How Societies with Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness

Throughout history, societies have existed with far less coercion than ours, and while these societies have had far less consumer goods and what modernity calls “efficiency,” they also have had far less mental illness. This reality has been buried, not surprisingly, by uncritical champions of modernity and mainstream psychiatry. Coercion—the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance—is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling, and parenting. However, coercion results in fear and resentment, which are fuels for miserable marriages, unhappy families, and what we today call mental illness.

Societies with Little Coercion and Little Mental Illness

Shortly after returning from the horrors of World War I and before they wrote Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were given a commission by Harper’s Magazine to write nonfiction travel articles about life in the South Pacific. Their reports about the islands of Paumoto, Society, and the Hervey group were first serialized in Harper’s and then published in the book Faery Lands of the South Seas (1921). Nordhoff and Hall were stuck by how little coercion occurred in these island cultures compared to their own society, and they were enchanted by the kind of children that such noncoercive parenting produced:

“There is a fascination in watching these youngsters, brought up without clothes and without restraint. . . . Once they are weaned from their mothers’ breasts—which often does not occur until they have reached an age of two and a half or three —the children of the islands are left practically to shift for themselves; there is food in the house, a place to sleep, and a scrap of clothing if the weather be cool—that is the extent of parental responsibility. The child eats when it pleases, sleeps when and where it will, amuses itself with no other resources than its own. As it grows older certain light duties are expected of it—gathering fruit, lending a hand in fishing, cleaning the ground about the house—but the command to work is casually given and casually obeyed. Punishment is scarcely known. . . . [Yet] the brown youngster flourishes with astonishingly little friction—sweet tempered, cheerful, never bored, and seldom quarrelsome.”

For many indigenous peoples, even the majority rule that most Americans call democracy is problematically coercive, as it results in the minority feeling resentful. Roland Chrisjohn, member of the Oneida Nation of the Confederacy of the Haudenausaunee (Iroquois) and author of The Circle Game, points out that for his people, it is deemed valuable to spend whatever time necessary to achieve consensus so as to prevent such resentment. By the standards of Western civilization, this is highly inefficient. “Achieving consensus could take forever!” exclaimed an attendee of a talk that I heard given by Chrisjohn, who responded, “What else is there more important to do?”

Among indigenous societies, there are many accounts of a lack of mental illness, a minimum of coercion, and wisdom that coercion creates resentment which fractures relationships. The 1916 book The Institutional Care of the Insane of the United States and Canada reports, “Dr. Lillybridge of Virginia, who was employed by the government to superintend the removal of Cherokee Indians in 1827-8-9, and who saw more than 20,000 Indians and inquired much about their diseases, informs us he never saw or heard of a case of insanity among them.” Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, in his 1980 book Schizophrenia and Civilization, states, “Schizophrenia appears to be a disease of civilization.”

In 1973, Torrey conducted research in New Guinea, which he called “an unusually good country in which to do epidemiologic research because census records for even most remote villages are remarkably good.” Examining these records, he found, “There was over a twentyfold difference in schizophrenia prevalence among districts; those with a higher prevalence were, in general, those with the most contact with Western civilization.” In reviewing other’s research, Torrey concluded:

“Between 1828 and 1960, almost all observers who looked for psychosis or schizophrenia in technologically undeveloped areas of the world agreed that it was uncommon. . . . The striking feature. . . is the remarkable consensus that insanity (in the early studies) and schizophrenia (in later studies) were comparatively uncommon prior to contact with European-American civilization. . . . But around 1950 an interesting thing happened. . . the idea became current in psychiatric literature that schizophrenia occurs in about the same prevalence in all cultures and is not a disease of civilization.”

Yet Torrey is an advocate of the idea that severe mental illness is due to biological factors and not social ones, and he came to be responsible for helping build the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) into a powerful political force. How does Torrey square his ideas that mental illness is due to biological factors with his own research that shows that severe mental illness is highly associated with European-American civilization? For Torrey, “Viruses in particular should be suspect as possible agents.”

Torrey’s suspected biochemical virus agents have never been found, and so why has he not considered the toxic effects of coercion? Torrey is a strong advocate of coercive treatments, including forced medication. And so, perhaps his blindness to the ill effects of coercion compels him—even after discovering the strong relationship between European-American civilization and severe mental illness—to proclaim that mental illness could not be caused by social factors.

While Torrey researched records in New Guinea, Jared Diamond has actually worked with the New Guinea people for nearly a half century, spending extended periods of time with different groups, including those hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea (and other small-scale societies) whose parenting creates an abundance of nurturance and a minimum of coercion.

Diamond, in From the World Until Yesterday (2012), reports how laissez-faire parenting is “not unusual by the standards of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies, many of which consider young children to be autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted.” Diamond concludes that by our society’s attempt to control children for what we believe is their own good, we discourage those traits we admire:

“Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-­confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children. We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, videogames, and books. We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly ­telling them what to do.”

Emotional and Behavioral Effects of Coercion

Once, when doctors actually listened at length to their patients about their lives, it was obvious to many of them that coercion played a significant role in their misery. But most physicians, including psychiatrists, have stopped delving into their patients’ lives. In 2011, the New York Times (“Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy”) reported, “A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients.” As the article points out, psychiatrists can make far more money primarily providing “medication management,” in which they only check symptoms and adjust medication.

Since the 1980s, biochemical psychiatry in partnership with Big Pharma has come to dominate psychiatry, and they have successfully buried truths about coercion that were once obvious to professionals who actually listened at great length to their patients—obvious, for example, to Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) and R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience, 1967). This is not to say that Freud’s psychoanalysis and Laing’s existential approach always have been therapeutic. However, doctors who focus only on symptoms and prescribing medication will miss the obvious reality of how a variety of societal coercions can result in a cascade of family coercions, resentments, and emotional and behavioral problems.

Modernity is replete with institutional coercions not present in most indigenous cultures. This is especially true with respect to schooling and employment, which for most Americans, according to recent polls, are alienating, disengaging, and unfun. As I reported earlier this year (“Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane, a Gallup poll, released in January 2013, reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become, and by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. Critics of schooling—from Henry David Thoreau, to Paul Goodman, to John Holt, to John Taylor Gatto—have understood that coercive and unengaging schooling is necessary to ensure that young people more readily accept coercive and unengaging employment. And as I also reported in that same article, a June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have checked out of them.

Unengaging employment and schooling require all kinds of coercions for participation, and human beings pay a psychological price for this. In nearly three decades of clinical practice, I have found that coercion is often the source of suffering.

Here’s one situation that I’ve seen hundreds of times. An intelligent young child or teenager has been underachieving in standard school, and has begun to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. Such a child often feels coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which is boring for them, to do homework for which they see no value, and to stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating. Depending on the child’s temperament, this coercion results in different outcomes—none of them good.

Some of these kids get depressed and anxious. They worry that their lack of attention and interest will result in dire life consequences. They believe authorities’ admonitions that if they do poorly in school, they will be “flipping burgers for the rest of their lives.” It is increasingly routine for doctors to medicate these anxious and depressed kids with antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.

Other inattentive kids are unworried. They don’t take seriously either their schooling or admonitions from authorities, and they feel justified in resisting coercion. Their rebellion is routinely labeled by mental health professionals as “acting out,” and they are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Their parents often attempt punishments, which rarely work to break these kids’ resistance. Parents become frustrated and resentful that their child is causing them stress. Their child feels this parental frustration and resentment, and often experiences it as their parents not liking them. And so these kids stop liking their parents, stop caring about their parents’ feelings, and seek peers whom they believe do like them, even if these peers are engaged in criminal behaviors.

In all societies, there are coercions to behave in culturally agreed upon ways. For example, in many indigenous cultures, there is peer pressure to be courageous and honest. However, in modernity, we have institutional coercions that compel us to behave in ways that we do not respect or value. Parents, afraid their children will lack credentials necessary for employment, routinely coerce their children to comply with coercive schooling that was unpleasant for these parents as children. And though 70% of us hate or are disengaged from our jobs, we are coerced by the fear of poverty and homelessness to seek and maintain employment.

In our society, we are taught that accepting institutional coercion is required for survival. We discover a variety of ways—including drugs and alcohol—to deny resentment. We spend much energy denying the lethal effects of coercion on relationships. And, unlike many indigenous cultures, we spend little energy creating a society with minimal amount of coercion.

Accepting coercion as “a fact of life,” we often have little restraint in coercing others when given the opportunity. This opportunity can present itself when we find ourselves above others in an employment hierarchy and feel the safety of power; or after we have seduced our mate by being as noncoercive as possible and feel the safety of marriage. Marriages and other relationships go south in a hurry when one person becomes a coercive control freak; resentment quickly occurs in the other person, who then uses counter-coercive measures.

We can coerce with physical intimidation, constant criticism, and a variety of other means. Such coercions result in resentment, which is a poison that kills relationships and creates severe emotional problems. The Interactional Nature of Depression (1999), edited by psychologists Thomas Joiner and James Coyne, documents with hundreds of studies the interpersonal nature of depression. In one study of unhappily married women who were diagnosed with depression, 60 percent of them believed that their unhappy marriage was the primary cause of their depression. In another study, the best single predictor of depression relapse was found to be the response to a single item: “How critical is your spouse of you?”

In the 1970s, prior to the domination of the biopsychiatry-Big Pharma partnership, many mental health professionals took seriously the impact of coercion and resentful relationships on mental health. And in a cultural climate more favorable than our current one for critical reflection of society, authors such as Erich Fromm, who addressed the relationship between society and mental health, were  taken seriously even within popular culture. But then psychiatry went to bed with Big Pharma and its Big Money, and their partnership has helped bury the commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy families, and severe emotional and behavioral problems.

11 Responses

  1. Annie Bee Warnecke
    Annie Bee Warnecke August 29, 2013 at 8:44 am |

    Psychiatry isn’t just in bed with “Big Pharma and its Big Money”; psychiatry is now also in bed with Corporate Education Reform and its Big Money.

    Is a kid–or a teacher, or, heck, a school principal or district superintendent–not knuckling under to a totally coercive, hyper-competitive “Race to the Top” school culture? “No Excuses!” is the battle cry imposed upon children and their educators from anonymous authority from above (the Wizards actually being members of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls “The Billionaire Boys Club”).

    What nonconformists (e.g. slackers, troublemakers, squeaky wheels) are told they sorely lack is STAMINA–the current word of the day, along with GRIT. Even children in the early grades are taught these words, and told they must display these character traits if they are to succeed in school. Those who can not, or will not, go along to get along, even when survival under the school regime is at stake, will either be referred to psychiatrists for meds (if minors), or, if adults, desperately turn to shrinks for psychoactive meds to help them endure the extreme stress. If that’s not effective, the underachievers will just drop out, the educators fired, and have only themselves to blame for making “poor choices.” They may then score disability payments if they get a mental health diagnosis and comply with a psychiatric medication regime.

    Yesterday, conversing in a teachers lounge at a high school with high numbers of students living in poverty, and high numbers of ESL students, I declared to two educators I was informally chatting with between classes that “I wish to God I was just a wacky conspiracy theorist. But this takeover of public schools ain’t any secret.”

    Yep. It’s right out there for anybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to feel…and be broken. It’s extremely coercive and abusive to all of us, if truth be told.

    But none dare make a public peep as corporate reformers also hold sway over the major media outlets.

    And so it goes…our public schools, our democratic republic…

  2. Cate
    Cate September 4, 2013 at 2:50 pm |

    Hi Bruce,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and provocative article. I have to disagree with the implication that somehow the coercion is being made by corporations as if they are solely responsible for societal malaise.

    For me, the main perpetrator of coercion is government, which gets bigger and bigger every day. There has been a giant lurch toward socialism in recent decades that has been responsible for the growth of government and its intrusion into private life and business. This type of government seeks to align with big business as a way of helping to keep both in as much power as possible. What we have seen recently is what some refer to as “crony capitalism” and it makes a mockery out of true capitalism, which does not align with government, but relies of the market place for its strength or weakness. When government gets involved in trying to manipulate the market and the economy to keep itself and its business cronies in power, we have a state of coercion: ultimate intrusion into private life.

    I feel this article makes the beginning of a case for a more libertarian point of view in government, for smaller and more regulated government, which will result in less cronyism. If government would just abide by our Constitution, that would go a long way toward decreasing the state of coercion, but too many get involved in politics for personal gain, and there is much to be had by being in bed with big business. But big business is not itself to blame, for it has never billed itself as a charitable or public agency. Big business is out to make money, just like small business, which strives to be big as well, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We do need laws in place to safeguard environmental and other concerns, and do see that business stays in the private sector and government stays in the public.

    Again Bruce, thanks for your article. I think it is a conversation that has drawn increasingly more people since 2009, and hopefully will become a national conversation as more and more people become aware and start asking questions.

  3. Chris Reed
    Chris Reed September 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |

    Bruce: As someone diagnosed as bipolar and hospitalized against my will I believe that I have something to offer Society. While I can speak to the dehumanizing nature of the psychiatric establishment, I can also attest to the humanity of subsidery personnel who respected me and helped me to live through what easily could have ended in the loss of my life. Over the last couple of years I have begun pushing back against my psychiatrist who admitted that the lithium prescribed to me was damaging my kidneys but who confined to prescribe it to me. I confronted my psychiatrist by reporting at my appointment that I no longer was taking the lithium. I knew that there existed out patient commitment laws, so I was afraid what would happen to me. I believed that I successfully starred down the shrink on this point. I also believe that by standing up for myself I can stand up for others. I have many other concerns besides mental health. Many of these concerns also appear on counterpunch which I am glad that seems to see fit to publish you. I am attempting to become the first openly “mentally ill” to be elected to the Senate in your neighboring state of West Virginia. I also read The Mad in America website but I have not figured out how to interface with this community. Could you help me in this matter?

  4. Chris Reed
    Chris Reed September 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm |

    Bruce I also teach at a federal facility for at-risk youth. Thus far I have been unable either through human resources or through the teachers’ union what exactly is the policy with regards to biological psychiatry.

  5. Beth Jessup
    Beth Jessup December 9, 2013 at 1:43 am |


    I found your piece fascinating, it made so such sense. One of the main differences with our modern society, as compared to indigeneous peoples, is the almighty nature of competition which is through everything, from running a race, to “results” in an exam, to the heirachy of jobs and then showing off our wealth with cars, houses, boats, clothes etc. etc. you could go on and on. As well the fact that our society runs to a clock which doesn’t allow for the randomness and the adventure of life lived in the wild. We need adventure, we need things not to be programmed and scheduled to the minute.

    Last night I watch the program Tribal Wives. A British woman went to live with a tribal community in Africa for two weeks. For the first few days, she was crying a lot of the time because she was so taken aback by the people’s generosity to her, which she didn’t experience in her Western life. The tribe couldn’t understand her tears because as they said to the camera, they only ever cry when someone dies, never at any other time. No mental illness there!

    Wow, we’ve lost so much. My son a couple of years ago took his life, he developed schizophrenia many years ago. His mind came back with medication but I’ve often wondered how he would have faired in a society without constraints, where his mind could be peaceful and open to all adventures that came his way. You can google “I Lost My Son to Mental Illness”, it appeared in Guardian Australia.

    Thankyou so much for your brilliant and well researched story.


  6. Brian H.
    Brian H. September 30, 2015 at 11:15 pm |

    Thank you for confirming a gut feeling I’ve had for most of my adult life.

    Recently I switched from a decreasingly effective antidepressant to an odd new drug called Brintelix. It worked in hours, but the better I felt, the madder I became. I noticed a greatly diminished tolerance for boring and stupid, which continues as I stay on this med.

    Comorbid with the depression is Aspergers. You can imagine what a hell public schools were for me. But I wouldn’t become neurotypical if I could; so many NTs are like W.S. Gilbert’s “prosy dull society sinners/who chatter and bleat and bore…”
    (Not that I could stand “to hear sermons/by mystical Germans/who preach from ten to four” any better!)

    Your recent Salon article 9/2015 about the abuse of psychology bought it home: the system is designed, as implied by the Pink Floyd song “We Don’t Need No Education,” to turn out little automaton factory workers or soldiers. I understand the system of compulsory public ed to have originated in post-Napoleonic Prussia, designed with exactly that in mind.

    It’s not too late for me, though; retired now, I’m writing novels about people who ‘take this sorry scheme of things entire/Smash it all to bits and then/Remould it closer to the heart’s desire.’ Most of them do not hesitate to smash a few authoritarian heads in the process, which quickness on the draw is will sell the books, I hope!

  7. Aaron Nielsen
    Aaron Nielsen January 7, 2016 at 4:22 pm |

    I recently replied to a video that detailed the Prussian nature of our school system, with my personal experience of the system. While my understanding of the world has grown and my ability to describe it has expanded, my basic understanding of what was happening to me has always been as follows.

    “So true. I got aced most tests in highschool but got flunked all the way till I finished the chspe in the top 7th percentile. I was an autodictate before I knew what that was. Autodictates often don’t do well in school because they dont associate learning with submission. Could be the reason why so many smart people turn out as drug addicts and emotional basketcases. To be told you will be a failure because you won’t blindly submit to twisted logic that’s so different from the clear truth before your eyes. Tends to make you want to shut out the world that rewards that twisted logic, and makes your life so difficult for learning freely.”

    I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have a thought that is so recurrent and personal to me, articulated in such a perfect way. The portion of my comment saying I suspect this is the cause of drug abuse and mental illness, was a surface value suspicion that I hadn’t delved into quite yet. It was nice to stumble into this article so it could help me bypass some of the self doubt I can experience when truly thinking through suspicions of this nature. Thankyou so very much for this article, and the defence to Jared diamond which made it all the more credible to me. I have become a victim of the drug war because of my negative reactions to this phenomenon. My future sometimes seems bleak and wasted. An article of this nature gives me confidence in my take on the world and motivation to try to use my intellect to describe this in a way that resonates with people. Hopefully this can be a path to both financial security and avoidance of coercion in the fututre.

    -Aaron Nielsen
    Chico ca.

  8. Anarchist
    Anarchist January 12, 2016 at 9:13 pm |

    I think the person calling themselves “Cate” just posted a bunch of right wing propaganda the usual “Libertarian” Party stuff that uses the term “government” when they mean “ordinary people” or “workers” and wants business, especially big business, to control our lives. The word “libertarian” does not mean capitalism, it means free socialism. People in America have hijacked and misused the word libertarian, and are pretending that the Market is based on the ideology of robber barons and billionares, and not what Adam Smith said… they cut out parts of Adam Smith and substitute them with market rule ideology. The idea that capitalism without government woudl be better is insane. Crony capitalism is governmentless capitalism at its worse.

    Businesses are essentially fascist, top down, hierarchical institutions, and there are very good reasons to regulate big business. It is not true that big business does not claim to be a charitable organization.. they do this all the time, their commercials constantly present them as altruistic, their public relations constantly lies.

    The things capitalist ideologues like “Cate’ claim are libertarian are actually authoritarian. The market is a tool humans can use, but it is far more dangerous than democracy. Socialism must be libertarian and should not be handled like the Soviet Union and other garbage… which people like “Cate” constantly confuse socialism with.

    Capitalism and the market are not free, they are not libertarian, they are not anarchist.

  9. Closet Non-Compliant
    Closet Non-Compliant August 9, 2016 at 1:30 pm |

    Why would Torrey push for a less coercive system? Less mental illness would mean fewer cash cows to milk.

  10. Ms. Portabaen
    Ms. Portabaen November 20, 2016 at 7:37 am |

    Chris- ” I am attempting to become the first openly “mentally ill” to be elected to the Senate in your neighboring state of West Virginia. I also read The Mad in America website but I have not figured out how to interface with this community. Could you help me in this matter?” I just read this and was kind of excited at the prospect of someone being able to speak on behalf of a minority, that is often over looked, over diagnosed and often highly medicated/mistreated- I have a personal story of my own I would like to share w you- do you have an email or something that I could contact you at?

  11. Is Depression Worse in the Western World?

    […] achievements rely on external validation and markers. Research has shown that, throughout history, societies in the South Pacific that live with far less coercion also have significantly less mental […]

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