The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness
The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness
By Bruce E. Levine /

Throughout history, societies have existed with far less coercion than ours. While these societies have had far fewer consumer goods and less of what modernity calls “efficiency,” they also have had far less mental illness. This reality has been buried, not surprisingly, by uncritical champions of modernity and mainstream psychiatry. Coercion—the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance—is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling and parenting. However, coercion results in fear and resentment, which fuel miserable marriages, unhappy families, and what we call mental illness.

Societies with Little Coercion and Little Mental Illness

Shortly after returning from the horrors of World War I and before they wrote Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were given a commission by Harper’smagazine to write nonfiction travel articles about life in the South Pacific. Their reports about the islands of Paumoto, Society and the Hervey group were first serialized in Harper’s and then published in the book Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921). Nordhoff and Hall were struck by how little coercion occurred in these island cultures compared to their own society, and they were enchanted by the children such noncoercive parenting produced:

“There is a fascination in watching these youngsters, brought up without clothes and without restraint. . . . Once they are weaned from their mothers’ breasts—which often does not occur until they have reached an age of two and a half or three —the children of the islands are left practically to shift for themselves; there is food in the house, a place to sleep, and a scrap of clothing if the weather be cool—that is the extent of parental responsibility. The child eats when it pleases, sleeps when and where it will, amuses itself with no other resources than its own. As it grows older certain light duties are expected of it—gathering fruit, lending a hand in fishing, cleaning the ground about the house—but the command to work is casually given and casually obeyed. Punishment is scarcely known. . . . [Yet] the brown youngster flourishes with astonishingly little friction—sweet tempered, cheerful, never bored, and seldom quarrelsome.”

For many indigenous peoples, even the majority rule most Americans call democracy is problematically coercive, as it results in the minority feeling resentful. Roland Chrisjohn, a member of the Iroquois tribe and the author of The Circle Game, points out that for his people, it is deemed valuable to spend whatever time necessary to achieve consensus so as to prevent such resentment. By the standards of Western civilization, this is highly inefficient.

“Achieving consensus could take forever!” exclaimed an attendee of a talk Chrisjohn gave. Chrisjohn responded, “What else is there more important to do?”

Among indigenous societies, there are many accounts of a lack of mental illness, a minimum of coercion, and wisdom that coercion creates resentment which fractures relationships. The 1916 bookThe Institutional Care of the Insane of the United States and Canada reports, “Dr. Lillybridge of Virginia, who was employed by the government to superintend the removal of Cherokee Indians in 1827-'89, and who saw more than 20,000 Indians and inquired much about their diseases, informs us he never saw or heard of a case of insanity among them.”

Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, in his 1980 book Schizophrenia and Civilization, states, “Schizophrenia appears to be a disease of civilization.” In 1973, Torrey conducted research in New Guinea, which he called “an unusually good country in which to do epidemiologic research because census records for even most remote villages are remarkably good.” Examining these records, he found, “There was over a twentyfold difference in schizophrenia prevalence among districts; those with a higher prevalence were, in general, those with the most contact with Western civilization.” In reviewing other’s research, Torrey concluded:

“Between 1828 and 1960, almost all observers who looked for psychosis or schizophrenia in technologically undeveloped areas of the world agreed that it was uncommon. . . . The striking feature. . . is the remarkable consensus that insanity (in the early studies) and schizophrenia (in later studies) were comparatively uncommon prior to contact with European-American civilization. . . . But around 1950 an interesting thing happened. . . the idea became current in psychiatric literature that schizophrenia occurs in about the same prevalence in all cultures and is not a disease of civilization.”

Yet Torrey is an advocate of the idea that severe mental illness is due to biological factors and not social ones, and he is responsible for helping build the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) into a powerful political force. How does Torrey square his ideas that mental illness is due to biological factors with his own research showing severe mental illness is highly associated with European-American civilization? For Torrey, “Viruses in particular should be suspect as possible agents.”

Torrey’s suspected biochemical virus agents have never been found. So why has he not considered the toxic effects of coercion? Torrey is a strong advocate of coercive treatments, including forced medication. Perhaps his blindness to the ill effects of coercion compels him—even after discovering the strong relationship between European-American civilization and severe mental illness—to proclaim that mental illness could not be caused by social factors.

While Torrey researched records in New Guinea, Jared Diamond has actually worked with the New Guinea people for nearly a half century, spending extended periods of time with different groups, including hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea (and other small-scale societies) whose parenting creates an abundance of nurturance and a minimum of coercion.

Diamond, in From the World Until Yesterday(2012), reports how laissez-faire parenting is “not unusual by the standards of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies, many of which consider young children to be autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted.” Diamond concludes that by our society’s attempt to control children for what we believe is their own good, we discourage those traits we admire:

“Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children. We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, videogames, and books. We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do.”

Emotional and Behavioral Effects of Coercion

Once, when doctors actually listened at length to their patients about their lives, it was obvious to many of them that coercion played a significant role in their misery. But most physicians, including psychiatrists, have stopped delving into their patients’ lives. In 2011, the New York Times reported, “A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients.” The article points out that psychiatrists can make far more money primarily providing “medication management,” in which they only check symptoms and adjust medication.

Since the 1980s, biochemical psychiatry in partnership with Big Pharma has come to dominate psychiatry, and they have successfully buried truths about coercion that were once obvious to professionals who actually listened at great length to their patients—obvious, for example, to Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929) and R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience, 1967). This is not to say that Freud’s psychoanalysis and Laing’s existential approach have always been therapeutic. However, doctors who focus only on symptoms and prescribing medication will miss the obvious reality of how a variety of societal coercions can result in a cascade of family coercions, resentments and emotional and behavioral problems.

Modernity is replete with institutional coercions not present in most indigenous cultures. This is especially true with respect to schooling and employment, which most Americans, according to recent polls, find alienating, disengaging and no fun. As I reported in July, a Gallup poll released in January 2013 reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become, and by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. Critics of schooling from Henry David Thoreau and Paul Goodman to John Holt and John Taylor Gatto have understood that coercive and unengaging schooling is necessary to ensure that young people more readily accept coercive and unengaging employment. As I reported in the same article, a June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have checked out of them.

Unengaging employment and schooling require all kinds of coercions for participation, and human beings pay a psychological price for this. In nearly three decades of clinical practice, I have found that coercion is often the source of suffering.

Here’s one situation I’ve seen hundreds of times. An intelligent child or teenager has been underachieving in standard school, and has begun to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. The child often feels coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which is boring, to do homework that has no value they can see, and to stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating. Depending on the child’s temperament, this coercion results in different outcomes—none of them good.

Some of these kids get depressed and anxious. They worry that their lack of attention and interest will result in dire life consequences. They believe authorities’ admonitions that if they do poorly in school, they will be flipping burgers for the rest of their lives. It is increasingly routine for doctors to medicate these anxious and depressed kids with antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.

Other inattentive kids are unworried. They don’t take seriously either their schooling or admonitions from authorities, and they feel justified in resisting coercion. Their rebellion is routinely labeled by mental health professionals as “acting out,” and they are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Their parents often attempt punishments, which rarely work to break these kids’ resistance. Parents become frustrated and resentful that their child is causing them stress. The child feels this parental frustration and resentment, and often experiences it as parental dislike. And so these kids stop liking their parents, stop caring about their parents’ feelings, and seek peers whom they believe do like them, even if these peers are engaged in criminal behaviors.

In all societies, there are coercions to behave in culturally agreed upon ways. For example, in many indigenous cultures, there is peer pressure to be courageous and honest. However, in modernity, we have institutional coercions that compel us to behave in ways that we do not respect or value. Parents, afraid their children will lack credentials necessary for employment, routinely coerce their children to comply with coercive schooling that was unpleasant for these parents as children. And though 70% of us hate or are disengaged from our jobs, we are coerced by the fear of poverty and homelessness to seek and maintain employment.

In our society, we are taught that accepting institutional coercion is required for survival. We discover a variety of ways—including drugs and alcohol—to deny resentment. We spend much energy denying the lethal effects of coercion on relationships. And, unlike many indigenous cultures, we spend little energy creating a society with a minimal amount of coercion.

Accepting coercion as a fact of life, we often have little restraint in coercing others when given the opportunity. This opportunity can present itself when we find ourselves above others in an employment hierarchy and feel the safety of power, or after we have seduced our mate by being as noncoercive as possible and feel the safety of marriage. Marriages and other relationships go south in a hurry when one person becomes a coercive control freak; resentment quickly occurs in the other person, who then uses counter-coercive measures.

We can coerce with physical intimidation, constant criticism and a variety of other means. Such coercions result in resentment, which is a poison that kills relationships and creates severe emotional problems. The Interactional Nature of Depression (1999), edited by psychologists Thomas Joiner and James Coyne, documents with hundreds of studies the interpersonal nature of depression. In one study of unhappily married women who were diagnosed with depression, 60 percent of them believed their unhappy marriage was the primary cause of their depression. In another study, the best single predictor of depression relapse was found to be the response to a single item: “How critical is your spouse of you?”

In the 1970s, prior to the domination of the biopsychiatry-Big Pharma partnership, many mental health professionals took seriously the impact of coercion and resentful relationships on mental health. And in a cultural climate more favorable than our current one for critical reflection of society, authors such as Erich Fromm, who addressed the relationship between society and mental health, were taken seriously even within popular culture.

But then psychiatry went to bed with Big Pharma and its Big Money. Their partnership has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families and severe emotional and behavioral problems.

Bruce E. Levine is a practicing clinical psychologist. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. His website is

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The More a Society Coerces Its People, the Greater the Chance of Mental Illness