Existential Roundup

Arsexpo  Passe partout - Existential Roundup
Photo by Jacek Nowacki.

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

From the files this week are several articles that may feel old in some ways but are actually new takes on old familiar themes. Sometimes, it is refreshing to see an old picture in a new frame.

The first of several articles that may make you want to say something to the effect, “Didn’t we know this already?” yet we must remember that many must be reminded of this time and time again is the Huffington Post’s “What If People Treated Physical Illness Like Mental Illness?”  The article reminds us that in spite of how common mental distress is, and how many campaigns have tried to normalize and de-stigmatize it, the stigma remains. According to the CDC, the article tells us, “only 25 percent of those with mental health issues feel that other people are compassionate and sympathetic towards them” (1). In order to reframe the discussion, Robert Hugs, an artist, created a comic including pictures of people who have clear physical ailments accompanied by dialogue usually reserved—unhelpfully—for those in mental distress. For example, a picture with someone who has just had a hand severed and is bleeding profusely is told, “You just need to change your frame of mind. Then you’ll feel better.” Another person, obviously sick to his or her stomach from the flu, bent over the toilet, receives the advice: “Have you tried…you know… not having the flu?” Obviously, we would never say such things, but that’s exactly the point. Why would we say these things to people in mental distress but not physical? Why do we consider one less real or less viable or less worthy of care and compassion than the other?

Another article under the heading of “Didn’t we already know this? And dismiss this?” comes from the Pacific Standard, which reports that despite the fact that we should have learned from our mistakes years ago, some people still actually believe that so-called “hidden memories” can be “recovered.” Calling it, “The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health,” the Pacific Standard tells the story of a family whose daughter went for treatment at an eating disorders clinic in Missouri where the therapists “uncovered” memories of the father having sexually abused the daughter for 10 years. The father denies the charges, as did the girl’s stepsister and stepmother, and all tells an entirely different story about the girl’s illness. The girl’s memories had supposedly all been repressed and were unconscious until the clinic’s therapists “brought them to light.”

The article details much of the history of the rise and fall of the fad of repressed memory claims and accusations. At their height, major media stars were telling their stories on daytime and primetime television. By the late 1990s, even those who had claimed to have remembered incidents of abuse were beginning to doubt the veracity of those memories. But by then, a lot of damage had been done—those falsely accused of child abuse and sexual abuse would forever live with the damage done by those accusations and suspicions, even if recanted. Lingering questions tend to remain. And here we are, almost 20 years later, and the Pacific Standard reminds us that history has taught us almost nothing.

In a bit of “We kind of knew this,” but with a twist, the Pacific Standard also reports this week about our obsession—yes, we know—with assessments and metrics. But what you may not have known was that our obsession has a name: Campbell’s Law. The article explains:

Here’s the gist: The more a given metric—say, a national college ranking—is used to evaluate performance in some domain, the less reliable it becomes as a measure of overall success. Why? The people whose performance is being measured will neglect other parts of their job just to focus on boosting the relevant numbers, sometimes to the point of cheating. The chosen metric will inevitably “distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor,” suggested the social psychologist Donald Campbell back in 1974. (2)

According to the article, one big use of “Campbell’s Law” these days is the oft-heard complain that teachers are “teaching to the test” rather than teaching what is “important” or what students may actually need or want to learn. Similarly, the article suggests that a focus on statistics such as “body count” metrics in the Vietnam War shifted focus away from attaining more strategic goals such as territory control or focus on the number of arrests in police departments may shift attention away from the actual goal of real public safety. If our statistics obsession interferes rather than enhances what we are working to achieve, perhaps we need to rethink?

And finally, good news in the “We knew this, but it’s always great to hear it reaffirmed.” The Atlantic has a “Health Tip” for us: “Find Purpose in Life.”  We existentialists know that meaning is important but as noted, it’s always nice to see the media reaffirm this. The article suggests that this is more than just an affirmation, though, and rather a call to arms. The Atlantic quotes Victor Strecher, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and co-author of the study mentioned in the article as saying, “I think we’re in an increasingly nihilistic world [where it’s not necessarily standard to aspire to] “something beyond just watching the Kardashian sisters on television and seeing what they’re doing.” (7) Logotherapy is an option Strecher mentions as a way to find meaning and purpose, as the article says Strecher often poses the question: “What would Victor Frankl do now?” (6).

Add to this the physiological benefits of having meaning in one’s life. Strecher’s work followed up on some of the Nobel prize-winning research of Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009 who discovered the enzyme telomerase, which slows aging. Meditators in a three-month study Blackburn conducted also had increased levels of telomerase. However, Blackburn also found that they had an increased sense of purpose in life. Strecher says that the reason for the increased levels is not simply act of meditating itself but rather that the meditators had created a greater purpose out of the process of meditation. The purpose created the increased levels of telomerase, not simply the behavior.

Reframing. Always a nice idea to try when the view feels like it’s beginning to get a little stuck and sedimented.

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