Dr. Harriet Fraad is a mental health counselor practicing in New York City. Dr. Fraad speaks and writes at the intersection of politics, economics, and personal life in the United States. Her work can be found on her website harrietfraad.com and her podcast Capitalism Hits Home. She appears as a regular guest on Economic Update and over a hundred radio stations, and The Julianna Forlano Morning Show on Act TV. Her latest written work appears in Knowledge, Class and Economics (Routledge 2019).
Dr. Fraad is a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in New Haven, Connecticut and she’s been a political activist since her high school days. She joined Daniel Gaztambide for a brief interview on November 11, 2019, on how capitalism “trickles down” into the intimacies of our relationships and home life, our mental well-being, and our communities. Her remarks, unfortunately, are only more relevant today as COVID-19 and the anti-Blackness that permeates our militarized police departments become more evident.
Is there a school of thought that guides your work as a therapist?
I’m informed by Freud and Lacan, among others. I believe that what is construed as mental illness is in fact a reasonable adjustment to the environment in which we live. We see ourselves through the mirrors of the most important people in our lives—and those can be very twisted mirrors. We learn to adjust to a reality that often hurts us when we leave those environments.
The family is, as Louis Althusser puts it, an ideological state apparatus which teaches us the lines of dominance and submission. They may so accustom us to submission that we feel that authoritarianism is the natural way that the world works. After all, it is what we are accustomed to from our earliest memories on. We may then look for other authority figures in school, in church, and in government. Therapy can help us learn not to submit, to know who we are, and to appreciate who we are and what we will protect. Because, for me, politics is our way of taking morality out into the world, an independent politics grows from our independent sense of selfhood. What do we stand for morally? Who do we protect? Who don’t we protect? These are very important questions that extend from our sense of who we are.
Part of the reason that I’m not a capitalist is that this is a system in which we learn not to trust one another. The Spirit Level, an excellent book by [Richard] Wilkinson and [Kate] Pickett, shows that one of the things capitalism does to mental health is that it teaches you not to trust. Capitalism emphasizes the individual apart from or in opposition to any group of fellow or sister humans. We humans are herd animals, we need each other.
How does your history with social justice work inform your thinking as a therapist and activist?
When I was little, in the early Fifties, I was part of an America which emerged from World War II allied with someone called “Uncle Joe.” That was Joseph Stalin! The Russians and the Americans were allies, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had many socialists and communists in his government to bring us the New Deal and social security. My father had been a communist in the movement, and as a little kid we went to the concerts of blacklisted artists, We had people of all colors moving through our house because there was a commonality of belief, a sense of community. And that was a wonderful thing about my first exposure to a movement—people were trusting, kind, and engaged along with a sense that we are in this together.
I agree with Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, that connection is the key to mental health, yet our society atomizes people so you don’t trust, you don’t join others. One of the things that impedes connection is social division—racism, sexism, hatred of refugees, Jews, etc. And that [lack of connection and social division] is one of the reasons that mental illness is so unusually prevalent in the United States.
How, to reference your podcast, does capitalism “hit home”? What does that look like?
My podcast, Capitalism Hits Home, explores the intersection between our capitalist economic and political system and our personal lives. One example I would give is Flint, Michigan, where polluted water is pumped into the homes of its poor black citizens. Because of the contents of that water, such as lead, and its impact on brain development, children are more at risk to develop mental health and behavioral problems. Their suspension rate is more than three times the suspension rate of other children. They can’t sit still, they are terribly affected, and they can’t focus because of the neurological impact.
That’s a mental health problem, and each time that they are held back, disciplined, thrown out, they’re told “You don’t belong here,” “You are no good,” “You are an outsider, “You’re stupid,” You’re bad.” That is one of a myriad way that economic and social problems impact the personal lives of those children and their families.
Flint, Michigan, like every other town, city, and state in the United States, has a problem. In order to fund the kind of services that their citizens need, state governors and governments need to tax the people that have the money. They already overtax the people in the bottom, but if they tax those at the top, the ones that provide funding for their campaigns, they’ll never get elected again!
So they cut funding for social services. Look at the subways in New York City as a local example. And that’s because their choices are to either tax the wealthy in this unequal society, or face political expulsion. So they choose to give inferior services and impair the mental and physical health of their citizens. It’s pretty straightforward. But there’s also another obvious connection. If you are always in competition with the next person, if you’re in an economic system like capitalism, the question arises: how do you get rich?
Everyday people are already paid as little as they can. The point is to hire you, and to make more money than they give you. And so, the whole thing is based on an adversarial relationship—get the most and give the least—and that’s immoral. It’s very bad for your psychology to feel like you are always being ripped off. It may well also harden the hearts of those who hire you who, for their own profit, may see you as a cipher in a profit calculus, and not a human being like them.
There’s a way in which parents are often blamed for their family’s and children’s struggles, especially when they may not have the resources to meet their needs. Can you comment on that?
We could look at a rather exemplary intersection. By the government’s own statistics, 85% of children under two are in substandard childcare. The most crucial areas of brain formation are zero to two, also crucial are ages two to six. Those are times when the majority of parents have inadequate daycare for their kids. Decent infant and toddler care costs at least $15,000 a year. At the same time, over 60% of Americans are paid on average $40,000 a year. They cannot pay more than half of their income for one child’s decent care.
We are ridiculously behind other countries across a number of outcomes, while we spend trillions on warfare. What that means is that the very brain development of America’s children is not fostered, and that’s not the parent’s fault. 42% of children are born out of a marriage, so there is a parent usually working and taking care of the kids. We are abandoning the children who need developmental stimulation and giving them television, and then when they are home alone because their parents are working. 75% of school-age children are left alone from the time school adjourns to when their parents return from work. In addition, they are often not allowed to go outside, because it’s dangerous, so they stay home, [play] video games, eat snacks, and are overweight and unhealthy. Parents are blamed but have terrible choices.
In France, for example, you have drop-in daycare before your child is three and it’s a dollar an hour. And you could bring your child at seven in the morning and pick him up at seven at night. In the meantime, your child receives three good, nutritious meals. In France, as one example, all children from two years old on receive a quality preschool education. Their teachers are all paid on a teacher’s union scale. Their medical needs are also provided for free at school.
This is why systemic reform like Medicare for All is so important. Other developed countries with some form of a national health service have healthier outcomes. One of the reasons the United States has now a lower life expectancy and a higher infant mortality rate than the other developed nation is because we don’t have good free and public healthcare. Those at the top have good healthcare, relatively, but the US has the most expensive—but not the best—healthcare system in the world.
Pharmaceutical companies are allowed to charge whatever they want in the only nation that allows direct consumer ads: You aren’t happy? Take this drug! The corruption and the capitalization of our private lives here is truly alarming, and that is why we have such a mental health disaster.
I think one of the problems is that injustice is so overwhelming that a lot of people don’t want to open Pandora’s box of disaster and let all the furies all out. This fear is present in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy as well. I remember when I was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale and was appalled by the snobbery and classism that they showed towards the clinical population, with no compassion for what the parents were going through, presenting their cases as if it were voluntary parental malfeasance that caused their problems rather than a whole set of social problems besetting these parents and their children.
Mental health professionals are, by and large, nice liberals who do not interest themselves in seeing the impact of politics, our capitalist economic and social system, and our personal and family lives. Those connections and that awareness are largely missing from the mental health field. Americans are in a depoliticized culture in so many ways. So many areas of our lives are depoliticized, and people don’t realize that they can be part of the solution and join together. And that’s a sad thing that’s beginning to change now as people are joining Democratic Socialists of America or Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or #TimesUp or any number of groups that address political and social problems.
What would be your takeaway for psychotherapists who are trying to connect the intimacy of their work with broader political issues?
Help your clients see the social context of their problems, but not as an excuse for antisocial behavior or avoiding responsibility for our own actions. I remember a client of mine, an African American woman, talking about how she was married at fourteen years old to an abusive man. I talked with her about this old idea of the woman as a subordinate being creating useful things for the lord and master who is her husband, who in turn provides the domicile that she works in. And how untenable that is, and how women need full rights as people.
She started crying, as she had never seen that part of her oppression. Although she was with a particularly abusive fellow, she had given up her authority by remaining with him. She finally reclaimed her own personhood by leaving him. Therapy helped her understand that this is not some kind of personal pathology that landed her here, this is a social system imposed on women.
You can really help clients by exploring both the personal and their social determinants that shape their reality and that need to be changed. You need to know what’s going on, in order to change it. I found that’s really, really useful.