Experiential Psychopathology - Dr John Howells

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V- A Salutiferous Society

Towards a Salutiferous Society

It is outside the scope of a book devoted to principles, to explore every avenue of social functioning. Thousands of instances from hundreds of areas would be necessary to approach a complete account. A few areas, and a few elements within them, will be taken for the purposes of illustration.


Much harm comes to people from a common tendency in society to be critical of others to the point that they feel worthless, culpable and guilty. Some social institutions, for instance some religious movements, mistakenly regard this as a pathway to salvation. Underlying this widespread failing is a feeling of inferiority – others are blamed, cut down to size, so that the critics can feel superior. The widespread employment of this mechanism leads to immense unhappiness. Its removal would be a positive step towards happiness. It is clearly insufficient to expect that awareness alone will alter this practice. But it is a first step. The underlying inferiority also needs management.

Again, force and coercion, despite centuries of historical lessons pointing to the value of the reverse, are employed as instruments of social policy on an international, national and local level. “Force from force will ever flow”, in the words of Shelley, is a truth. Force evokes insecurity, inferiority, bitterness, hostility and a determination to react, if possible, with greater severity. Even if there appears no alternative to force, an avowal to use as little as is necessary to accomplish the task would be a valuable contribution. Just as force is a step backwards in interview psychotherapy, so it is in social action.

Competition has the virtue of encouraging creativity, effort and achievement. But it must be balanced by the right motives and be aimed at the common good. There is an optimum degree of competition which, if exceeded, becomes destructive to others and the individual, family or community. In education, children are frequently encouraged to be in severe academic competition with one another. Some obtain an excessive idea of their prowess. Some lose hope forever. At the same time an attitude of selfishness is inculcated which makes for sharp antagonism to others in many walks of life at a later date and fosters a disinclination to co-operate. An excess of the competitive spirit is destructive.


Laws are ultimately created by the regulators of society, leaders, or by public opinion, to put into practice what is thought to be right for the common good. But some of the precepts on which legislation is based are themselves harmful. Whether or not the examples given below are correct is immaterial. The lesson to be drawn from them is that legislation should be evaluated for its emotional effects on society.

Divorce is sometimes regarded as an attack on the family and thus it is made difficult. It is thought that excessive divorce could kill the family. Yet a high divorce rate does not mean fewer families. Men and women are strongly attracted to each other and, following divorce, often come together in new unions. Should these new unions be satisfactory, they will not terminate, but will produce well-adjusted epitomes who will go forth and found stable succeeding families. We should endeavour to steer the divorced partners towards healthier unions. Again, it is supposed that highly incompatible partners should stay together “for the sake of the children”. But this practice is an attack on the family. It must create such a climate of disharmony that it produces disturbed children, who will in time found unstable succeeding families with a tendency to break up.

There has been much discussion in recent years on the advantages or otherwise of extending the control of childbirth into the first three months of pregnancy by allowing termination of pregnancy on the request of the mother. Some of the discussion (2) has turned around the philosophical issue of when the foetus can be regarded as a human entity; religious and legal bodies can hold vividly differing viewpoints, from the opinion that conception is the moment when life starts, to the opinion than an intrauterine age of 36 weeks indicates viability and independent existence. Even the Roman Catholic Church, in its long history, has found this decision of great complexity and, in the mid-19th century, changed its definition to its present attitude. But to the woman such discussions are irrelevant. To her the moment of psychological acceptance that she has a child is the crucial moment. Some develop an image based on willing acceptance at conception, to most it comes with “quickening” at about the 16th week, to others at birth – and for some acceptance is never achieved. The latter do not wish to nourish and produce an unwanted entity. Nor is it desirable to society that they should do so. Unwanted children are at risk emotionally. Thus it could be argued that to extend birth control into the first three months of pregnancy is highly desirable in that the mother has a last chance of preventing the birth of an unwanted child. The control of conception is now, but only now, universally regarded as desirable. Indeed the controversy over termination has suddenly underlined the value of birth control. But those who now oppose termination previously opposed the use of the “pill” and, before that, of contraception in general. This faces us with another subject for close study in a salutiferous society: What determines rigidity of attitudes? Those rigid in one direction are invariably so in another.

The subject of divorce leads to a consideration of another aspect of legislation. This is the tendency in law in many countries to give preferential consideration to the mother. The unique value of parenting by mother has been emphasised as an element in the extraordinary doctrine of psychoanalysis. In divorce proceedings in some, but not all, countries custody of the child is invariably given to the mother. Often this is correct. But each situation should be carefully evaluated and, in some circumstances, the child, and hence his succeeding family, would benefit from custody by his more loving father.


A society requires control and regulation. The regulation should arise as a willing acceptance by people that its laws are apposite and in the public interest. A basis of public support makes law enforcement much easier. Nevertheless, a machinery is necessary for law enforcement and this is usually placed in the hands of the police. The police can be regarded as friends and allies, but all too often they are regarded as a threat and as enemies. Thus there can be hostility between the public and its servants. The attitude of the police in these circumstances is crucial. Unnecessary force and belligerence lead to hostility and rear in return. Guns are met by guns. The greater the public hostility, the more insecure the police and the harsher their actions in self defence. From this confrontation come insecurity, fear and damage to a large number of people – no less to the police. Yet the right partnership can easily be developed. And it can start in childhood. By incidental help over small matters, children can grow up firmly convinced of the value of the police as friends. This can be enhanced by the police being actively involved in positive welfare programmes.

Societies need a machinery for massive collective action, they need a government. The control of this machine means wielding massive power. The machinery should be so constructed that its power is always at the behest of the people, or delegated to those under the public’s control. Those who wish for personal power naturally regard governmental machinery as a ready access to power. The misuse of power can deploy the whole of national organisation into a pattern of stress for its people. Probably no country has yet achieved an ideal prescription for the control of the collective national power.

The control of power can be the subject of early experience. Most children attend an institution, the school, where power has to be exercised. A number of people have rights - parents, head teachers, teachers and pupils. The school is far more than just a platform for the acquisition of knowledge. It is a slice of life. Thus, the way in which power, leadership, group relations, regulation, beliefs and logic are dealt with makes an indelible impression on children. The functioning of our schools and their advantageous or disadvantageous contribution to a salutiferous society is worthy of study.


Some methods of organisation lead themselves to personal satisfaction, others to inferiority, disillusionment and the misuse of power. The inflexible use of the pyramidal structure is such a method. Essential in some situations, it is destructive in others. The pyramid consists of workers at the periphery with a hierarchy of power, usually termed “administration”, above. This is highly damaging in any situation in which the focal point is at the periphery and where the aim of the organisation is to give maximum service at the periphery. This is especially true of the helping professions. In them, there should be satisfaction in personal communication and the best people should be deployed. However, the best people, whether or not they have administrative gifts, are pulled away from the periphery up the pyramid by higher rewards and a refusal to be supervised by those less adequate than themselves. However, it is possible to create just as effective a system by a horizontal organisation, ie rewards and power going equally to all. Those with administrative flair are encouraged to organise, but with no greater rewards, and no more prestige or status, than their colleagues. The old guild system was very effective. An apprentice, or a trainee, learnt the craft and aimed to be a master craftsman; the journeyman was awaiting a master post or falling short of the necessary skill; the master had equality with all other masters.

Mention has already been made of the deployment of the invaluable, emotionally healthy section of society. Emotionally, the healthy are the salt of the earth. They have an invaluable asset, the capacity to communicate health to others. As a part of the programme of vector therapy, they must be deployed to act as a curative force for the psychonotics. In a salutiferous society, they must be deployed at key points – nurseries, homes, schools, the helping professions; they promote health and thus raise its standard.

Groups of people have an optimum size and structure for the most effective functioning. This applies not only to small groups, but also to estates and townships. It has been shown, for instance, that to create a township of young people leads in time to heavy demands for child care, which must be supplied, and ultimately leads to an aging population that can receive no support from the young.


People are more important than parents. More important for a child than right care from a parent is right care from somebody. The right care does not necessarily depend on the person supplying it being a “parent”. Yet the assumption that only parents can give the right care denies children help from many ready sources.

Again, some people, due to happy childhood experiences, have great capacity as parents. But some have none, others very little. Yet once designated as parents, persons have heaped on them complete and continuous responsibility for supplying loving care, and utter condemnation for failing in their responsibility if they are unsuccessful. We should be realistic and accept the varying capacities for parenting. Once this is accepted without blame, it becomes possible for parents lacking capacity to share responsibility with others without a feeling of failure or guilt. This in turn would make much easier the task of the helping professions and allow for the fortunate public with great parenting capacity to come helpfully forward without a feeling of competitiveness with the natural parent.

Knowledge is slowly being gained about the factors that control selection of complementary marriage partners. This can lead to a much higher prevalence of happy marriages. Basically, the more balanced people are, the greater the choice. Again, families should have a hand in selection. Happy family members choose those that conform to their families. Thus family selection in the old days was often successful. A formal test should be a deep and lengthy pre-marriage experience. Formal engagement should be replaced by trail marriage.

For a child to love a brother, sister, mother, aunt, nanny, teacher of playmate is acceptable. It is felt that a number of loving relationships are a virtue and an asset. Yet the same child, once grown up and married, must deny close loving to others outside the family circle. This is an artificial constraint, often not accepted in practice, but a widely held delusion. Again, it is supposed that the future of the family is protected by hostility, jealousy and deceit. Once families are secure, they will be able to add to their own strength and security by a pattern of loving, interlocking relationships.


Teaching conveys facts; it does not change attitudes. Many essential functions in life are easily carried out; but there may still be a failure to do this because of underlying emotional attitudes. Mental defectives can manage intercourse; a university professor, because of attitudes that inhibit him, may be unable to do so. Educating him about the procedures of intercourse, giving him data he probably already possesses, does not overcome his emotional block. Thus there is a limit to what can be achieved by education in health matters. But where there is ignorance, education can overcome it, and it can extend the range of those people already adjusted enough to be able to make use of further data. Education is most effective with well-adjusted people, those who are already the best performers. It is less effective with the emotionally ill, those in most need of assistance.

To convey right information is a small but valuable part of a salutiferous society; many countries devise schemes for teaching mental hygiene. Slowly, knowledge is garnered about some of the nodal points in the life experience of a family – birth, sexual practices, preparation for marriage, childbirth, preparation for death, bereavement. But, notoriously, experts can be wrong. There is no greater fool than an expert fool. Because of emotional biases extraordinary errors can be made – for example, preoccupation with the breast feeding experience, instead of the infant’s whole waking experience; an almost total absence of interest in fathering; unchecked hypotheses about the child’s sexual life; separation being accepted as synonymous with deprivation, and the “natural home is better than any other home” philosophy; the mother-child relationship overvalued and the father-child relationship undervalued. False propaganda does harm. Much of the propaganda handed out during “mental health days” is ill-conceived. Little attention is paid to the meanings conveyed to the public. For example, the impression is often given that the mentally sick are peculiar and extraordinary. While this may attract some monetary help to these unfortunates, it also perpetuates the fear of mental illness. The terms “insanity” and “emotional disorder” are not clearly differentiated or understood by the public. Furthermore, the confusion causes the emotionally ill to be reluctant to seek help lest they be classed with such peculiar and extraordinary patients. Sometimes the emotional needs of the propagandists militate against a healthy approach.


    1. HOWELLS, J.G. (1963). Family Psychiatry. Edinburgh : Oliver & Boyd.
    2. HOWELLS, J.G. (1972).  Termination of Pregnancy. In: Howells, J.G. (ed.) Modern Perspectives in Psycho-Obstetrics. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd; New York : Brunner/Mazel.

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