The Gulf Oil Spill Meets the Newspeak Dictionary

No crisis should ever be allowed to slip by without calls for greater public expenditure of doubtful worth, and the Gulf oil spill crisis is no exception to this golden rule of bureaucratic opportunism.

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine for 11 August, titled "Moving Mental Health into the Disaster-Preparedness Spotlight," Drs Yun, Lurie and Hughes (the latter a lawyer, it seems) write:

Surveillance systems for mental health and substance abuse must be strengthened through broader intellectual investment in a conceptual framework and technical requirements.

Long experience of bureaucracies has taught me to mistrust language such as this. There is a lot of connotation in it without much denotation: intellectual investments, conceptual frameworks and technical requirements escape from verbiage generators like oil from defective wells, and end up being even more expensive. Personally I am not sure that technical investments, intellectual frameworks and conceptual requirements would not be at least as good, if not better.

Fortunately for modern bureaucracies, connotation -- compassion, caring and the like -- is a more powerful generator of funds than (say) likelihood of success. The authors say:

Early action to help with the disaster’s emotional impact may decrease long-term behavioral health problems.

On the other hand, it may not, especially as the long-term behavioral health problems (assuming that behavioral health is itself a defensible concept) are themselves only tentatively known: they may be this, according to the writers of the editorial, or that may be that.

They insinuate ideas like any good advertising copywriter. They talk of "psychological first aid," for example. What is psychological first aid? Bandages for damaged thoughts, for example? A list leaves us little the wiser. It:

… addresses emotional distress, builds coping skills, connects people with support services, and promotes a return to normal routines.

What is it exactly, to address emotional distress? Emotional distress, I conjure thee to depart this body? It sounds to me either like witchcraft or a kind of wallowing in other people’s dismay.