Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rape and the Heart of Darkness at Richmond High

The press reported it in various ways—either as a “brutal gang rape” or, more forensically, as a “2½-hour assault” on the Richmond High School campus. Anyway you look at it, the horrendous attack on a 15-year old girl raises troubling questions for theologians, criminologists, and, of course, psychiatrists. How do we understand an act as brutal as rape? What factors and forces in the rapist’s development can possibly account for such behavior? And how on earth do we explain the apparent indifference of the large crowd that watched the attack in Richmond, California, and allegedly did nothing to stop it—or even, to report it?

In a thoughtful analysis on CNN, Stephanie Chen provides a range of “expert opinions” on this last question. Essentially, the various hypotheses asserted that:
o Bystanders in large groups are unlikely to take appropriate action in such cases, because they assume others have already done so; or because “doing nothing becomes the norm” (the so-called bystander effect).
o Witnesses who otherwise might have phoned 911 may have feared retaliation from the perpetrators.
o Bystanders do not feel a “bond” with the victim, and may actually identify with the perpetrator, who is perceived as “more important” than the victim.

The CNN report speculated at length on the so-called “Genovese Syndrome,” named for the woman stabbed to death in Queens, NY in 1964, supposedly after 38 witnesses to the attack did nothing to help her. (The facts, however, are almost certainly otherwise, as an article in American Psychologist argues.)

Most of the forensic experts quoted in the CNN piece took a predictably “objective” point of view. None ventured the opinion that the crowd at Richmond High School failed to aid the rape victim because many human beings often act in a selfish, callous, and cowardly manner. Nobody put forth the view of rabbinical Judaism; namely, that we are all born with 2 primal inclinations, constantly at war with one another. The “good inclination” (yetzer hatov) is usually held to be a kind of late “add-on” to the more powerful “evil inclination” (yetzer hara), which often gains the upper hand. The yetzer hara seems to have been alive and well at Richmond High—and nobody lifted a finger to stop it. Rabbi Bruce Kadden, however, points out that the yetzer hara is not some “devil” external to our own selves; rather,

“…the yetzer hara is very much a part of us. We therefore cannot deny personal responsibility for what the yetzer hara causes us to do. It may explain our behavior, but it does not excuse it.”

Many psychiatrists, it seems to me, have been reluctant to venture into the obscure headwaters of evil—the territory explored so vividly in Josef Conrad’s 1902 novella, “The Heart of Darkness,” Many in our profession have taken the “scientific” view that matters of good and evil are best left to theologians and clergy; and that clinicians should limit themselves to analyzing and correcting the developmental, biological, and psychological precursors of “anti-social behavior.”

I disagree. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals should not avoid the issue of evil, if only for the reason that good and evil are very real, and matter very deeply, to most of our patients. A woman who presents in therapy with a rape-related traumatic syndrome may be said to embody the problem of human evil: even her physiological responses to trauma-related stimuli have been altered by her experience. But more than that, the patient (male or female) who has suffered a brutal assault may need to explore the moral dimensions of the act and its consequences: “How could another human being do such a horrible thing? And - - why me, Doctor? Was I being punished by God? Am I somehow responsible for what happened? What should I do with all the hatred and rage I feel toward this monster? Is it right that I want him to suffer as much as I have?”

These understandable questions do not arise for all victims of trauma; but when they do, psychiatrists must be prepared to engage the patient in a serious, “I-Thou” dialogue, to use Martin Buber’s term. Similarly, philosopher and ethicist Margaret U. Walker has written of the need for “moral repair” after an act of wrongdoing. As therapists, we help effect such repair by establishing trust—the first step in mending the torn fabric of the traumatized patient’s moral universe. To gain the patient’s trust, however, we must be ready to talk frankly about good and evil. Sometimes, this means confronting the enormity of acts such as those that occurred at Richmond High.

[UPDATE 11/06/09]

It seems there may be a bright spot to this horrendous story, after all. ABC News is reporting that, while nearly all the bystanders did nothing,

" woman called police as soon as she heard what was happening. The 18-year-old mother and former Richmond High School student was at home watching a movie when her brother-in-law came home and said he had seen a girl getting raped.

"He was like, 'I'm scared,' and I'm like, 'Well, we should call the cops because that's the thing to do,'" Margarita Vargas said. "I didn't think about it twice, I just, I'm like, I immediately grabbed the phone and said, 'I'm gonna call the cops,' because that's something I wouldn't want anybody to go through or if I was in that situation, I would want someone to do the same for me."

Vargas said after making the call to police, she walked over to the school to make sure the police had arrived."

Ronald Pies, MD
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On Narcissism, the Internet, and Social Networking Sites

I read with interest the posts of Dr John Grohol, PsyD regarding my commentary, "Twitter and YouTube: Unanticipated Consequences of the Self-Esteem Movement.I had hoped it would bring attention to this topic and am glad that this has opened up an important dialogue. However, the author has missed the point.

It was not my intention to blame the internet for creating more narcissists or for causing irreparable harm to our children. In fact, nowhere in my article do I “demonize” the internet as this post asserts. It is my contention that the internet is not, in and of itself, inherently evil. I do not blame social networking sites for the rise of narcissism in our culture. A more careful reading of the piece would reveal that I consider social networking sites a symptom of a narcissistic society rather than the cause of it.

My argument was not that the internet is to blame for the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Rather, it is the philosophy that influenced the rearing of an entire generation, namely, the self-esteem movement. By shielding our youth from the dangers of criticism and disappointment, they have arrived at adulthood without having developed the coping skills they need to survive in the real world. No one succeeds at everything. This is a fact of life. But the millennial generation was not exposed to this reality. Not only do they shun criticism, they feel entitled to praise, even if undeserved.

The studies of Twenge and Campbell[1-3] have shown a steady rise in narcissism in the past several decades. While the author is quick to point to statements he believes are not backed by data, he fails to even take note of this study. This rise in narcissism was evident before the advent of social networking sites. And it is my contention that these sites would not have risen to such prominence but for the fact that a generation of narcissists needed an outlet. The millennial generation needed a way to assert their uniqueness, their specialness and garner the attention and praise of the masses. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter filled the bill.

Communication has certainly changed throughout the last century. And with each successive change, the degree of face to face contact has decreased. From in person visits and hand written notes, we have progressed to phone calls and emails. Each time we remove ourselves from face-to-face contact with each other, the communication becomes eroded. When we can see each other, we can appreciate important non-verbal cues, absent if we just speak over the phone.

When we write or email, we lose the information that can be gleaned from pauses, prosody, and intonation of speech that are still available over the phone. When we text or blog, we have none of those things. The words must stand alone and they are condensed to their most basic and, in some cases, completely replaced by shorthand such as “lol”and “omg.”

Call me old-fashioned, but having a close friend with whom I have shared real experiences and confided real feelings to beats being anyone’s “bff.”

Lauren LaPorta, MD
Chairman, Department of Psychiatry
St Joseph's Regional Medical Center
Paterson, NJ

1. Twenge JM, Campbell WK. “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” Narcissism, social rejection, and aggression. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2003;29:261-272.
2. Twenge JM, Konrath S, Foster JD, et al. Egos inflating over time: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. J Pers. 2008;76:875-928.
3. Twenge J, Campbell K, Trzesniewski K, Donnellan B. Narcissism in Gen Y: is it increasing or not? Two opposing perspectives. Twenge J, Campbell WK. Generation Me in the jury box. The Jury Expert. May 2009;21(3). Accessed September 4, 2009.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Citizen Above Suspicion

When I thought of writing this letter, I was put in mind of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758 – 1806), the Emperor of the tiny nation of Haiti, writing to the most powerful man of that time, Napoleon Bonaparte. Like Dessalines, I am a grain of sand standing next to the huge mountain of the psychiatric establishment. Fortunately, there is Psychiatric Times (PT), which allows a "half-island nation" like me, and many others, to reach a wide audience. Some publications welcome opinions only from the “Napoleons” of our profession!

I am trying to say that PT is "a citizen above suspicion." Its fairness is beyond question and the integrity of its editorial board, rock-solid. Still, your editorial, "Conflicts of Interest: Policies of Psychiatric Times" is the necessary spark that should ignite a long-awaited discussion. Given that PT's opinions are free of unethical influences from commercial sponsors, I want to ask Dr Pies and Ms Kweskin to explore the other side of the "coin" that they have just tossed: does the psychiatric establishment show fairness in its review of dissident opinions regarding non-pharmacological issues, such as psychiatric diagnosis?

My own experience says no. With the exception of PT and the Journal of Affective Disorders, few psychiatric journals will publish unorthodox opinions—for example, those questioning the validity of DSM diagnoses such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, or the widespread notion of “Treatment-resistant Depression.” By the same token, many in this specialty consider it heresy to suggest that ADHD is not as prevalent as the establishment wants us to believe. Similarly, the psychiatric establishment resists suggestions that many cases of "comorbid" anxiety and depression are neither, but are actually cases of sub-threshold bipolar spectrum disorder: the so-called "anxiety" is in fact agitation secondary to the bipolar mood disturbance.

I think there is real fear, within the psychiatric establishment, of opening a Pandora’s Box that could bring about a complete overhaul of the most revered diagnostic dogmas in this field. I very much appreciate the fact that PT allows dissident readers to raise their voices against such entrenched orthodoxy. Often, it is not a case of “crying wolf”-- but of the wolf actually scratching at the door.

Manuel Mota-Castillo MD

I want to thank Dr Mota for his kind and appreciative remarks concerning Psychiatric Times. We have a long tradition of allowing "dissident" voices and controversial opinions to be heard in our pages (paper and now, electronic). Our founding Editor-in-Chief, John Schwartz, MD, never shied away from taking on "the powers that be," or in confronting the misbehavior of some groups opposed to the field of psychiatry.

I do suspect that there is resistance to change among some representatives of the psychiatric "establishment" (although, to be candid, some might place me in that camp). I think there are many reasons for this. One is that once a scientific (or not-so-scientific) "paradigm" has been established (to use historian Thomas Kuhn's term), it is hard to challenge it, even with persuasive data. The DSM framework is such a paradigm, and there is understandable reluctance to move away from it on the part of some who have labored mightily to create it. I suppose we should not completely discount the role of "Big Pharma" in promoting some diagnoses--perhaps including ADHD--for obvious reasons, though I do not take the view that all pharmaceutical companies are driven only by the profit motive. Still, the "direct to consumer" advertising so common these days may have the effect of reifying or expanding some diagnoses, even in the absence of convincing evidence. On the other hand, I do not agree with the camp that points to "disease mongering" as the source of, for example, the increased recognition of bipolar spectrum disorders.

I also think that some dubious diagnoses, such as "Conduct Disorder", simply reflect our over-reliance on a purely descriptive (symptom-based) diagnostic framework, rather than on one that seeks to establish common biogenetic and phenomenological (experiential) factors that may underlie several seemingly diverse conditions. Another good example, in my view, is the push to reify "Internet Addiction" as a full-fledged and discrete disorder, when it may represent merely one manifestation of an underlying aberration in the brain's reward system.

So, thanks, Dr Mota, for your voice of conscience and concern!

Ronald Pies, MD

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Monitoring Pharmonitor

Congratulations to Dr Alan A. Stone for taking the time to nail the bias contained in the Supplement discussed in his piece, “Reality-Checking: Case In Point.” And congratulations to Psychiatric Times for printing Dr Stone’s article. Perhaps PT is ready to take further steps in separating itself from the "educational efforts" sponsored by pharmaceutical companies that have so deeply corrupted the practice of psychiatry, and medicine.
Chuck Joy, MD
Erie PA
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