Stop Politicizing Mental Health on Campus

(Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
The misuse of psychology for ideological purposes is part of a broader campaign to purge campuses of ideas and speech that do not conform to a progressive worldview.

Go to the self-help section of any online or brick-and-mortar bookstore and you will be overwhelmed by the wide range of books that have little or no basis in psychological science. Non-scientific self-help psychology is often relatively harmless, as much of it is focused more on casual self-improvement than on real mental-health vulnerabilities. But it isn’t just the popular-psychology world that advances an empirically unsupported psychology. It turns out that many of the therapies people receive for conditions such as depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are based more on tradition than evidence, even though evidence-based treatments are available. As psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld wrote in an academic article on this problem, “In some domains of clinical practice, there is an indifference to scientific research, in others an outright antipathy.”

Academics in the field of clinical psychology, the discipline focused on mental-illness diagnosis and treatment, are responding by advocating for more mental-health professionals to learn and properly use evidence-based treatments. This is good news for those in need of mental-health services. And it isn’t just clinical psychologists. There is a growing movement across subfields of psychology to both improve the quality of research and speak out against popular but scientifically unsupported psychological interventions and applications.

There is, however, an abuse of psychology going on that many within the field seem unwilling to challenge: Psychology is being inappropriately used for ideological purposes on college campuses.

Consider the recent example of the chief diversity officer at the University of Connecticut sending out a campus-wide email regarding a potential upcoming speaking event by Ben Shapiro, a well-known conservative commentator. The email stated,

We understand that even the thought of an individual coming to campus with the views that Mr. Shapiro expresses can be concerning and even hurtful and that’s why we wanted to make you aware as soon as we were informed. In the meantime, please utilize the many campus resources available to you should you want to talk through your feelings about this issue, including my office, the Cultural Centers, the Dean of Students Office, and CMHS, if necessary. [“CMHS” stands for Counseling and Mental Health Services.]

The UConn chief diversity officer doesn’t even get credit for originality, as this was not the first time a university administrator resorted to this tactic in response to a Ben Shapiro event. Last fall, the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California–Berkeley sent out a similar campus-wide announcement in which he not only advertised counseling services because Shapiro was speaking, but encouraged students, faculty, and staff to utilize them, the implication being that members of the campus community should feel mentally destabilized by a conservative giving a talk that no one was even required to attend. Ponder that for a moment.

The problem goes beyond the promotion of counseling and related interventions and services in response to specific campus events. Ideologically motivated faculty, administrators, and activists have been declaring ideas or speech they disagree with as threats to the mental health of students. The ideological nature of this misuse of psychology is demonstrated by its asymmetry. Typically, only conservative ideas or those that challenge popular liberal views are treated as mental-health threats. University life is full of classes, campus talks, art exhibits, activist campaigns, and social events that favor a liberal worldview and challenge or even explicitly derogate beliefs held by other groups such as religious conservatives. Curiously, Berkeley doesn’t send out announcements advocating counseling services in response to progressive campus speakers. It is worth noting that it isn’t just white conservative Christians, but also racial- and ethnic-minority Christians, Muslims, and member of other religious groups who are likely to find the progressive ideas and social causes that dominate campus culture to be in opposition to their deeply held traditions and beliefs. Thus, the common claim that colleges are simply trying to protect minority students is not only patronizing, it is often inaccurate. Much of the time, colleges are protecting certain beliefs more than they are protecting certain people.

All students are expected to be capable of navigating a predominantly liberal educational and social environment even if it offends them. And they have proven more than capable of doing so. There is no compelling evidence that exposure to liberal ideas causes serious psychological harm. Likewise, there is no compelling evidence that exposure to conservative or other ideas causes psychological harm. Not liking an idea or even finding it horribly offensive is not the same as being psychologically damaged by it. To be honest, I can’t believe this point even needs to be made. But here we are.

The misuse of psychology for ideological purposes is just one part of a broader campaign to purge campuses of ideas and speech that do not conform to a progressive worldview. And though all academics and American citizens need to be concerned about this growing problem, psychology professors and practitioners should feel especially obligated to take a stand against politicizing mental health. In recent years, colleges have experienced an increased demand for mental-health services from students, and many campus counseling centers are struggling to keep up. There has been much discussion about what this and similar mental-health trends mean. Do young people today face unique mental-health vulnerabilities? Perhaps. Research suggests that the use of electronic devices and social media may be making adolescents and teens more anxious, depressed, lonely, and suicidal. Cultural trends such as the rise of helicopter parenting have also been linked to mental-health problems among college students. Some scholars have argued that psychologists and Western culture more broadly are increasingly pathologizing emotional states and experiences that were previously viewed as a part of healthy development and normal life. This phenomenon of psychological concept creep may also have an ideological underpinning. Psychologist Nick Haslam proposed that “the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda.”

Not liking an idea or even finding it horribly offensive is not the same as being psychologically damaged by it.

Regardless of these issues, the fact remains that many students who suffer from legitimate mental illness are in desperate need of help and may not be getting it. The consequences can be deadly. For instance, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 15 and 34, and both suicide and self-harm rates have increased in recent years. However, a national survey found that fewer than 20 percent of suicidal college students were receiving treatment.

The students who are truly struggling with psychopathology don’t need protection from different viewpoints. They need mental illness to be treated as the serious and nonpartisan issue that it is. Academic psychologists are doing a good job of speaking out about all the bad psychology happening outside of the college campus. They need to direct their attention closer to home and demand a more scientifically guided, less ideologically motivated use of psychology on campus. It’s time to stop playing political games with mental health.


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