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Steven Hoelscher, Chair Burdine 437, Mailcode B7100, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-7277

Spring 2006

AMS 315 • Psychology, Self, and American Culture-W

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
28535 MW
3:00 PM-4:30 PM
GAR 311

Course Description

In our fast-paced and rootless modern society, treatment for mental illness can become a means of either pacifying discontented individuals or of rehabilitating them to function more effectively in positions actually precarious to their mental health. This course will consider the experience of mental health and illness in a culture that obscures a picture of "true" mental health (which might include such aspects as social connectedness and spirituality) and devalues activities and perceptions that might contribute to a more authentic experience of fulfillment and satisfaction for the individual.

Visions of mental health and the "good life" are poorly articulated in American culture and are circumscribed by unrealistic ideals of material abundance as well as total personal independence and control of one's life. Confusion surrounding what the good life might be is only compounded by divisions within the mental health fields, including the rivalry between biological and environmental understandings of mental and emotional problems and the increasing explanatory power of psychopharmacological treatment which often prevails over social or cultural formulations. By constructing mental illnesses as distinct biological entities with precise quantitative characteristics, both mental health professionals and members of American society neglect the contribution of social and cultural values to illness. The course will examine these trends and will evaluate alternative models to understanding mental health. Authors like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz have been fundamental contributors to the anti-psychiatry movement which began in the 60s and has maintained influence into the present. These critics and others point to the socially constructed nature of diagnosis, to the social control mechanisms implicit in social categorization, and to the inadequacy of psychotherapy in the face of such deeply ingrained social problems.


In addition to reading direct criticism of the field of psychology and of the processes of diagnosis and treatment, you will read literary works that attempt to capture the experience of mental illness. By considering such works as Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, Sylvia Plaths Ariel, and Joanne Greenbergs I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, you will see vividly illustrated the parallel tensions involved in the experience of mental illness and the conflicts presented by treatment attempts. The examination of such works will also afford the opportunity to consider the role of factors like gender and socioeconomic status in the experience of mental distress. Finally, you will read several works including Furedis Therapy Culture, Schumakers The Age of Insanity, Gergens The Saturated Self, and Laschs The Culture of Narcissism which explore aspects of American society that contribute to individual and cultural identity and to the "crisis" in mental health care and treatment. These sources will provide both a historical and cultural context from which to understand our current state of psychological concerns.


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