Universities as Incubators of Nervous Breakdowns

by James A. Bacon

I’ve been arguing for some time that the United States — and Virginia is no exception — is experiencing a collective nervous breakdown. Mental illness is surging. Disorder is spreading. Rhetoric is becoming increasingly histrionic. Bizarre behavior once limited to the fringe is going mainstream. You can’t measure the accelerating social breakdown just by the number of murders and violent crimes. The big picture includes suicides, drug overdoses, learning loss in schools, anonymous death threats, the collapse of decorum, and the spread of aberrant behavior, from Colorado congresswomen groping their lovers in public to Virginia candidates for office livestreaming sex acts for tips.

What’s going on? Writing in The City Journal, Christopher F. Rufo argues that psychological dysfunction is going mainstream. He sees the emergence of a new national American character based on what he calls the Cluster B personality types: the narcissist, the borderline, the histrionic, and the antisocial.

He writes:

Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a sense of entitlement, obsession with one’s own importance, and deep feelings of resentment, often expressed through moral self-righteousness. Borderline personality disorder is marked by an unstable sense of identity, black-and-white thinking, feelings of emptiness, and recurring self-harm and suicide attempts. Histrionic personality disorder exhibits excessive emotionality, sexual provocation, and attention-seeking, often to serve a pathological need for sympathy. Antisocial personality disorder is typified by impulsivity, manipulation, disregard for others, and a penchant for violence and aggression that violates social norms.

Unlike in the past, this cluster of psychopathologies is being validated by our political/cultural elites, nowhere more so than in our universities.

Universities have created campus cultures centered around safety and victimhood. “Rather than prioritize academic achievement and substantive debate,” Rufo says, “administrators have elevated nebulous, therapeutic concepts such as trauma, white fragility, and systemic injustice.”

As a result, American college students find themselves in the midst of an unprecedented mental-health crisis. According to the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds study, more than 60 percent of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental-health problem—a nearly 50 percent increase since 2013. The more we indulge Cluster B-style pathologies, the more we replicate them within our institutions.

Rather than reverse course, university administrators have leaned into this broken model. On campus, students are told that they are always under attack, that their safety is constantly threatened. And rather than strengthen young people for the challenges of life, administrators fight to sanitize the campus environment and shut down any speech deemed “harmful” or “offensive”—the perfect recipe for enabling and encouraging Cluster B-style narcissism and hysteria.

This trend is clearly evident at the University of Virginia, which I track closely, and it most likely can be found at other higher-ed institutions in Virginia. Just consider the response to the tragic triple killing at UVa last year — cancel classes, let students switch to pass/fail, mobilize the therapists and trot out the comfort animals. At the recent Board of Visitors meeting, UVa officials proudly took board members on a tour of the university’s new wellness and mental health building. Among other indulgences, the 156,000-square-foot facility includes “reflection rooms” where students can relax in a solitary space. (Whatever happened to UVa’s “contemplative commons“?)

Many students come to universities suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction and other forms of mental illness. It would make an interesting social scientific study to investigate whether the rate of mental illness gets better or worse among those who marinate four years in campus culture.

Whatever the answer to that last question, as college students graduate and spill into the working world, psychopathologies spread into society at large. The valorization of those psychopathologies leaks out as well.

Rufo uses the psychological frame of reference to understand the dynamics of left-wing culture and politics — and I think his analysis is spot-on. But it would be a mistake to think that psychological disorder is unique to the left. There is ample evidence that it infects right-wing culture and politics as well. White supremacy, for instance, has been reframed from the idea of racial superiority into a cult of white victimhood and grievance. And no political figure in this country better epitomizes the terms “narcissist” and “histrionic” attention-seeking behavior than Donald Trump. The main difference, I think, is that the left seeks to normalize dysfunctional behavior (except when it occurs on the right) while the right stigmatizes it (even while sometimes engaging in it).

“We must find a way to restore balance, order, discipline, sanity,” Rufo writes. “If we do not, we will resign ourselves to a world gone mad.”

I quite agree.