Is Heroism an Ism That Is a Psychoexemplary?


How do you define heroism? Who is a modern hero?




The social isms are thought to be those social processes of groups of individuals that are destructive to other groups. One of the common definitions of ism is being an oppressive and especially discriminating attitude or beliefs. The most well-known ones are racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and ageism.

Then there is heroism. How does heroism fit being too oppressive and discriminatory? I suppose one way is acting “holier than thou” and becoming preoccupied with acting like a hero, even when not needed and when there is not much danger involved.

Heroes are omnipresent in mythology. Joseph Campbell has taught us that the world has seemed to need them.1 These heroes are on a journey where they encounter obstacles to overcome in order to become the best they can be. Our usual modern-day example of heroism is someone who will respond in a situation to save others at great risk to oneself, such as rescuing others in a fire. Another example is the World War II D-Day landing of the Allied Forces, which was the focus of our video last week, where so many were doomed, but turned the tide of the war.

However, as important as such isolated acts of bravery and courage are, we have learned that there is another kind of heroism, a more everyday heroism that is almost part of one’s character. This deliberation is personal. In 2002, along with a few other community psychiatrists, we received a one-time designation of “Heroes of Public Psychiatry” by the Speaker of the American Psychiatric Association Assembly.

As time went on, psychiatry began to consider whether heroism could be more of an everydaycharacteristic.2 One formal development was the Heroic Imagination Project that ironically came out of the controversial and harmful Stanford Prison Project that displayed the opposite side of heroism, both led by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo. It is designed to train individuals to act in more heroic ways.

Heroes also seemed to emerge in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Editor-in-Chief, John J. Miller, MD, covered the crucial role of so many “extraordinary acts of kindness by phantom heroes in every sector of society,” including health and mental health care frontline workers.3 Outside of COVID time, psychiatrists can be heroic in treating any patient of potential danger. Sometimes countering the “party line” can be heroic.

All this history and examples suggests the value of heroes to society. Where is there a problem as using the ism suggests? Perhaps it is best seen in the approach of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in his award-winning 1973 book on death.4 Using a psychoanalytic approach in understanding heroism, he focused on unconscious fears and wishes. He posits a common unconscious wish to achieve “cosmic significance” before one dies. If everyday life has not contributed to that, there is a temptation to find it elsewhere.

Such a heroic drive may be unconscious. It can be partially satisfied with connection to religion or other societal heroes, a cog in a heroic endeavor. However, in an attempt to attach to something big and feel vicariously heroic, we can attach to destructive movements with a charismatic leader. These can include cults. The wrong leader can fill our request for heroism for their own destructive says. When this occurs, heroism can be an ism of oppression. Therefore, like many other potential processes to benefit individuals, including medication adverse effects, heroism can have its darker side, too, necessitating prevention and alertness to that risk.

Who might be a physician modern day hero? Anthony Fauci’s memoir just came out and presents the “doctor’s journey” he was on as leader of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1984-2022, which included the personal, family, and professional risks of his work with AIDS patients and, more recently, COVID-19.5 In your opinion, has he provided the positive heroism of a psychoexemplary?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


  1. Campbell J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Third Edition. New World Library; 2008.
  2. Franco ZE et al. Heroism research: a review of theories, methods, challenges, and trends. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 2018;58(4):382-396.
  3. Miller J. Kindness, anonymous heroes, and compassion. Psychiatric Times. December 3, 2000.
  4. Becker E. The Denial of Death. Free Press; 1973.
  5. Fauci A. A Doctor’s Journey in Public Service. Viking; 2024.
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