12/17/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Torture, Mental Health, and Accountability

Dick Cheney can wag his finger at the anchor or at the public that is protesting the use of torture, but it's not quite as appropriate for members of the mental health professions, who have actively committed to doing "no harm". In addition to the brutality of the American torture program begun after 9/11, it has been revealed in recent days that the same torture program was also ineffective in yielding information crucial to national security (though not according to the alternative "truth" of Dick Cheney).

The descriptions of torture are torturous to read for anyone who is sensitive to the infliction of pain, to gratuitous violence, and who can empathize with those facing brutality and humiliation just about anywhere. Mental health practitioners, like journalists, are -- as I see it -- obligated to raise even controversial and provocative questions and to help us make sense of, not only individual pathology, but also the group narrative in any given period of time.

Over the last years, this has not so much been the case. Firstly, the major outlets of the press buckled under pressures from the Bush administration that warned strongly against transparency in the press, and predicted countless dangers to American citizens should important information be published. And then many mental health professionals, who have tended to lie low, have -- perhaps out of fear -- neglected to notice, out loud, practices such as torture that clearly do harm to psyches here and abroad.

Not only were mental health professionals largely silent, but some were complicit in one way or another. We have heard of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and we have heard, if we read far enough, that the torture program was based on the research of Dr. Martin Seligman, best known to many as the father of positive psychology. Much less than positive in this context, his research, done through electric shocks given to dogs, showed that these dogs, basically tortured, became so dampened by fear that they lost hope of exit from brutality, not even exiting a door that became open.

We need to be asking a lot of questions out loud here, not just about content, but about how we process and deny evidence in general. People being in their defensive corners, deciding before facts are presented on the conclusion -- is a real problem -- actually a psychological one as well. Meanwhile it seems crucial for some of us to open the boxes to questions that are hanging in the air. Seligman's research was used as a foundation for torture policies, the connection about which he said he had no knowledge. In 2001, he convened a meeting at his home to discuss with high ranking people -- some also in psychology -- how to deal with terrorism and Muslim extremism. He spoke for three hours in 2002 to the SERE group, the CIA group whose name stands for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape. There are dots to be connected, and questions begging to be asked, without any conclusions being presumed.

Nobody from that 2001 meeting has revealed its actual content, and James Mitchell has made clear he has a nondisclosure contract with the government. He has also insisted he was "only a guy." Specifically he told the Guardian that he was "just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could." But wait, Mitchell is not just a guy, at least in our culture. He is a psychologist who has been part of the American Psychological Association, whose first tenet as such is, "do no harm."

Seligman has said he was saddened to learn that his research might have been used in any way to provide a basis for the U.S. torture program, since he doesn't believe in torture. He also said that during the evening at his home in 2001 he had been immensely flattered by Mitchell's being extremely impressed by his work on learned helplessness. This storyline seems hard to put context to, and I wonder why there aren't more people questioning this out loud. But wait again: there are...

There is a group, called Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, that has a website. These are psychologists who have fiercely fought the U.S. torture policies from the beginning, and -- with particular passion -- the American Psychological Association being way too cozily involved with the CIA for years now. It took, by the way, a whole two years for the APA to vote against psychologists participating in interrogations. However, this isn't only a question of mental health practitioners raising questions, but also of being heard, which can only happen if the politics of our organizations don't shut us up and shut out questions about how things are being done.

As mental health professionals, and as citizens of the world, we need to get our why back; it's our right to ask, and it's necessary. Simultaneously, we need to acknowledge how many of us feel bullied by a need to conform or be politically correct, to appear as if we have our lives under control. We are too isolated already from the mutual supports we need to feel safer in our skins as we contemplate some true information which at points turns our ways of looking at things upside down. Being free becomes scary when we see our leaders' clay feet, when we succumb to an overriding pessimism, or a belief system based on nostalgia. What needs work is finding ways to tolerate the discomfort of processing the tougher realities, that are often more layered than flat or simple.

Growing up, as humans who can deal with difficult truths, is, as it turns out, pretty hard to do. Meanwhile, it seems pretty safe to say that the American Psychological Association is not supposed to be in bed with the United States government. I'm pretty sure about this one.