Jung on Our Opioid Crisis

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.



Jung on Our Opioid Crisis



“You are far ahead in America with technological things, but in psychological matters and such things, you are 50 years back. You simply don’t understand them; that’s a fact. I don’t want to offend you; that’s a general corrective statement; you simply are not yet aware of what there is.”

Jung (1957)[1]


“His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, …. The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality, and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding.”

Jung (1961)[2]


“Mescalin is a drug similar to hashish and opium in so far as it is a poison, paralyzing the normal function of apperception and thus giving free rein to the psychic factors underlying sense perception…. It is just as if mescalin were taking away the top layer of apperception, which produces the “accurate” picture of the object as it looks to us.”

Jung (1955)[3]

“It is quite awful that the alienists have caught hold of a new poison to play with, without the faintest knowledge or feeling of responsibility.”

Jung (1954)[4]

“The effect of this work with his unconscious was that he became a perfectly normal and reasonable person. He did not drink anymore, he became completely adapted and in every respect completely normal.”

Jung (1935)[5]


The “our” in the title of this essay refers to America, and particularly to those locales (like West Virginia and New Hampshire) which are currently mired in a severe crisis due to the abuse of drugs, especially narcotics like oxycontin, heroin, and cocaine. Jung died in 1961–decades before drug use became the crisis it is today. So he never wrote or spoke directly to our current situation, but he did leave us with statements that allow us to get a sense of how he might react. In this essay, we will consider Jung’s attitude to America with reference to drug use, and then consider his attitude toward drugs in general and opioids in particular. His views of addicts and addiction will follow, including how he went about treating addictions.


Jung on America and Its Attitudes


Jung made many trips to America,[6] finding it a very different place from the staid, introverted world of Switzerland. With our pronounced Extraversion and Sensation orientation,[7] America was a shadow place for Jung,[8] and, in that way, it induced some anxiety, when Jung contemplated our nuclear arsenal.[9] In a 1957 interview with the American psychologist Richard Evans, Jung noted:

“… America is Extraverted like hell. The introvert has no place, because he doesn’t know that he beholds the world from within. That gives him dignity, and that gives him certainty, because nowadays particularly, the world hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man…. We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger. What if something goes wrong with the psyche? And so it is demonstrated to us in our days what the power of psyche is, how important it is to know something about it. But we know nothing about it. Nobody would give credit to the idea that the psychical processes of the ordinary man have any importance whatever.”[10]

As a society, we Americans are not much given to introspection, reflection or self-awareness, so we have little understanding of how “the psyche is the great danger.”

For us to see how this is so would require Americans to overcome a bias toward materialism, with its focus on matter, money, and material acquisition. Jung decried our love of the “yellow god,”[11] i.e. gold/money, and saw how it warped the lives of the men of Wall Street.[12] It also had an impact on the discipline of psychology, leading to schools like behaviorism:

“… the founder of Behaviorism, John B. Watson,… the American psychologist… his ‘psychology’ means as little to the European as does Dewey’s ‘philosophy.’… in the chaotic mixture of races and cultures in America there is a social and educational problem of first rank to be faced. The European emigrant is rejuvenated on American soil; in that primitive atmosphere he can revert to the psychological patterns of his youth–hence his adolescent psychology with all the educational problems this entails. As a matter of fact, the moral condition of post-war youth in America present the country with an immense educational task,…”[13]

A task that, clearly, we failed to address adequately, resulting in the many facets of the moral crisis we now face, e.g. “hooking up,” “sexting,” sexual harassment and abuse, drug use, etc.

Jung also found problematic our ahistoricity, e.g. Henry Ford’s bald statement that “History is more or less bunk!”[14] Far from regarding history as “bunk,” Jung felt that “… if we are to see things in the right perspective, we need to understand the past of man as well as his present.”[15] Jung felt that this lack of interest in history made Americans “déraciné, “uprooted,”[16] rootless. Rather than appreciating our past and a sense of place, American society is highly mobile and looks to the future, to progress, and especially the “new, new thing”[17] that comes from technological advances. Jung noted this:

“You [Jung is speaking here to the American Richard Evans] are far ahead in America with technological things, but in psychological matters and such things, you are 50 years back. You simply don’t understand them; that’s a fact. I don’t want to offend you; that’s a general corrective statement; you simply are not yet aware of what there is. There are plenty more things than people have any idea of. I told you that case of the philosopher who didn’t even know what the unconscious was; he thought it was an apparition.”[18]

To behaviorists operating in a materialistic paradigm, of course the unconscious (intangible, non-quantifiable) would be an “apparition.”

One form of technological advance in the 1950’s was the development of a sophisticated armamentarium of pharmaceuticals to treat various types of psychological and psychiatric disorders.[19] In his interview with Jung, when Richard Evans noted how psychiatric treatment in America was increasingly relying on drugs, and asked if this was also becoming common in Europe, Jung replied:

“I can’t say. You see with us there are very few. In America, you know, there are all those little tablets and powders. Happily enough we are not yet so far. You see, American life is, in a subtle way, so one-sided and so déraciné, uprooted, that you must have something to compensate the earth. You have to pacify your unconscious all along the line because it is in an absolute uproar, so at the slightest provocation you have a big moral rebellion. Look at the rebellion of modern youth in America, the sexual rebellion, and all that. The real natural man is just in open rebellion against the utterly inhuman form of life. You are absolutely divorced, you know, from nature in a way, and that accounts for that drug abuse.…”[20]

Divorced from nature, rootless, lacking a sense of history, materialistic, extraverted and enamored of technology and technological solutions to problems, the typical American is ill-prepared to deal in a positive, healthly way with the complex challenges and trends of the contemporary world. Many Americans, Jung realized, have

“… an alarming degree of dissociation and psychological confusion. We believe exclusively in consciousness and free will, and are no longer aware of the powers that control us to an indefinite degree, outside the narrow domain where we can be reasonable and exercise a certain amount of free choice and self-control. In our time of general disorientation, it is necessary to know about the true state of human affairs, which depend so much on the mental and moral qualities of the individual and on the human psyche in general.”[21]

Jung wrote these works in 1961, years before the rise of “fake facts” and alternate realities, but he would not be surprised to see such disturbing phenomena in our contemporary civic life. Nor would he be surprised at our opioid crisis, given his attitude toward drugs.


Jung on Drugs and Opioids


Jung worked as a psychiatrist during the decades (1900s-1950s) when the practice of medicine was transformed from mostly an art to something much more science-based.[22] In America, the only advanced, industrialized country without universal health insurance, psychiatry and clinical psychology came under pressure from insurance companies to cut expenses, so Jung’s version of medicine–talk therapy lasting months or years, costing thousands of dollars–has become more and more rarefied, and mental health practitioners are under intense pressure to oblige the typical American’s call to “gimme a pill, doc.” Jung had little use for this approach:

“I don’t feel happy about these things [the use of drugs to alter mental states], since you merely fall into such experiences without being able to integrate them. The result is a sort of theosophy, but it is not a moral and mental acquisition. It is the eternally primitive man having experience of his ghost-land, but it is not an achievement of your cultural development.”[23]

While many people raved about the “ecstasy”[24] produced by psychedelic drugs, and the relief from anxiety and other mental ills made possible by the range of new tranquillizers, Jung was unimpressed:

“There are some poor impoverished creatures, perhaps, for whom mescalin would be a heaven sent gift without a counterpoison, but I am profoundly mistrustful of the ‘pure gifts of the Gods.’ You pay very dearly for them….. If you are too unconscious it is a great relief to know a bit of the collective unconscious. But it soon becomes dangerous to know more, because one does not learn at the same time how to balance it through a conscious equivalent. That is the mistake Aldus Huxley makes: he does not know that he is in the role of the “Zauberlehrling,” learned from his master how to call the ghosts but did not know how to get rid of them again:… It is really the mistake of our age. We think it is enough to discover new things, but we don’t realize that knowing more demands a corresponding development of morality.”[25]

Jung wrote this to his friend Father Victor White in 1954. In the 64 years since then, we have gone even farther down the road of discovering new things, with no more moral wisdom or ethical concern than we had two generations ago. We might be smarter, in terms of scientific and technological knowledge, but we are no wiser, in the sense of having integrated our “ghosts,” and achieved individuation.

Jung’s letters, interviews and essays[26] are full of references to the designer drugs of his day–mesculin, LSD, tranquillizers like Miltown and Equinal[27]–none of which he found useful in his practice. Why not? Because he did not “know … what its psychotherapeutic value with neurotic or psychotic patients is.”[28]

Nor did Jung think there was any “shortcut”[29] to enlightenment. Drugs might provide “insight into the full view of psychic possibilities,”[30] but offer no way to “integrate the meaning of [one’s] experience.”[31] Such experiences are “isolated, unintegrated experiences contributing very little to the development of human personality.”[32]

To Betty Grover Eisner, who wrote to Jung that she found LSD to be “almost a religious drug,” Jung replied that

” Religion is a way of life and a devotion in submission to certain superior facts – a state of mind which cannot be injected by a syringe or swallowed in the form of a pill. It is to my mind a helpful method to the barbarous Peyotee, but a regrettable regression for a cultivated individual, a dangerously simple… substitute for a true religion.”[33]

and in response to A.M. Hubbard’s claim that mescalin “could produce a transcendental experience,” Jung said he was “shocked.”[34] Such substances might uncover “the normally unconscious functional layer of perceptional and emotional variance, …”,[35] but Jung said he “could never accept mescalin as a means to convince people of the possibility of spiritual experience over against their materialism.”[36] Jung, in other words, saw a major difference between a transformative experience and a transcendental, i.e. a metaphysical, one.[37]

Far from being agents of wholeness, healing or enlightenment, Jung regarded the drugs of the pharmaceutical armamentarium as “poisons,”[38] which, in certain patients, “could release a latent, potential psychosis.”[39] Far from improving the person’s condition, such chemical compounds could make him/her much worse off! More “natural” substances, like alcohol and peyote,[40] fared no better, in Jung’s estimation: They too had deleterious effects, leading to chemical or psychological dependency,[41] or both. Which brings us to Jung’s views of addicts and addiction.


Jung’s Views on Addicts and Addiction


Jung had no truck with any substance that would lure a person “to forget his troubles.”[42] No matter if it was non-addictive, because Jung recognized that psychological addiction is just as powerful as the chemical form of addiction, in that such substances induce compulsions,[43] and our troubles are meant to be inducements for us to grow and fulfill our true potential.

In his sixty years of medical practice Jung saw patients who fell into addiction (especially to alcohol) due to “anxiety states,”[44] “nervous attacks of thirst,”[45] “moods, mostly depressions with bits of despair,”[46] self-abandonment,[47] “emotional abnormality,”[48] “psychological worry,”[49] “dissociation,”[50] neurosis,[51] loss of a sense of self-worth,[52] and loss of meaning in life.[53] In each situation, the addiction was an attempt to escape, “to maintain [a] happy condition,”[54] by swallowing “doses of poison with pleasure.”[55]

Many of the people who showed up at the Burghölzli clinic, in Jung’s early years of practice as a psychiatrist,[56] tried to overcome their addiction, but “overestimated [their] energy and powers of resistance.”[57] Others relapsed time and again, feeling “abandoned by others and finally”[58] abandoning themselves. In response, these folks tried “to deaden [their] torments of soul”[59] by “any and every means that deadens–so long as there’s spirit in it.”[60]

Years of such observations suggested to Jung a connection between spirit and Spirit. In a letter written a few months before his death in June of 1961 to William G. Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jung noted how the

“… craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God…. The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality, and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends or through a high education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.”[61]

Wilson had written to Jung asking about why he had not given a “full and sufficient explanation to his patient, Roland H.,”[62] and Jung replied that Roland H. had chosen the path that gave him higher understanding. Jung then added that Wilson himself had “acquired a point of view about the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism,”[63] and he applauded Wilson’s founding A.A. with an acknowledgement of the vital role of a “Higher Power.”


How Jung Treated Addicts


Jung’s letter to William G. Wilson provides some insight into how Jung went about working with patients with addictions. He recognized that, for one reason or another, they were neurotic,[64] and therefore needed to “learn to breathe again,”[65] to “understand what their complexes were…”[66] and, in this way, by work in depth, in contact with their unconscious, supported by their innate vix medicatrix naturae–their inner healing force–they could “realize… numinous experiences,”[67] and thus achieve liberation from the compulsion of addiction.[68]

In his letters and essays, Jung wrote about several cases of people who came to him in acute states of anxiety,[69] unable to work,[70] hold a mental focus,[71] or summon up any feelings of self-worth.[72] Jung would set them to observe their intuitions, as a way to “show you the hole through which you can escape.”[73] Why intuition? Because Jung recognized that healing addiction is not something to be “mastered by rules or logic,”[74] no matter how much will-power one thinks one has. The addiction is irrational and calls for a non-rational response.

Jung also asked his patients to consider the purpose in their disease: What did their soul want, what was the goal or point, that life had brought them to this place? In his interview with Richard Evans, Jung noted that

“… I always insist that even a chronic neurosis has its true cause in the moment – now. You see, the neurosis is made every day by the wrong attitude the individual has. On the other hand, however, that wrong attitude is a sort of fact that needs to be explained historically, by things that have happened in the past. But that is one-sided too, because all psychological facts are oriented, not only to a cause, but also to a general goal. They are in a way, teleological; namely, they serve a certain purpose, so the wrong attitude can have originated in a certain way long ago. It is equally true, however, that it wouldn’t exist today anymore if there were not immediate causes and immediate purposes to keep it alive….”[75]

In posing this question, Jung was not expecting the patient to have a ready answer: Few indeed, even among healthy individuals, can articulate the purpose or cause of life events. But Jung knew, from treating thousands of people, that the soul always has a purpose. There is some learning, some incentive to grow, to change, to achieve a transcendental insight, to this addiction. So, Jung stressed, let the soul speak.

How does the soul speak? Via dreams, intuitions, synchronicities, images, feelings, drawings, paintings–all such expressions brought into consciousness by attentive intention and diligent observation of the unconscious.[76] Such assiduous attention demands that “one… take the unconscious seriously and consider it as a real factor that can determine human behavior to a very considerable degree.”[77]

Jung also knew such work requires “moral stamina. In the end it is strictly a moral question, whether a man applies what he has learned or not.”[78] Jung could tell his patients many things he saw in their dreams, but it always was “the patient [who] must take the burden of responsibility for any decisions he might make.”[79]

Jung’s method works. His patients’ healings proved this, and corroborated Jung’s belief that

“all the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally insoluble. They must be so, for they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only out-grown.”[80]

Any form of addiction would certainly be an “important problem” in a person’s life, and Jung’s response to it would be to encourage the soul to speak, so as to foster the individual growing into his/her fullness of being.




As we go about addressing the opioid crisis in America, we should consider Jung’s wisdom: This is certainly a major problem in our midst, not one that we are going to “figure out” with logic and reason (although these human skills certainly have a use and place), but rather we must acknowledge that, in the opioid crisis, we face a problem we must outgrow. The current epidemic of drug abuse is calling on us to step up to multiple challenges:

to outgrow the “adolescent”[81] attitudes and ways of living that no longer serve either us or the planet;

to outgrow the destructive materialistic, racist, sexist, violent values of the patriarchal system;[82]

to outgrow our childish infatuation with technologies that are destroying empathy, our capacity for relationship, and our sense of community;[83] and to

to outgrow the pernicious influence of scientism and its denigration of the intangible and the spiritual.[84]

Jung did not live to see our current opioid crisis, but his is eternal wisdom, and we would do well to listen to it.




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Evans, Richard (1976), Jung on Elementary Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ford, Henry (1916), “Interview with Charles Wheeler,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Jung Carl (1970), “Psychiatric Studies,” Collected Works, 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1973), “Experimental Researches,” Collected Works, 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1998), Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ed. James Jarrett. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Lewis, Michael (2000), The New New Thing. New York: W.W. Norton.

Schaef, Anne W. (1985), Women’s Reality. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Tart, Charles (2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation. New York: Penguin Press.

[1] Evans (1976), 146-147. This text is reproduced in Jung (1977), 276-352, where it is called “The Houston Films.”

[2] “Letter to William G. Wilson,” 30 January 1961; Letters, II, 624.

[3] “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 222.

[4] “Letter to Father Victor White,” 10 April 1954; Letters, II, 173.

[5] Collected Works 18 ¶405. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[6] His trips to the U.S. occurred in 1909, 1910, 1912, 1924/5, 1936 & 1937; Jung (1977), 488.

[7] Seventy-five percent of Americans are Extraverts; 50% are Sensates; Keirsey & Bates (1984), 25.

[8] Jung was an INTP: Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving type.

[9] Evans (1976), 94; cf. Hannah (1976), 129.

[10] Evans (1976), 94.

[11] CW 10 ¶s 102 & 946.

[12] Jung (1984), 621-622.

[13] CW 10 ¶928.

[14] “Interview with Charles Wheeler,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916.

[15] CW 18 ¶559.

[16] Evans (1976), 334.

[17] The “new, new thing” is the title of a Michael Lewis book about the constant drive for new technologies in Silicon Valley; Lewis (2000).

[18] Evans (1976), 146-147..

[19] Evans noted specifically drugs like chlorpromazine, reserpine, serpentine, Miltown, Equinal, mescaline and LSD; ibid., 147.

[20] Ibid., 148.

[21] CW 18 ¶559.

[22] Much of the work of transforming the art of medicine into the science of medicine was done by the American educational reformer Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), initially under a Carnegie Foundation grant, later sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Flexner issued a report in 1910 which resulted in the closure of some medical colleges and the reform of curriculum and training in most of the rest (1913-1929). Flexner was also the founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. https://www. Britannica.com/biography/Abraham-Flexner.

[23] “Letter to Betty Grover Eisner,” 12 August 1957; Letters, II, 173.

[24] Jung (1984), 371.

[25] “Letter to Father Victor White,” 10 April 1954; Letters, II, 173.

[26] Cf. Jung’s letters to N. Kostyleff, J.B. Rhine, Father Victor White, A.M. Hubbard, Enrique Butelman, Betty G. Eisner, Karl Oftinger and William G. Wilson, in Letters, II; the interview with Richard Evans (Evans, 1976); the Tavistock Lectures, CW 18; and essays in CW 6, on psychological types, and Jung’s early studies of addicts in CW 1,2 & 3.

[27] “Letter to J.B. Rhine,” 25 September 1953, Letters, II, 126; “Letter to Father Victor White,” 10 April 1954; Letters, II, 172; “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 224; and Evans (1976), 147.

[28] “Letter to Victor White,” 10 April 1954; Letters, II, 172.

[29] “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 223.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 223-224.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Letter to Betty Grover Eisner,” 12 August 1957; Letters, II, 382.

[34] “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 224.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] CW 3 ¶328; cf. “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 222; Jung (1998), 162.

[39] “Letter to A.M. Hubbard,,” 15 February 1955; Letters, II, 224; italics in the original.

[40] “Letter to Betty Grover Eisner,” 12 August 1957; Letters, II, 382; “Letter to Upton Sinclair,” 25 February 1955; Letters, II, 231.

[41] Evans (1976), 148.

[42] Ibid., 147.

[43] Ibid.

[44] “Letter to N. Kostyleff,” 25 April 1952; Letters, II, 55.

[45] CW 6 ¶573.

[46] CW 1 ¶197.

[47] Ibid. ¶199.

[48] Ibid. ¶204.

[49] Jung (1998), 76.

[50] Evans (1976), 76.

[51] Jung (1998), 80.

[52] Ibid., 144.

[53] “Letter to William G. Wilson,” 30 January 1961; Letters, II, 624.

[54] Jung (1984), 371.

[55] Ibid.

[56] He began at the Burghölzli clinic in 1901 and left in 1909; Bair (2003), 53, 145.

[57] CW 1 ¶194.

[58] Ibid. ¶199.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] “Letter to William G. Wilson,” 30 January 1961; Letters, II, 624.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Evans (1976), 80.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., 131.

[68] Ibid., 144.

[69] “Letter to N. Kostyleff, 25 April 1952;” Letters, II, 55.

[70] CW 6 ¶565.

[71] CW 2 ¶133.

[72] Evans (1976), 131.

[73] Ibid., 104.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] CW 18 ¶404.

[77] Evans (1976), 77.

[78] Ibid., 124.

[79] Ibid., 37.

[80] CW 13 ¶18.

[81] CW 10 ¶928.

[82] For a thorough presentation of these values, see Schaef (1985).

[83] For more on this, see Turkle (2015).

[84] Scientism is the degenerate form of modern science; see Tart (2009) for a description of it.