and confirmed my suspicion that suicide attempts were way up -- as they are (I was told) during every Holiday season.

There’s such an enormous gap between what we want people to know about ourselves, and how we are.

Behind their shoeshines and their smiles, many Americans are hurting -- or assiduously trying to numb their hurt.

Some of this is garden-variety sadness, a function of being alive. But most of it is not.

Most of it can be readily traced to social causes: How we were raised at home, what were were taught (and not taught) at school, and what we have to endure at our workplaces every day.

Twenty, thirty, forty percent of us may be dying inside for reasons that have mostly to do with our communal lives . . . with the choices we’ve unthinkingly made as a people. But most politicians in America wouldn’t touch the subject of psychological depression with a hundred-foot pole. God knows, they might offend somebody if they did.

Most political activists are no more forthcoming. Their whole reason for being is to fight external demons (gun manufacturers, Hollywood, whatever), not help folks confront their own internal demons.

And how could political reporters keep their jobs if they made their audiences uncomfortable?

Thus it is that psychological depression -- not race, not class, not homosexuality -- is the great political taboo of the 21st century.

Except at this newsletter, of course.

We are not entirely alone. Some writers, some activists, and even some politicians are committed to addressing the social causes of psychological depression, as you’ll see below; but chances are good you haven’t heard of them or their initiatives.

They face an uphill battle, to put it mildly. But it’s one of the most essential battles in America today. Just as Europe had to survive bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) in order to become all that it could be, so we have to overcome what I call the Blue Plague.


The glossy magazines are full of grand titles for the present age -- “knowledge era,” “communications era,” “computer age.” But if you talk with doctors, therapists, and sociologists -- people who look into the American soul every day -- you’ll get an entirely different slant on our prospects.

“[W]e have entered an ‘age of melancholy,’” says Boston University sociologist David Karp, author of Speaking of Sadness (1996).

“Major depression is the most common problem a primary-care physician treats,” says Dr. Wayne Katon of the University of Washington Medical School (our #1 primary-care medical school).

“We are living in an epidemic of depression,” says psychotherapist Richard O’Connor, author of the wise and popular book Undoing Depression (1997). “Every indication suggests that more people are depressed, more of the time, more severely, and starting earlier in their lives, than ever before.”

Blue Plague in the promised land

The statistics on depression are, in fact, astonishing. If this were any other social problem, it would be high on the nation’s political agenda.

According to observers as varied as former Clinton policy analyst Rebecca Blank and radical evangelical leader Ron Sider, poverty affects about 14% of the American people. That represents an enormous number of people.

But psychological depression -- serious (often called “clinical”) depression -- affects even more people.

According to O’Connor’s review of research done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “almost 20% of the population meet the criteria for some form of depression at any given time -- and that does not mean people who are temporarily feeling the blues and will be better next week, but people who are having real difficulty functioning in life” [emphases added].

And that’s just the official figure. A closer look shows that the real figure is much higher.

According to O’Connor, the rate of depression was found to be twice as high for women as it is for men. That certainly doesn’t square with my experience of men and women. (Does it square with yours?) Terrence Real, author of the best book I’ve read about depression (I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, 1999), makes short work of the official statistics about men:

“As sobering as [the official statistics] may be,” Real says, “I believe they greatly underestimate the full impact of depression in men’s lives. . . . While depression may carry some sense of stigma for all people, the disapprobation attached to this disease is particularly acute for men. The very definition of manhood lies in ‘standing up’ to discomfort and pain. . . .”

Real’s point: Men go to extraordinary lengths to deny or disguise their depression. But in actual fact, the rate of depression for men is roughly the same as it is for women.

Which means that 27% of us -- not 20% of us -- meet the criteria for serious depression at any one time.

Twice as many Americans are depressed as live in poverty.

And even that understates the problem, since depression rates are rising at an alarming pace.

There’s been a “tremendous increase in rates of depression,” says sociologist Karp. “During any given week [now], 15 million Americans will attend one of about 500,000 support group meetings. . . .”

“Th[e depression] rate seems to be increasing dramatically,” says O’Connor. “A lifetime study of 9,500 adults found that people born earlier in the century were significantly less likely to develop depression than those born later. . . .

“[And] depression strikes at a younger age [now]. If you were born in the 1930s, your own first depressive episode was likely to strike between the ages of 30-35. But if you were born in 1956, your first episode was likely to strike between 20-25.”

Terrence Real cites a reputable study showing that, since the beginning of the 20th century, “each successive generation has doubled its susceptibility to depression” [emphasis added].

Just so, one recently completed study of Generation-Y’ers, conducted by researchers at Simmons College (Mass.), found that fully one-third of them had “succumbed to depression” by age 27 (Boston University Daily Free Press, 16 Nov. 2000).

Thirty-three percent and counting . . . and even that understates the problem, since people over 65 are generally more depressed than people under 65 (Chicago Tribune, 25 Nov. 2000).

Unless something is done, Gen-Y can expect that 40% of its retirees will experience clinical depression.

The costs of not-seeing

American society’s refusal to confront the Blue Plague head-on is phenomenally expensive, in a variety of ways.

Economically -- in terms of poor productivity, lost work days, hospitalization, outpatient care, etc. -- the cost has been estimated at $44 billion a year (Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1993, p. 403).

“In terms of overall economic burden to our society, depression is the second most costly disease there is,” says O’Connor.

Socially, depression may be even more “costly.”

The Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health (1999, available at www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/mentalhealth), carefully crafted, meticulously documented, and almost universally ignored, put those costs bluntly when it said, “Among developed nations, including the U.S., major depression is the leading cause of disability” [emphasis added].

But the cultural costs are the worst.

None of the scholars and therapists I’ve read thinks depression can be isolated -- like chicken pox -- from the rest of a person’s feelings or behaviors.

Instead, they’ve all found that depression generates a “cluster of disorders” (to use Terrence Real’s felicitous phrase), a series of compensatory “addictions” or self-protective “defenses” that dominate people’s individual lives . . . and, increasingly, dominate American life.

I amused myself putting them into three broad categories:

1. The feeling-rotten disorders -- lowered self-esteem, guilt, shame, anxiety, and the like.

2. The acting-out disorders -- alcoholism, workaholism, overeating, overspending, and the like.

3. The doomsday disorders -- cruelty toward others, heart disease, and suicide.

Obviously, some of these disorders can occur even without the “stimulus” of depression. But the overwhelming message of scholars and therapists and memoirists who’ve plumbed these depths is: Don’t bet on it.

For example, Terrence Real convincingly demonstrates that “covert depression is at its core a disorder of self-esteem.”

In his most popular book, the memoir Darkness Visible (1990), novelist William Styron explores the intimate connections between his alcoholism and his depression.

In a brave and wonderfully done self-help book, Overcoming Overspending (1995), Washington, D.C. therapist Olivia Mellan -- herself a recovering overspender -- explains how overspending can be “a way of numbing ourselves” and a “solace we learn to seek.”

According to the American Heart Association, depressed individuals are 40% more likely to develop heart disease than less depressed or non-depressed individuals.

And Dr. Satcher’s unforgivably neglected Surgeon General’s Report, cited above, reports there are 31,000 suicides annually in the U.S. That’s 50% higher than the homicide rate (which seems to get about 50 times more press coverage).

Also buried in the SG’s Report is the fact that about 500,000 Americans visit emergency rooms each year because of attempted suicide.

It’s as if every person in the city of Seattle, or Denver, or Cleveland, or Boston, showed up at the hospital each year with blood dripping from their wrists.

The good news

By now I hope I’ve convinced you that psychological depression is an overwhelming fact of American life, and one that political thinkers and activists must confront head-on.

(I don’t like spending much space in this newsletter describing problems, as distinct from solutions. But the eerie silence of politicians, journalists, and political activists on this issue made it necessary, I think.)

The bad news is that I haven’t exaggerated the situation. The sources I’ve relied on have no political axes to grind.

The good news, though, is that the Blue Plague is curable. . . .

Pinpointing the social causes

For decades, two camps have been fighting a pitched battle about the causes of depression.

One one side are those who want to focus on biology -- the brain -- generally by treating it with drugs. Tipper Gore’s White House Conference on Mental Health, held in the summer of 1999, was a flagrant example of brain-uber-alles, “a cheerleading session for drug manufacturers,” Arianna Huffington rightly call- ed it.

It was also a cheerleading session for motherhood and apple pie: Dr. Harold Koplewicz, among others, sought to assure the journalists present that blaming depression on “bad parenting” is an “antiquated way of thinking.”

(You can see from Dr. Koplewicz’s remarks why psychological depression is such an unappealing political issue. What politician wants to stand accused of blaming parents, teachers and the American workplace for our emotional suffering?)

On the other side of the traditional debate are those who blame depression on the larger culture -- most prominently these days, journalist David Awbrey.

In his beautifully written book Finding Hope in the Age of Melancholy (1999), Awbrey describes psychological depression as a vague “spiritual or moral crisis, an outgrowth of contemporary culture.” His solutions are equally vague -- “spirituality,” “community,” coming up with a “lasting purpose in life.”

If only depression could be addressed so poetically and sweetly!

Recently, a third position has begun to emerge, a “radical middle” position that borrows from both traditional positions. It treats biology as important, but less than decisive -- and it insists that “culture” be understood to mean, not anything and everything, but the key experiences people are exposed to in life.

O’Connor gives a good concise description of the radical middle position when he says, “Both ways of thinking are true. . . . There is a biochemical process in depression, but the individual has been made susceptible to depression through life experiences.”

In her important book Silencing the Self: Women and Depression (1991), Seattle-area therapist and psychology professor Dana Crowley Jack takes a similarly radical-middle position: “Given that psychosocial stresses translate into biochemical changes within the brain, the distinction between physical and social factors may be artificial.”

Thanks to psychologists like O’Connor and Jack, those who want to address the social causes of depression now know just what to ask:

Where are our most important “life experiences” and “psychosocial stresses” to be found? And how can we make them more benign?

Overwhelmingly, the people I read or consulted with put their fingers on three key institutions: The family, the school, and the workplace.

Where the stresses are: Family

After Columbine, some politicians and civic leaders spoke out against uninvolved or morally obtuse parents. But that just scratches the surface.

“Far more prevalent,” says Suzy Garfinkle Chevrier, founding president of The Parenting Project, “are . . . subtler versions of poor parenting.

“Characterized by the lacks of nurturing, respect, guidance, appropriate discipline, and failure to meet the needs of children as individuals, these common family situations . . . have negative effects on lifetime mental health” (www.parentingproject.org).

Therapists like Terrence Real stress the traumatic impact of the insensitivity of even well-educated, well-mannered parents: “[A person’s] depression [is] born from the pain of . . . hundreds, perhaps even thousands of . . . small instances of [parental] betrayal or abandonment. . . .

“[C]hildhood damage may not result merely from violation. . . . I make a distinction between active versus passive injury. Active trauma is usually a boundary violation of some kind, a clearly toxic interaction. Passive trauma, on the other hand, is a form of physical or emotional neglect[, an] absence of connection.”

Then there’s our bedrock sex role training.

“[Many] mothers teach their daughters to silence and diminish themselves,” says Dana Crowley Jack (cited above). Eventually “the woman begins to experience two opposing selves: an outwardly conforming, compliant self, and an inner, secret self who is enraged and resentful.” The result can be depression.

Meanwhile, according to Terrence Real, many sons are being taught to conceal their vulnerabilities (“be strong”) and meet their social and expressive needs through achievement. Eventually they become locked into what Real calls “performance-based esteem” or the “agenda of specialness.” The result can be depression -- sometimes overt, but more often “masked” or covert.

Some policy analysts are trying to draw public attention to poor parenting practices. A study released this winter by Zero to Three, a sophisticated Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, concludes that most U.S. parents know little about child rearing.

It finds that, for example, 57% of parents incorrectly believe a six-month-old can be spoiled. It finds that 61% of parents condone spanking as a “regular form of punishment,” although research overwhelmingly shows it’s detrimental to a child’s psychological development.

“The lack of accurate child development information among adults has very real implications for American society,” deadpans Kyle Pruett, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Yale and president of Zero to Three (www.zerotothree.org).

Where the stresses are: Schools

Many researchers think schools are almost as important as families in laying the groundwork for depression (and the capacity to overcome depression).

And isn’t that just common sense? Take a moment to think about your own most vivid and defining childhood experiences. Didn’t many of them have to do with school?

The Seattle-based Committee for Children promotes programs to decrease bullying and teasing in the schools. “Research indicates that bullying . . . can have long-term consequences,” says the Committee’s director of research. “Whether participants or bystanders, all students feel the effects of bullying.

“Short-term effects include peer rejection [and] emotional distress. Students who experience prolonged bullying can become chronically fearful and anxious [and experience] significant erosion of self-esteem and self-confidence. . . .” (www.cfchildren.org).

Where the stresses are: Work

Although psychiatry traditionally focuses on the younger years, it’s become clear to many therapists and social observers that our experiences at work have a powerful effect on mental health.

In What the Blues Is All About: Black Women Overcoming Stress and Depression (1998), health writer Angela Mitchell and clinical psychologist Kennise Herring discuss the debilitating effects of racial prejudice, employer insensitivity, and petty office politics (people “pulling each other down”).

Journalist David Awbrey, cited above, emphasizes our need for what he felicitously calls “psychic security” at work.

The Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (CAWB) has zeroed in on “bullies,” “tyrants” and “jerks” at work. According to labor law professor David Yamada, CAWB’s chair, “[B]osses and others who inflict psychological abuse on their coworkers constitute one of the most common and serious problems facing employees in today’s workforce. . . .

“Psychological effects [of workplace bullying] include stress, depression, mood swings, . . . and feelings of shame, guilt, . . . and low self-esteem.”

In an article in the Georgetown Law Journal (March 2000), Yamada cites studies showing workplace abuse is as American as cherry pie. One study of nurses and nurse managers reported that over 96% had been subjected to “verbal abuse,” most often by physicians.

Even a study of university faculty and staff found that over half had been subjected to verbal abuse, and 23% had been “mistreated.”

Who gets abused? The targets of workplace bullies fit three “common profiles,” say CAWB’s founders, Ruth and Gary Namie (in their book The Bully At Work, 2000). The profiles are:

-- “nice people”;

-- “vulnerable people”;

-- the “bold, best and brightest” (i.e., those who undermine bullies’ “presumption of superiority”).

I think it’s safe to say that 99% of the readers of this newsletter fit at least one of these profiles (www.bullybusters.org).

Toward recovery

The moral is clear.

If we want to reverse the Blue Plague, then we’re going to have to bestow parenting skills on parents, teach social and emotional skills to schoolchildren, and provide employees with ways to stop the abuse they endure from employers and co-workers.

Nothing less will do.

Although these tasks sound for- midable, it just so happens that -- entirely beneath the radar screens of the national media -- certain brave and dedicated organizations are working for exactly these goals.

Even more surprisingly, legislation has been introduced or is being drafted on all three fronts!

“The more I learn about people,” says psychotherapist Richard O’Connor (cited above), “the more I believe their problems stem from not knowing alternatives rather than from pathology or resistance.”

Will somebody please inform the American people that tools for demolishing the social causes of psychological depression are now at hand? . . .

Tell the families

From coast to coast, organizations are developing ways to make us better parents. Each has its strengths and limitations.

The National Education Association has created a wonderful web page on parenting, simply written, sensitive and full of pertinent information.

The only trouble is, who’s ever going to find it (“Talking With Your Child,” www.nea.org/helpfrom/connecting/ tools)?

At the other end of the political spectrum, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a group made up of hundreds of police chiefs, prosecutors, and “crime survivors,” is doing aggressive public advocacy.

It’s calling for “social skills training, counseling, and other help” for the families of “troubled” and “disruptive” kids.

It’s even calling for “in-home parenting-coaching programs” for “all high-risk parents” (www.fightcrime.org).

All these things are crucially important. But the whole thrust of this article has been that middle class parents are just as likely to cause psychic harm as so-called high risk parents.

If our goal is to combat psychological depression (or, positively stated, to make joy more possible), and not just combat social disorder, then we’ve got to address the faulty child rearing practices of the middle class majority as well.

Cornell University’s renowned Family Life Development Center is doing this.

Its “Just for Kids!” program, directed by James Garbarino (Lost Boys, 1999), was set up to combat “psychological maltreatment” however subtle and wherever found. It disseminates bibliographies, books, workbooks, training videos . . . (http://fldc.cornell.edu/justforkids/ kids. html).

Some groups with similar perspectives are reaching out in other ways. The Florida-based Parenting Project (cited above) offers a national toll-free telephone line for parents who need wise advice (1-888-PARENTS).

It’s begun using the media to promote parenting education in the schools, for young people.

And behind the scenes, it’s educating state and federal legislators about the importance of supporting parenting education for young people.

The D.C.-based Zero to Three (cited above) boasts an important piece of the puzzle. It’s offering “developmental assessments” of babies and very young children to caring parents.

“A developmental assessment is a process in which you, as parents, can observe your child carefully and discuss your child with professionals who are experienced in working with very young children,” the group explains.

“The assessment should give you ideas about things you can do at home to help your child learn and grow, how to choose learning environments to meet the needs of your child, [how to recognize and promote the special skills of your child,] and ways of finding any special services your child may need. . . .”

Imagine a world in which every parent was offered a development assessment of their kid -- with appropriate follow-up -- as a matter of course!

Parenting agenda?

That may not be as farfetched as it seems. Out of the work of all these groups (and more), an agenda for 21st-century parenting is arising.

It would consist of ready and affordable access to, among other things,

-- information,

-- counseling,

-- social skills training,

-- in-home coaching programs,

-- telephone hotlines,

-- parenting ed classes (for young people), and

-- carefully wrought developmental assessments of babies and young children (with adequate and sensitive follow-through).

Ensuring access to all these things will not be inexpensive. But it will be considerably less expensive than the $44 billion that psychological depression costs our economy each year.

And who can put a price tag on the greater joy that many of us will feel in later life as a result of better parenting?

Quietly, in Congress

Quietly, very quietly, a couple of bills were proposed in the last (106th) session of Congress that would have begun moving us toward a humane parenting re- gime.

Rep. Norman Dicks (D-WA) offered a bill that would have authorized use of local crime prevention block grants to provide “parenting education . . . for new parents to prevent or decrease the risk of child abuse.”

In other words, the bill would have empowered local governments to set up the kinds of counseling, social skills training, and in-home parent-coaching programs called for by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (above).

Just as important, the bill would have made local governments coordinate their efforts with private and non-profit organizations.

If it got half the attention that Buddy (President Clinton’s dog) got, Dicks’s bill could have spurred a massive public debate about parenting, and the human costs of inadequate parenting.

But not one Congressperson co-sponsored the measure, and it died in the Subcommittee on Early Childhood of the House Education Committee (all bills available at http://thomas.loc.gov).

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) fared slightly better with her “Give a Kid a Chance Act,” which would have empowered HHS to (among other things) initiate or support programs to help families “promote healthy emotional development and enhance resiliency in children.”

“In preparing this legislation, I worked with a coalition of mental health professionals,” Jackson-Lee told her House colleagues. “Depression is the most common mental health disorder . . . yet we still do not engage in a public dialogue about this issue!”

Fifty-nine co-sponsors signed onto the bill. But it, too, died in committee.

In California, State Senator John Vasconcellos re-introduced a bill that would have (a) required parenting education to be taught in grades nine through 12, and (b) convened a statewide summit to develop a “master plan” for teaching parenting education in nonschool settings.

Every educator I spoke with felt that Vasconcellos’s bill was THE model parenting ed bill. (Vasconcellos himself is an advisor to the Parenting Project, above, and has long been an advocate of measures promoting what he calls “healthy self-esteem”; see http://democrats.sen. ca.gov/senator/Vasconcellos.)

Being a pragmatic visionary, Vasconcellos eventually withdrew part (a) above, and the remainder of the bill -- the “master plan” proposal -- sailed through the California Legislature.

But Governor Gray Davis, stealth candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, still refused to sign it.

“While I believe parenting education can provide valuable skills for parents and prospective parents,” Davis wrote in a shameful memo to the California Senate, “I am vetoing this bill for the same fundamental reason as last year [when it contained part (a)]: It would initiate a broader state involvement in a subject that is the rightful domain of families, faith-based entities and non-profit organizations.”

That is the non-radical middle in a nutshell: Feel-good rhetoric coupled with a hackneyed and self-righteous excuse for inaction.

And the excuse here is particularly transparent, since families are in some part responsible for the problems the bill would address.

Tell the schools

“[Behavioral, psychological, and moral] education in the classroom . . . can offset less than optimal home situations,” says the Parenting Project.

Dozens of groups across North America would heartily agree. They’re doing path-breaking work in the schools in three areas crucial to psychological health and development: Conflict resolution training, social and emotional learning, and character education.

The Conflict Resolution Education Network (CRENet) -- made up of thousands of teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, organizations, etc. -- is the place to go for information, resources and technical assistance in the c.r.-in-education “field.”

It sponsors symposia, develops curricula, and does whatever else it can to give the field professional legitimacy (www. crenet.org).

Educators for Social Responsibility picks up where CRENet leaves off. Its “Resolving Conflict Creatively Program” actually traipses into schools to train teachers and administrators in how to conduct classes in conflict resolution and “intergroup relations.”

It’s the largest c.r. training group, by far, in the U.S., and independent evaluations of its efforts are enthusiastic.

One independent evaluation found that 92% of students who’d completed RCCP-inspired curricula “felt better about themselves,” and 75% of teachers reported greater “student cooperation” (www. esrnational.org).

Other groups are promoting what they call “social and emotional learning,” and the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the liveliest of these.

Co-founded by Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence (1995), it’s a terrific networking and information resource that’s preparing “model courses” in SEL and summer institutes for teachers and administrators (www.casel.org).

The Committee for Children is to CASEL as ESR is to CRENet (above); that is, the Committee is in the trenches gloriously practicing what CASEL preaches. Its “Steps to Respect Program” (one of several programs it now offers) has schools set up a social and emotional learning curriculum designed to decrease bullying.

“In lessons on friendship skills,” a spokesperson explains, “the social skills children learn provide the foundation for subsequent lessons on . . . how to recognize bullying, how to assertively refuse bullying . . .” (www.cfchildren.org).

At the heart of the character education movement in this country is the Character Education Partnership, a D.C.-based coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to teaching “moral character” and “civic virtue” in the schools. It collects and distributes reams of information, and gives annual awards to schools that exemplify its “11 Principles of Effective Character Education” (e.g., “The school must be a caring community”) (www.character.org).

Another great resource in character education, with a wonderfully integrative edge to it, is Thomas Lickona’s Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs.

The Rs are “respect” and “responsibility,” Dr. Lickona is author of Educating for Character (1991, probably the best-known book in the field), and the Center promotes what it calls a “comprehensive approach” to character education that encompasses conflict resolution training, social and emotional learning, parents and communities as “partners” of students, and much more.

A culture that adopted Dr. Lickona’s comprehensive approach would not only substantially reduce depression; it would substantially increase our capacities for love, work and knowledge -- psychologist Wilhelm Reich’s recipe for joy (www. cortland. edu/www/c4n5rs).

A few brave Congresspeople

The only problem with the groups working to build psychological health in the schools is that -- like their counterparts on the parenting ed side -- they don’t have the resources to do even a fraction of what needs to be done.

Where are the politicians with the courage to propose funding for these groups and their programs?

Actually, some of them are here in Washington. They’re just not getting any attention for their efforts.

Sen. Christopher Dodd’s (D-CT) “Violence Prevention Training for Early Educators Act” would have authorized the Secretary of Education to award $500,000-$1,000,000 grants to the kinds of conflict resolution training and social-and-emotional-learning groups described above.

The bill was eloquent. “When pre- school teachers teach young children interpersonal problem-solving skills and other forms of conflict resolution,” it stated, “children are less likely to develop problem behaviors.”

But not one Senator became a co-sponsor, and it died in the Senate Health Committee.

(A similar bill on the House side, from Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-CT, died in the House Education Committee.)

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) managed to garner 39 co-sponsors for his visionary “Character Counts for the 21st Century Act.”

The bill would have authorized the Secretary of Education to fund state and local educational agencies to design character education programs. Then it would have funded public and private groups to implement character education in the schools.

Every member of the Character Education Partnership, above, might have had their good work multiplied tenfold.

“Mr. Speaker, there is nothing wrong with [character education] being a part of public education,” Etheridge stated on the House floor April 4, 2000, in one of the few shining moments from the 106th Congress.

“We [need to] get away from these [educational] issues that tend to divide us, . . . prayer in school [and the like]. What we ought to be talking about is something we can do . . . to make a difference for children in America [and] this whole issue of character education is a critical piece. . . .”

As Superintendent of Public Instruction in North Carolina from 1989-1996, Etheridge helped create the best pre-school program in the country (see RAM #9, p. 4). No matter. His bill died in the House Education Committee, another casualty of lack of public awareness and political support.

Tell the workers

As we’ve seen, it’s not enough to change parents’ behavior and schools’ practices. If we want to REVERSE the Blue Plague in this country, then we’ve also got to cut back on the number of psychologically debilitating experiences we endure at work.

Several groups are active here. Some would have us redefine our experiences, others would have us take institutional or legal action toward workplace bullies and meanies.

Any reasonable person might choose to do both. . . .

Redefining your experiences: This is not just the internet age, it’s the age of the psychologically nurturing internet site for psychologically battered professionals.

Take Steven Keeva’s Transforming Practices.

Keeva is an assistant editor at the ABA Journal, and Transforming Practices is an independent website (and organization) for lawyers who yearn to find “joy and satisfaction in the legal life,” despite the routine humiliations and grinding sameness of their everyday legal practices.

There’s a regular column on how lawyers are discovering rich meaning in their work, despite everything. There are guest columns on how to hang on to your humanity, despite everything.

There are even exercises for realizing the “personal-growth” and “spiritual” potential of law practice.

If you turn to Keeva’s site at the end of a harrowing day, you’ll be sure to find something that will convince you it was all worthwhile (www.transformingpractices. com).

Taking institutional or legal action: The pioneering group here is Ruth and Gary Namie’s California-based Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (cited above).

Its goals are to raise public awareness about “destructive hostile work environments,” and to help employees and others devise practical solutions -- and it’s been busy on both fronts.

Over the last three years, it’s set up a national toll-free hotline, provided expert witnesses in court cases, conducted “town hall meetings,” sponsored national conferences, and crafted workplace harassment policies with labor lawyers and mental health professionals.

And according to the Namies, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Like many of the best activist groups, the Campaign originated as a gut response to injustice. Ruth Namie has a doctorate in clinical psychology, Gary in social psych, but they’ll unabashedly tell you that “the Campaign . . . would [not] have been undertaken had Ruth not experienced bullying. It was at the hands of an out-of-control female tyrant backed by all the institutional power of a large, arrogant health care organization. . . .”

On to the legislatures

No anti-bullying bill has been proposed in Congress yet. But in his important Georgetown Law Journal article (cited above), David Yamada outlines what a sensible federal bill might contain. And the Campaign is drafting a model bill for state law enactment.

According to the Namies, any formal policy to discourage bullying should

-- define bullying as “verbal assaults in addition to misconduct that effectively prevents the targeted person from accomplishing his or her work”;

-- spell out the conditions for a violation to trigger an investigation and hearing;

-- mandate an immediate separation of the complainant from the alleged perpetrator that does not punish the complainant (for example, paid administrative leave during the investigation);

-- require documentation of claimant damages (e.g., medically certified psychological or physical harm); and

-- mandate a timely response by the employer.

Just having procedures like that on the books should dramatically reduce the amount of “verbal or physical [workplace] behavior which is derogatory, abusive, disparaging, threatening, or disrespectful,” say the Namies.

And that should reduce the amount of psychological depression caused at the workplace.

Blue Plague lifting?

The Middle Ages had its Black Death, and we have our Blue Plague.

A bit overwrought, you say? How reassuring! And anyway, I don’t deny that there are differences.

The former killed 25% of us quickly. The latter is killing 27% of us (soon to be 33% of us) softly.

The former was the talk of Europe. The latter is not something we talk about in polite company, let alone in public policy circles.

The bubonic plague was “real.” But the epidemic of depression described by respected psychotherapists like Richard O’Connor is also real, with concrete personal, economic, social and cultural consequences.

Which means we have a serious problem on our hands.

But it also means this: The scholars, therapists, activists, and politicians discussed above are among the heroes of our time.

They’re among the few Americans who’ve had the courage to try to make psychological depression a public, political issue.

Even more courageously, they’re pointing a way out of the Blue Plague.

They’ve developed a variety of sensible (and, n.b.: compatible) ways of confronting the social causes of psychological depression -- in families, at school, and in the workplace.

Their ideas would even SAVE US MONEY in the long run.

Only one big stumbling block remains. Who will fight for these ideas?

So many people are drawn to politics today because they’re fascinated by the personalities, or because they enjoy playing the game, or because they dream of changing everybody’s values (to be just like theirs).

Where are the people that will stand with pragmatic visionaries like John Vasconcellos, Tom Lickona and Ruth Namie?

Where is the constituency that will make Zero to Three’s developmental assessments of young children a standard and affordable option for every American parent?

Where is the constituency that wants to mitigate human suffering?

Where is the constituency that would make joy more possible?


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New Options Newsletter, 1984-1992 (includes back issue PDFs!)

New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1976,  1978 (includes 1976 text PDF!)


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