By Milan Srećković,

Bruce E. Levine: High national rates of mental illness in the United States are just natural reactions to the oppression of institutional society.
Bruce E. Levine: High national rates of mental illness in the United States are just natural reactions to the oppression of institutional society.

Psychology and psychiatry are increasingly becoming mere tools of subordinating individuals to the current power relations and suppressing of social rebellions and resistance. Connections with authoritarian institutions and pharmaceutical business are making them more profit oriented and opened to abuse. Bruce E. Levine, a clinical psychologist who has been in practice for nearly three decades in Cincinnati, Ohio, talks to Freedom Fight Info about misuse of mainstream psychology and psychiatry and about non-medical ways how individuals can deal with psychological problems in a cannibalistically competitive society.

Bruce E. Levine is the author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy, that deals with the topic of transforming depression without drugs; how we can regain morale and energy when we have none; how to heal the source of our overwhelming pain; how to transcend self-absorption; building more satisfying relationships; and how to use problems to build community as an antidote to depression.

High national rates of mental illness in the United States are just natural reactions to the oppression of what Levine terms an “institutional society,” which causes many to break down psychologically. In his analysis he gives examples of many historical figures that were experiencing depressive breakdowns but who managed to transform depression and heal themselves with non-medical ways. He lists potential antidotes to depression – humor, poetry and other artistic pursuits, purpose and meaning, work, exercise, emotional intimacy, loving relationships, compassion, courage, friend and family support, community, rest and travel, recognition, and transformative insights and wisdom.

You said once that you’ve become ashamed of your profession as a psychologist. Tell us your objections to mainstream psychology in general.

bruce levineMy greatest embarrassment is how mainstream psychology and psychiatry have pathologized, medicalized, and diseased normal human behaviors such as shyness, introversion, anxiety, sadness, stubbornness, and so. This diseasing of rebellion is especially troubling for me, and it can be seen in the diagnosis of “oppositional defiant disorder” with symptoms like “often argues with adults” and “often refuses to comply with adults”. These young people are increasingly medicated, which is one of the many reasons the American population has become so pacified and does not greatly resist corporate subjugation. Psychologists and other mental health professionals, with rare exceptions, merely help people adapt, adjust, and comply to society, with little critical thinking of how insane society has become. I have many other objections, but the largest one is that the mental health profession is utilized by the corporate elite to maintain the status quo, and mental health professionals are mostly “guards” of the system, to use historian Howard Zinn’s term.

What is the role of newly invented illnesses like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)? Why are children in USA diagnosed and subjected to medical treatment of such a normal reactions? Why is American Psychiatric Association discovering or inventing more and more ‘’illnesses’’?

ADHD and ODD are especially dangerous diagnoses because they pathologize attentional and behavioral rebellions that are often quite normal reactions — kids rebelling against boring, dissatisfying schools, or rebelling against other illegitimate authorities. This diagnosing is extremely dangerous because these kids are drugged. For ADHD, it is routine to be medicated with amphetamines such as Adderall – which is speed — and many of these kids have adverse reaction, including mania, which then gets them diagnosed with bipolar disorder because of the adverse reaction to these drugs. Increasingly these ODD kids, especially poor kids on public assistance, are being medicated with heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs, which are very dangerous to their emotional and physical health.

Is there some research of long term impact of those drugs to the children’s bodies? What would be an alternative to the medication of children?

Of course, there are many alternatives. For one thing, trying to understand why these kids are rebelling, and perhaps provide them different environments that more fit them. There is plenty of research showing the psychological and physical dangers of psychiatric drugs. A good web site that reports on these adverse effects is Mad in America (, which was begun by the investigative journalist Robert Whitaker. Whitaker wrote the books Mad in America and, more recently, Anatomy of an Epidemic, which is about how psychiatric drugs prescribed for mild and episodic conditions result in severe and chronic conditions, and this is part of why the psychiatric disability rates have dramatically increased in the United States.

And how are parents made to comply with the drugging of their children?

When, according to the view of the school, their children are underachieving and especially when their children are viewed as disruptive in a classroom, it is common for the school teacher or principal to contact the parents and suggest their child be medically/psychologically evaluated. This is a subtle coercion — with such a “suggestion” the parents are made to feel irresponsible if they don’t comply. And when they take their child for a medical psychological consultation, especially when take to a pediatrician or a psychiatrist, there is a high likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with some psychiatric disorder such as ADHD and prescribed medication.

What is the relationship of pharmaceutical corporations to psychiatry and psychology?

In the 1980s, psychiatry began a partnership with pharmaceutical corporations (Big Pharma) which ultimately pretty much annexed psychiatry. A few examples: 69% of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry. When Minnesota and Vermont implemented “sunshine laws” that require drug companies to report all payments to doctors, psychiatrists were found to receive more money than physicians in any other specialty.  Big Pharma helps fund the American Psychiatric Association.

A major way Big Pharma corrupts psychiatry is through “key opinion leaders.” For example, one of psychiatry’s most influential thought leader is Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, who put “pediatric bipolar disorder” on the map. Biederman took $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007. As part of legal proceedings, Biederman was forced to provide documents about his interactions with Johnson & Johnson, the giant pharmaceutical company; the New York Timesreported Biederman pitched Johnson & Johnson that his proposed research studies on its antipsychotic drug Risperdal would turn out favorably for Johnson & Johnson—and then Biederman delivered the goods. Biedeman is not alone among psychiatrists lining their pockets with drug company money. A 2008 Congressional investigation revealed a widespread financial interconnection between Big Pharma and psychiatric institutions and thought leaders.

Still, Biederman is mostly considered as expert in his field, is that some kind of reward for his service to the corporations and is it appropriate to name psychiatrists like him as ’’corporate psychiatrist’’?

Yes, calling him a “corporate psychiatrist,” at least from my perspective, would be one of the nicer things you could call him. Jonathan Swift, the great satirist, once said, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” In Swift’s sense, I’d consider Biederman to be one of those wasps and hornets.

What was the reception of your books among your colleagues and among general population? What’s the public reception of other your colleagues that are not ”guards” of the system?

I get many emails from alienated mental health professionals who are very enthusiastic about my books. But of course mainstream establishment psychiatry and psychology responds the way you would expect: ignore or marginalize. But the funny thing is that with the DSM-5 just coming out, it’s so silly in terms of pathologizing normal behaviors, that even some mainstream psychiatrists such as the chairman of the task force for the previous DSM-4 are jumping ship and talking about the same thing that many of us dissident mental health professionals have been talking about for years – namely, the pathologizing of normality. Generally, the public thinks what I’m saying is plain common sense, that’s certainly the reaction I get when I do radio interviews.

How would you describe “learned helplessness“ and how come that is not treated as illness that has to be diagnosed and treated?

Learned helplessness is a commonsense explanation for passivity and immobilization in the face of injustice. The so-called symptoms of “depression” and “agitated depression” are the symptoms of learned helplessness. Specifically, when people have been conditioned to believe that no action they take will stop their suffering, they learn helplessness and powerlessness, and sink into an immobilized state. So here in the U.S., when people vote in Republicans, they get senseless wars and corporate control, and so they then vote in the Democrat and again get senseless wars and corporate control, and so people move into learned helplessness. We can really see this right now with Obama and his proposal to bomb Syria. The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to another war, and many of them voted for Obama because they thought he was different than Bush and the Republicans on this, and when what is going on with Syria sounds to the them a repeat of Bush, they feel completely powerless, and this is one more big nail in coffin of learned helplessness for Americans.

Depression is widely spread in a world today. What is the nature of depression and how can we fight it without using medications? Is it possible to cure it with drugs and is it possible to cure it without drugs?

Depression is a reaction to overwhelming pain. A useful model of depression is to see it as a “strategy” for shutting down overwhelming pain. By depressing one’s being, one feels less pain. However, by depressing one’s being, one also becomes passive and immobilized, less capable of addressing the source of the pain.

Studies show that antidepressants work for about one third patients, which is as about as well as placebos, which scientifically means they really doesn’t work, even though millions of people swear by them. Generally, all psychiatric drugs work to take the edge off our emotional pain, but unfortunately, with all psychotropic drugs, people build up tolerance, which means they need more to achieve the same effect, and soon they don’t work at all for many people. Yes, many people, as I describe in Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, transform depression without drugs. There are many potential antidotes to depression – humor, poetry and other artistic pursuits, purpose and meaning, work, exercise, emotional intimacy, loving relationships, compassion, courage, friend and family support, community, rest and travel, recognition, and transformative insights and wisdom.

Can we build morale and meaningful relationships through building grassroots movements?

Yes. People who have morale and community care about something beside their own loneliness. They use their cares and concerns to connect with others. These concerns include grassroots political movements. Passions and problems are the fuels that form friendship and community. Most people I have met who’ve created community see their problems differently from how they were socialized to think about them. They no longer are so terrified of problems that they immediately hand them over to a distant authority. They assess the problem’s potential for creating human connectedness. And they realize that even if their movement itself is not politically victorious, they can still gain friends and morale through participation, and so it has been worth it.

Social connectedness strengthens people. When people build genuine bonds over concerns that they share, it provides genuine community. With genuine community, people build trust, and they discover they can function effectively as a group. This is the beginning of the path to gaining collective self-confidence that they can overcome the elite.

You say that you have worked with a lot of people who are anti-authoritarian, but they are not aware of that, and they rebel in a destructive and self-destructive ways. How is possible to help them to channel that energy toward changing of society?

Authoritarians, by definition, demand unquestioning obedience, and so any resistance to diagnosis and treatment creates enormous anxiety for authoritarian mental health professionals; and professionals, feeling out of control, are likely to label someone “noncompliant with treatment,” increase the severity of their diagnosis, and jack up their medications. This is enraging for anti-authoritarian patients, sometimes so much so it makes them destructive, self-destructive, and appear crazy.

It has been my experience that anti-authoritarians labeled with psychiatric diagnoses don’t reject all authorities, simply those they’ve assessed to be illegitimate ones. To help a destructive or self-destructive anti-authoritarian it is necessary to gain their respect so they will be receptive to what you have to say. Respect comes when you validate the legitimacy of their anger and desire to rebel against perceived injustices, and then help them rebel in a more constructive way rather than lashing out with their rage in a way that is destructive for them and others. My experience is that many angry anti-authoritarians, once they feel they are respected, are very much open to advice about how better to channel their anger and rebellion.

How does hierarchy affect people and society? Didn’t Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiment proved that hierarchy is creator of evil among people?

I believe that human beings, naturally, resent being at the bottom of a hierarchy, and will resist passively or actively. Some of these passive resistances are considered “mental illnesses” in the modern world — such a labeling is a way of invalidating the resistance. While indigenous cultures have often have a “hunting chief” or a “war chief,” these chiefs would quickly be replaced by people if they weren’t meeting the tribes needs, and so while their may be temporary and flexible hierarchies in all social organizations, this is quite different than the kind of hierarchies one see in American society, where if one is at the bottom of a hierarchy, one always feels powerless; and so there is every incentive to be competitive and aggressive to feel less powerlessness, resulting in a less caring society.

Those studies you refer to certainly show that creating an illegitimate hierarchy and creating illegitimate authorities and giving these authorities power over those below them can bring out the worst in everyone.

People such as Kirkpatrick Sale, Lewis Mumford, and E.F. Schumacher have talked about “human scale” societies vs. mass societies, and in our current mass societies, oppressive hierarchies are going to be the norm. In human-scale societies, it is much easier to have democracy and consensus than hierarchical authoritarianism which breeds resentment and all kinds of emotional and relationship problems.

Chomsky says that authority should be challenged and it must prove it’s legitimacy. Erich Fromm makes distinction between rational and irrational authority. How do people learn to see the difference, because there is a lot of conditioning of people in order to prevent this, especially in terms of challenging the authority?

My car mechanic is honest, knows what he is talking about, and is competent, and so I take his authority seriously. But the U.S. government has a track record of being dishonest with Americans and the rest of the world and caring more about the very wealthy and giant corporations than ordinary people, so they lack legitimacy. If you look at most polls, the American the majority of the American people have no confidence in governmental pronouncements.

Wise anti-authoritarians don’t reject all authority, but they do always question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously. Evaluating the legitimacy of authorities includes assessing whether or not authorities actually know what they are talking about, are honest, and care about those people who are respecting their authority. When anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority.

People learn to see the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority when they are given these concepts, which most are not given in their schooling. There is certainly a great deal of conditioning – mainly through schooling – for people not to question, challenge and resist illegitimate authority. So, any of us who are in contact with young people – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, counselors, coaches, etc – can help help educate them to the difference between legitimate and illegitimate authority, and help young people understand that complying with illegitimate authority leads to an oppressed life for themselves and others.

What is the mindset of people in uncertain times, when economy is established so that they can lose a job in any given time and so makes their and their family existence questionable, when you should compete with other people from your community in order to survive? And, shortly, what is mindset of the people who decide about other people destiny?

Yes, that is the real hell of extremist selfish, capitalist, hierarchical society that makes everyone what we say in America, “dog eat dog,” or cannibalistic, so afraid for our own survival that we compete within our community to survive rather than cooperate; and in a vicious cycle—we know from studies and from common sense – when one feel someone is “dog eat dog,” one reciprocate.

The mindset of the people who have the power? My guess it is very cynical, although today they keep their cynicism more private. But back in the nineteenth century, the rich robber barons were more candid about their cynicism.  A very famous quote attributed to the robber baron Jay Gould is: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Can you comment recent study that says that financial worries reduce ability to think and create cognitive deficit equivalent to 13-point loss in IQ?

The idea that financial worries can result in people becoming stupider sounds like an overgeneralization to me. I know many people who respond to their financial worries with very clever solutions. However, for many other people, any serious worries — not just financial ones – can overload them, can get them depressed, and can so pre-occupy them that they have little energy to think things through and make wise decision. This would be true any kind of worries, whether they are financial worries, medical worries, or relationship worries. You can be rich and start worrying that your spouse is having an affair, and that worry can so dominate your consciousness that you make many stupid decisions.

What is your view of human nature?

Human nature is huge a topic. I am certainly “non-reductionist” when it comes to human nature. Social scientists argue “nature vs. nurture” but people are a product of not only their environments and their temperaments but also things like luck. And people are not just products and objects, as we all make choices and our choices are often made without benefit of everything we need to know, so sometimes we make lucky and unlucky choices. As to whether it we are essentially “good” or “evil,” my view is that all human beings have the capacity to be the kind of people we would like as friends, but we all also have our dark sides and we all have the potential to be assholes. It is within human nature to be social creature but it is also within human nature to want to be left by ourselves and not have to care about anyone else’s needs. When anybody gives me a simplistic, reductionistic description of “human nature,” I become oppositionally defiant, ODD, which I think is also part of human nature, but it is also in our nature to be compliant. I can go on an on, but I’ll shut up before I get too boring, one of the unfun aspects of human nature.

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