Thomas Szasz is not the hero we deserve, but the one we need right now.
That's the implicit takeaway from Fusion's impressive profile of Yellowbrick, a mental health facility and trauma center for a certain kind of patient: relatively privileged millennials who can't seem to adjust to the demands of adult life.
Based on my reading of the Fusion story, there doesn't seem to be anything especially wrong with these people, in a medical sense—or, put another way, they're suffering from the same kinds of fears, traumas, and stresses that plague practically everyone. But the patients have been convinced—scammed may be the better word—to believe that their struggles are diagnosable, treatable, and fixable. With the right therapy and medicine, and for the right price, 20-somethings who can't hold jobs, finish school, or form lasting relationships will be transformed into fully functioning adults.
Did I mention that Yellowbrick costs $28,000 per month? There's that. Patients must commit to stay at least 10 weeks, but many stay much longer—until their parents run out of money.
Fusion writer Molly Osberg visited Yellowbrick, interviewing the staff and former patients (she was denied access to current patients, it seems). Here's how she summarizes the place:
Yelllowbrick was founded a decade ago specifically to treat "emerging adult" brains. It helps its patients navigate the extended period between childhood and adulthood by fostering habits vaguely existential in nature: the realistic setting of life goals, the formation of an adult relationship to one's family, "identity consolidation" and self-esteem.
The center's staff of 33 ministers to a live-in population that hovers around 15, as well as a number of outpatients—though in recent years it has been expanding more aggressively. Yellowbrick's psychologists are nationally recognized. They run the conference circuit and publish their own (non-peer reviewed) research journal. Their approach is holistic in the most extreme sense of the word. Some of the neurological treatments Yellowbrick draws on are still being research-tested; it complements them with yoga and meditation, massage, dramatic role-play, and art therapy.
Yellowbrick describes its emerging adult patients as "troubled." It treats, among other things, mood and anxiety disorders, PTSD, psychosis, avoidant personalities, substance abuse, eating disorders, and "failure to launch." Like other forward-looking residential facilities of its kind, it rarely issues a single diagnosis, preferring to treat patients for a handful of behaviors at a time.
Patients live in a building of four communal apartments ("the Res") on a quiet suburban street in Evanston, 14 miles north of Chicago. Every day they travel by car or foot the half mile downtown to Yellowbrick's treatment center, a labyrinth of rooms with dark wood desks and soft carpeting, which mutes patient's clatter as they migrate between sessions. For most of the day, five days a week, they receive treatment, they sit in small rooms with therapists, they debrief, they gossip, they repeat.
Again, my interpretation of this reporting is that Yellowbrick is a con job. For one thing, it's clearly reliant on unproven pseudoscience. "They call it a center for clinical neuroscience, as if this is [all] scientifically founded," Carrie Bearden, a brain science expert, told Osberg. Unsurprisingly the treatment doesn't seem to work very well. Relapses are common. One former admitted to Osberg that there's no model success story. "I don't know anyone who went to Yellowbrick who's like, 'I'm doing awesome!'" the patient said. Nevertheless, the patient was grateful to Yellowbrick for helping her to realize that her parents would just never understand her struggles. Indeed, former patients had fond memories of Yellowbrick, even though their trauma hadn't left them.
These qualities are reminscient of a cult—one that drains these young people's financial assets while promising them some elusive, unreachable sense of fulfillment and hidden meaning.
What's most interesting about this scam, though, is the phenomenon that made it possible: the emotionally fragile college-aged millennial. No, not all young people are delicate snowflakes, not all college students are obsessed with their own oppression, not all millennials are suffering from weak or imagined cases of PTSD—but some of them are. Indeed, we hear stories about them all the time: from campus newspapers, from professors, and from the students themselves. We hear it from university mental health professionals who can't keep up with the rising demand for counselling.
This isn't really millennials' faults, mind you. A wave of infantilizing trends in education and parenting, coupled with government policies driven by extreme safety paranoia, have convinced young people that everything is dangerous and traumatizing—everything that's wrong with them can be traced back to some instance of marginalization.
The result is Yellowbrick. The result is young people of incredible wealth and privilege who have been convinced that they are too fragile, too oppressed, too traumatized to succeed at life. Their parents are willing to fork over an unbelievable amount of money to provide them therapy specifically-tailored to their neuroses.
Osberg, to her credit, gets the point across that while life may indeed be stressful for Yellowbrick's patients, it's stressful for everyone else, too:
At times, in my conversations with former Yellowbrick patients, my notebook seemed like the only thing separating me from the people I was interviewing. A month after I visited, I dreamt I returned for a follow-up interview, knocked back a few too many IPAs, lost my job, and stayed.
Which isn't to say that Bethany—who says in a text message weeks after my visit that she "obviously has issues"—and I are dealing with anything remotely similar. It's just that pairing pathology with emerging adulthood, finding the symptoms of a treatable illness in years of dead-end jobs or overwhelming performance anxiety as much as in violent acts of self-harm, is confounding and humbling territory.
Who hasn't considered, in their darkest moments, that their poor life choices might be an indication of something inside them that's deeply and irrevocably damaged? How much do you have to fuck up your life in young adulthood to never recover? Stability is rare and fleeting. It's not the reality for most people I know.
The stories the affluent tell about their lives, the neuroses they stoke, trickle down and become the standard for everyone else. On some level, everyone in their twenties is waiting for the Big One to come: the final mistake that can't be corrected, the thing that keeps a promising young person from turning into whatever passes these days for an actualized adult.
A few years ago, the sociologist Jennifer Silva coined the term "mood economy," to describe the appropriation of therapeutic language among working-class 20-somethings. In extensive interviews with this demographic, she found that rather than telling the story of their ascension to adulthood though traditional markers like marriage or career progression, they told "their coming of age stories as a struggle to triumph over demons of their pasts." These narratives, she writes, "grounded their adult identities in their personal quests to transform their wounded selves"—usually in terms of overcoming the pain of earlier relationships, the turmoil of mental disorders, or an addiction of some kind.
Privilege, victimhood culture, and un-scientific therapy make quite the toxic combination. There's something—dare I say it?—unhealthy about the idea that failure can and should be automatically attributed to mental illness: it robs individuals of the autonomy to overcome their setbacks, undermining the libertarian notion that people are generally responsible for their own well-being. And, as the Fusion article argues, it's not really helping them.