Mental Health in the Time of Existential Threats

To prepare for a yearly physical examination, I received a questionnaire that addressed emotional health. I had read somewhere… I cannot remember where… that physicians were addressing these emotional concerns as part of an attempt to look at the whole (I can’t come up with a better description here) person in assessing overall health.

So, how’s my mental health in 2019? To answer this complex question, I have to go back to the early 1970s and mention a psychiatrist who practiced in Rhode Island where I lived. His name was Alfred Fireman, and he became known because he had gained a measure of notoriety in the local media and in the local peace movement for his work in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. He was known as a go-to psychiatrist, and there were many across the U.S., for those seeking to avoid or resist the draft because of mental health issues. If memory serves me correctly, Dr. Fireman became known as a doctor who would attempt to write a person out of the draft on mental health grounds, so they knew him at both the federal government and at the Selective Service.

My case was different, as I was appealing an order to report for active duty in the army from the Reserves. A psychologist in Dr. Fireman’s office interviewed me and Dr. Fireman signed the evaluation that stated I was unfit for active duty in the military. My lawyer in New York City had reached similar conclusions when he observed in his office on Broadway in Greenwich Village that he could see that I was unfit for the military after interviewing me and reviewing my case to prepare for an appeal of the army’s order. I also raised questions about the immorality of the Vietnam War and the violations of international laws because of that war, but no one would listen.

I had stopped going to Reserve meetings for several reasons. First, basic and advanced training had exposed me to the racism in the military toward the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese were constantly referred to as “Gooks” and “Charlie.” The barbarism of the training itself, along with its inherent authoritarianism, were other factors. One draftee in the basic training cycle shot toes off of his foot rather than continue on in the training cycle and get sent to Vietnam. Another person in the basic training brigade was mercilessly tormented by drill sergeants, as a message to others to conform, and made to repeat the training. The massacre of students at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970 by the Ohio National Guard cemented my revulsion to the war in Vietnam and now the war at home. Next, the horrific massacre of students at Jackson State in Mississippi took place. Those murders was not publicized to the extent that Kent State was. The latter was a case of the endemic racism built into the system.

The military found that I had Vietnam Syndrome as part of their findings in response to my application (successful) to Jimmy Carter’s amnesty program. That finding was a kind of vindication since the syndrome meant that I had an aversion to war as a result of the issues I had raised about the immorality of war during the Vietnam War. Readers may recall that the eradication of the Vietnam Syndrome was one of the cornerstones of the administration of George H.W. Bush.

Back to Dr. Fireman for a moment. He had gained additional notoriety in the media, that usually meant radio, television, and print media in those days by making the claim that resistance to the horror that was the Vietnam War called into question the mental health of the society as much as that of the individual. The medical specialty that Dr. Fireman was a part of, to some extent, and many others did not like the conclusion about the sanity of the society he called into question. How can a society operate freely, conduct its daily business, and go about a war half a world away that had killed and maimed millions of people for no good reason besides power and a virulent anti-communism if its sanity is called into question? Dr. Fireman’s take on a society at war was not much appreciated except with those whom  he helped.

Back to the questionnaire nearly half a century later. Here are a few sample questions from it:

+ Feeling bad about yourself-or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down

+ Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge

+ Trouble relaxing

+ Worrying too much about different things

+ Not being able to stop or control worrying

+ Becoming easily annoyed or irritable

+Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen

Readers will get the general drift here and guess, maybe, where I am heading with this essay.  I wish Dr. Fireman could be here to help me out with some of these answers, but he died several years ago, but not before heading off to live in Florida and help with the defense of some people on death row in that state. He was a kind of long-distance runner of psychiatry and the champion of taking an ethical stand in crazy-making situations.

Here is my response to these questions: Over the past nearly half century, I have witnessed the steady decline and worsening of conditions in the U.S. that have also affected my mental health profoundly.  I finally was vindicated in my battle with the U.S. government in 2011, when I got them off of my back in terms of the war, and to be clear about this issue, I mean the Vietnam War. Yes, all of those years later.

Despite opposing the decline I see all around me in meaningful ways, the sanity I once sought in my place in the world has gone from bad to worse. First there was Ronald Reagan who began the militarism that is all around and the debacle of the economy that has created suffering among people who cannot make it financially. Reagan also used the strategy of dog-whistle politics that targeted minorities and was honed expertly by his heir to the throne of the presidency, George H. W. Bush. It was a short hop to George W. Bush who made the attack on civil liberties and war his cause(s) célèbre.

Wars, that I had countered all of my life became popular after the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001, and militarism and war drowned out those who raised their voices against war and war profiteering. It even became impossible to go to a major league ballgame, or any other sport without being bombarded by military symbols and rituals.

And then there was Trump who followed on the heels of the economic debacle of 2007-2008, which left millions of ordinary people in the U.S. reeling after the value of their homes was gutted by financial wrongdoing. Barack Obama, the president of “hope and change” saved the fat cats and let others less able to defend themselves either sink or swim.

As the grandchild and heir to immigrants, I recoil at Trump’s daily rants against immigrants in the U.S., his racism, his misogyny, and his threats of war. His cause of destroying environmental regulations at a time of ultimate stress on the environment through global destruction would force a yogi into emotional turmoil. People are increasingly challenged in their simple right to vote here, so what remains of decaying democratic traditions and institutions?

Have I left anything out as a cause or causes for my emotional distress at what I see and my increasing inability to address this debacle in any meaningful way? Yes, I am outraged that my children and grandchildren face such a rotten and despoiled world. I am outraged at the destruction of the lives of innocent people! I am outraged by the gun death of a student who I had in a community college class, while he on a weekend trip home and how that community college ignored that student’s death, while rumors spread  about the student’s life.

Ought I to talk to someone about all of this? Dr. Fireman is gone, but I have spoken with religious leaders in my community, although I am not a religious person. How about a mental health professional? Well, I spent six years getting a counseling degree and I’m not a big fan of the so-called “talking cure” because existential threats to humanity can’t be solved solely by talking, but they can be addressed by doing. I don’t want to sound self-righteous here, but I haven’t been sitting around fiddling while Rome burns. I wonder where the old mass movements are for social change and social uplift? There are small movements now, but some of them have devolved into efforts to enhance one’s identity without fostering significant changes in society.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).