Are Americans just “terrible people” or are we a deeply traumatized society needing to heal?

By Dominic Cappello and Katherine Ortega Courtney, PhD

We found ourselves discussing a Medium article by London-based Umair Haque titled Are Americans Just Terrible People? His equally forthright subtitle, “Do Americans Get How Weirdly Twisted and Cruel Their Society Has Become?” was certainly attention-grabbing and we could only shrug our shoulders in our daily zoom morning call which was our code for “yet again, another call to reflect on how our nation is in deep trouble.”

We aren’t here to debate Mr. Haque’s critique, as that’s for each American to decide the degree to which they navigate a culture of apathy that disconnects them from caring for others. The example given in the article is what happened when a homeless man collapsed on a street and how people essentially stepped over and around him without missing a beat until the author and his medical-doctor wife intervened.

We suggest that in order to determine just how “terrible” Americans are, that rather than focusing on one homeless man’s plight, we look at an entire state’s population. As keen observers of human behavior with backgrounds in psychology, child welfare, and public health, we are working to guide an entire state to the opposite of apathetic and cruel, toward a culture of caring.

What we’re doing is radically simple and could be described as conducting the nation’s first statewide experiment in growing altruism in New Mexico with 49 states to follow. How might this work, you ask? Our initiative, part of the higher education system, first connects with stakeholders in one county. These locals might include a medical director of a health clinic, a city councilor, a county commissioner, a university professor or tribal health advocate. We then collaborate to survey county residents to ask, “To what degree do you have access to the ten vital services for surviving and thriving?” (This would include health care, housing security programs, food pantries, transport, and job training among other services.) Survey results reveal gaps in services and families struggling to access services who are challenged due to cost, transport, unfriendly hours, lack of qualifying, or the non-existence of local services. Our initiative is designed to turn the survey results into action, mobilizing local teams of innovators to focus on removing barriers to ensure access for all. We are supporting the local change agents in moving their county from a society where residents are on their own to fix themselves with or without services, to a place where everyone matters and vital services are accessible, reliable and user-friendly.

Taking the “how terrible are we” test

This is where the “how terrible are we” test comes into play for all to see. These survey results are then sent to every elected leader in the county, as well as leaders of local foundations and service organizations. If you want to know if we (those Americans who may or may not be “terrible”) truly care about our most vulnerable children, families and elders, the answer is found in how people react to hearing that a third to half the population of their county might be in deep trouble, enduring hunger, unstable housing, lack of work and untreated medical and mental health problems.

In Mr. Haque’s article, he was appalled at how those in a liberal east coast city could ignore a man who collapsed on the street. We are currently in a position to begin assessing how entire counties will react to hearing of large populations at extreme risk. Will leaders and the well-resourced public in each county join in demanding we address service barriers to ensure that 100% of residents have access to care. Or will they be stepping over the bodies, figuratively speaking, of thousands and thousands of their neighbors who have fallen in the street?

We don’t have the answers for you yet as we are still supporting each of our county’s initiative teams in sharing the survey results. We can tell you, that in one county that is considered one of the most liberal and progressive of the state, there was little interest on the part of elected leaders in even doing the survey. One could ask why leaders, in a city known for wealth, high-end spas and the arts, would not wish to know of potential suffering on that other (less-resourced) side of town? Are these terrible people or is there something beneath the surface, psychologically speaking, to what appears to be callousness and apathy?

Are we “terrible” or traumatized?

We are not here to excuse anyone’s apathy, anywhere on the planet. But here in the United States, a culture we grew up in and know well, we believe it would be productive to explore possible reasons for what makes Americans act out in uncaring ways, or more precisely, not act at all when confronted with the human despair, misery and pain of others living across the street or on the other side of town.

We have spent the last half a decade researching adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs as it’s called in public health, which are ten forms of adversity, abuse and neglect endured by children in their homes, perpetrated by adults. The ACEs Study, published by Dr. Vincent Felitti and team in 1998, looked at the correlation between enduring ACEs and health outcomes in adulthood. To no one’s surprise, it became clear that ACEs could start a cascade effect leading to trauma, then leading to substance misuse, and from there a long list of challenges that are ripping large holes in our society, across all socio-economic levels. As you read what many Americans endure, starting with abuse in infancy, you may begin to get a better understanding of why we act out in ways that may cause some to label us terrible people.

The following list may sound like wonky public health lingo, but it’s a list of experiences that might explain, in part, why we Americans are the way we are. These 13 problems that have been connected to ACEs have diminished the public’s capacity to learn, parent, become job-ready, perform at work, or make it through the day without self-medicating with alcohol, recreational prescription drug use and a host of other emotion-altering substances.

  1. Adverse childhood experiences that include ten forms of abuse and neglect in the home
  2. Emotional challenges, trauma, untreated mental illness and suicide
  3. Substance misuse and related illness, injury and fatalities
  4. Lack of school readiness with our pre-school age residents
  5. Poor school achievement and school drop out
  6. Domestic violence and related shelter and court costs
  7. Lack of job readiness, unemployment leading to lack of taxable incomes
  8. Workplace challenges like absenteeism due to substance misuse (a result of family trauma)
  9. Overburdened child welfare systems (which in itself is a broken system)
  10. Overburdened first responders and ERs responding to trauma-related challenges
  11. Overall physical challenges and illnesses that weaken our immune systems making us at risk for pandemics (see rates of COVID-related deaths and co-morbidity in your state’s public health reports)
  12. Behaviors impacting public health and safety (denying the use of vaccines and masks)
  13. A pipeline from childhood to the prison systems, a result of institutionalized racism and classism that dooms entire communities to a hopeless future

These 13 challenges, caused by childhood trauma and social adversity in the form of lack of access to vital services, racism and classism, are part of our national psyche. And to make matters even worse, this list was firmly in place before the pandemic, lockdowns and economic disruptions occurred. Today, we have yet to collect the data to know if things are worse, but all the signs we gather from our county stakeholders point to problems exacerbated by the mutating virus and government response.

We believe Americans, for the most part, are in a place of hurt, victims to the 13 challenges above. We also observe that Americans are hiding from their trauma, made possible through easy-to-access alcohol and prescription drugs used for recreational reasons. And if emotion-numbing substances alone won’t deaden the pain, binge-watching violence and fantasy shows along with shopping, chatting, flirting, picture sharing and arguing endlessly online might.

You might call our perspective on hiding from trauma (or as therapists might say, “Not feeling one’s feelings”) conjecture, but our life experience tells us that most of what our mainstream culture presents to the public, pouring endlessly into our mobiles, is designed to fill their minds with clutter, delusions and diversions, as opposed to supporting a culture of introspection and caring, a society where altruism is the norm.

Creating a New Cultural Norm: Healing and Helping

But there are signs of hope. Amid a pandemic that has revealed our nation’s biggest problems, we have been given a front-row seat to the selfless caring of others. In the counties we are working in with our initiative, there are activist teams focused on doing what this nation has never done. In what we describe as our “100% Community” counties, hundreds of people are committed to identifying barriers to vital services and ending them. It’s really as simple and beautiful as that. These are people who will not accept that a mother with two kids must endure hunger, when we are perfectly capable of making sure food pantries are accessible and always fully-resourced. Our local teams don’t accept that 30% of a county’s families can’t get to medical care in a pandemic or that 50% of those seeking mental health care in an era of unprecedented change and stress can’t access it.

We are seeing how an entire county is mobilized to focus on altruism. We believe that with a shared vision, framework for change, clear goals, and transparent local process, we can heal a damaged population, one that might act out in terribly uncaring ways. We are already in ten out of 33 counties, with five more counties wanting in. This is far from the behaviors of terrible people, it’s a sign of a society yearning to do better.

It is not our intention to oversimplify the political and historical reasons this nation fails to enact altruistic policy (lack of universal health care in a pandemic, for example). We also do not wish to overstate the 100% initiative work we are engaged in as a nation-changing event when the nation hasn’t changed. We do believe that we have identified, at least in part, the problem with Americans. We suggest that it comes down to understanding four distinct and interrelated states of being: hurting, hiding, healing and helping. We have no lack of supply of data focused on how we’re hurting. We see each day how people hide.

Happily, we have also seen what a culture of healing and helping looks like in communities across New Mexico and our initiative has set a high bar for success defined as becoming a culture of caring. This will be a new America where 100% can heal and seek to help others. For the time being, we cordially invite social critic and writer Mr. Haque and his caring wife to New Mexico to watch our progress.

Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D. and Dominic Cappello are authors and change agents and are sharing the byline on this article, published on both of their blogs. This story is theirs alone and they do not represent any organization here. Their recommended reading list includes 100% Community: Ensuring 10 vital services for surviving and thriving, Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and maltreatment and Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras: Confronting Apathy, Envy and Fear on the road to saving humans and the future.

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.