Marriage isn’t a mental health issue

The American Psychological Association should stay out of the debate about gay marriage.

Tana Dineen

Topics Politics

Gay marriage is good for mental health. That’s what the American Psychological Association (APA) said at its annual conference this summer, when it passed a policy statement that same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

The reasoning goes something like this: ‘If it can’t hurt and it might help, we’ll support it.’ In terms of the ‘can’t hurt’ part, the APA calls upon that old incontestable word ‘research’ to camouflage what would otherwise be recognised as mere opinion and wild speculation, arguing that psychological research ‘provides no evidence to justify discrimination against same-sex couples’. Since legalising gay marriage is something new, none of us can honestly claim to know the short-term, let alone the long-term, effects on couples, on their children or on our society.

As for the ‘might help’ argument, Diane Halpern, president of APA, says that denying gays the right to marry ‘puts a particular stress on them just because of their sexual orientation. It’s a health issue and a mental health issue’.

In the psychologist’s worldview, stress is ubiquitous. If a group that’s in the majority experiences stress, it is called ‘life stress’. If a minority group experiences it, it is ‘minority stress’. But whichever variety it is, in current psychological wisdom, stress is always unhealthy and we must do whatever we can to eliminate it. So if allowing gays to marry serves to reduce their stress level, then we should all be saying ‘yes’ to gay marriage.

The APA is saying this at a time when President George W Bush is stomping across America championing ‘family values’ that in his conservative thinking means saying ‘no’ to same-sex marriage. It was within days of the release of APA’s pro gay marriage statement that Missouri voters made their state the first to side with Bush, overwhelmingly approving an amendment to the State Constitution barring such marriages. Similar constitutional amendments will be on the ballots in a dozen other states this autumn, including the swing states of Oregon, Michigan and Ohio.

So when a California Supreme Court decision nullified the marriage licenses that had been issued by the mayor of San Francisco, both social conservatives and gay rights groups complained that the debate had become intertwined with the presidential election. Even the New York Times began to talk of gay marriage as a ‘swing issue with pull’, speculating on how this issue, and not the war in Iraq or labour issues or health care deficiencies, could prove to be the trump card that defeats John Kerry.

Why would the APA take such a stance in this stormy political climate? Halpern herself acknowledged the riskiness of the move. ‘We’re going out on a limb’, she said. The answer of why they did it, I think, has nothing to do with mental health and everything to do with politics.

Leading up to the last US election, psychologists clearly wanted Democratic nominee Al Gore to win. While never officially endorsing the Democrats, the APA coached Gore around mental health issues and embraced his wife, Tipper. A psychology consumer herself, Tipper talked openly about her bouts of depression and basked in the approving glow of psychology, even accepting an invitation to speak at the APA just prior to the 2000 election. She was, the APA believed, destined to be the First Lady of Mental Health, someone sure to champion its causes.

But the shoe dropped, the chads hung and psychology’s (and Tipper’s) plans were cast into disarray. Bush, by contrast, is not an ally of psychology. He openly favours faith-based initiatives over professional programmes, arguing that faith can accomplish what secular programmes cannot. And he actively undermines the control psychology has jealously held for decades over who can provide therapy and counselling. In A Charge To Keep, Bush writes that he ‘supports alternative licensing, so effective efforts aren’t buried or compromised by government regulations’. None of this is good for psychology’s business.

My guess is that the psychology industry, having no friend in the White House now and seeing that Kerry has a chance of winning, has chosen to throw its lot with him. Like Ronald Reagan Jr, when he stopped just short of taking a partisan stance by ending his speech at the August Democratic Party convention in Boston with the words ‘vote for stem cell research’, psychologists have spoken out on an issue that aligns them with the Democrats.

While Kerry doesn’t personally approve of same-sex marriage, he doesn’t oppose the notion of legalising civil unions and he wants the issue to be decided by individual states. Ditto for the APA, which says it will work with ‘states and provinces to provide civil marriage and to recognise the parent rights of lesbians and gay men’.

Since the Democrats have historically been more in line than the Republicans with psychologists’ interests – whether they were supporting greater access to psychological services, counselling for the poor or drug abuse treatment – Kerry’s their better bet.

APA states that its policy is in the public’s best interest – that legalising same-sex marriage is good for the mental health of our society. But how can turning a moral and legal dilemma into a mental health issue be genuinely helpful to anyone? Sure, those lobbying for legalising gay marriage can now draw on this APA sanctified ‘scientific’ argument in favour of their cause. They can use that to shoot down the equally unscientific arguments that the pro traditional marriage side throws at them – all that bogus research that supposedly shows that gay marriage is unhealthy.

This healthy v unhealthy bantering serves only to muddy the matter. Psychology could have done what it virtually never does – it could have pointed out that there is no real scientific evidence that favours either side. And psychologists should leave it to individuals and governments to struggle with the competing values of fairness and faith, and with the social complexity that would come with adopting this new understanding of marriage.

Tana Dineen is the author of Manufacturing Victims: What the psychology industry is doing to people, Robert-Davies, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and a frequent columnist for Canadian newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen. A practicing psychologist for three decades, and now a brutal critic of her own profession, she has been dubbed ‘The Dissident Psychologist’ by the North American media. She is currently working on a new book, Psychocracy, released in the USA, the UK, and Canada in autumn 2005, which will look at psychology’s pervasive social influence in Western society.

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Topics Politics


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