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Troubled Americans Rely on Drugs, Drink, Self-Concern and Pursuit of Career or Money, Psychologists Say at Convention : Society's 'Quick Fix' in a Plethora of Worries

August 28, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Americans are doing a pretty good job of keeping a lid on their worries. The problem is, the bottom may fall out.

In a nutshell, that's the opinion of psychologists from around the country about their fellow citizens. The psychologists see a population in which many--if not most--are almost adamantly avoiding looming personal, domestic and international troubles in favor of instant gratification and self-deception.

Drugs, drink, denial and the single-minded pursuit of career or money have become major means for many Americans attempting to insulate themselves from the world at large, they add. And, some conclude, rampant concern for self is ripping up the social fabric, tearing hardest at minorities and the poor.

Turning to the 'Quick Fix'

"People are kind of frightened and they're covering it up with a quick fix," said Stanley Graham, a New York psychologist who listed cocaine and alcohol as two of the most worrisome forms of escapism. "We're all set to get very scared. We're not prepared for a downturn in the economy; we're not prepared for war. We're not set to deal with those things because we're in a state of repressed hysteria. . . I'm scared (that) an economic thing, a moderate recession, would be enough to shake the country into a depression, a psychological depression."

If there is no depression-causing crisis, if the country moves along much as it is now, Graham predicted that more and more people will resort to "more and more bizarre behavior," perhaps leading double lives as "straight arrows by day" while acting out drug-induced fantasies by night.

Some Refuse to Generalize

In interviews, other psychologists attending the American Psychological Assn.'s convention here echoed Graham's comments when asked what they see when they look at the United States in 1985. While some declined to comment, saying the subject was too large for generalizations, most spoke readily, as if they had been pondering the subject for a long time. Others made relevant statements in press conferences, speeches and papers during the five-day gathering that ended Tuesday.

Drugs and alcohol abuse, the nuclear threat, violence, the federal budget deficit, the disease AIDS, job dissatisfaction and a grab-bag of international and domestic problems were cited as symptoms or causes of the anarchic state of the country's mental map. However, as one psychologist noted, the image may be skewed because "people don't come to us for laughs or pleasure."

Whatever the specifics, there was agreement that many of today's social, economic and political problems are driving people apart--individually and as members of groups or classes--and potentially creating a host of mental health problems.

Stanley Krippner of the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco said that the "general confidence" in the country masks a "dysfunctional" side of the United States. "A lot of Americans simply deny and will not face some very severe problems," Krippner said, listing nuclear war, the national debt, drug abuse and the condition of minorities.

'A Very Mixed Report'

"I would have to give a very mixed report," Krippner said. "Things look fine for the short-term psychological picture, but down the road there almost certainly will be problems."

Lenore Walker of Denver, chairwoman of the association's women's caucus, said she's worried that the country's outlays for defense while "spending virtually nothing on preventive mental health" will reap a harvest of psychological and physical problems, particularly in stress-related illnesses. Health insurance cost-containment programs have made the problem worse, she said, by forcing people to delay or forgo expensive psychological therapy.

Jacqueline Bouhoutsos, a professor of clinical psychology at UCLA, said the country is suffering from "anxiety neurosis" over "a tremendous number of life-threatening problems which strike at the very heart of the people."

'People Are Afraid'

"AIDS is tremendously anxiety provoking," she added. "People are afraid now of contamination. It's like the plague, it has some of the same overtones; it has a retributional aspect. It's having a direct effect on behavior. People are limiting their sexual activity. . . . There is a fear of getting involved sexually, and that is a kind of social comment."

Herbert Freudenberger, a New York psychologist in private practice, said that total immersion in careers or drugs or other pursuits indicates an overemphasis on individualism. "There is a decrease in values and morality" that is reflected in "the me-ness of society," he said. "There's not enough we-ness and the use of cocaine to me is an expression of the me-ness." Freudenberger added that he sees cocaine as a middle-class blight responsible for the disintegration of families and individuals.

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