This is a term you may be familiar with if you work in mental health. It’s often used to describe patients who have spent significant time juggling between facilities, programs, and hospitals and as a result struggle with meeting their own basic needs.
It’s no secret that decent mental health care in the United States comes with a high price tag. Community-based programs that are essential for helping shed feelings of isolation and learning social skills (both of which can be necessary for us mental health consumers) are often tagged for those with the thousands of dollars to pay for it. As someone who was working full-time and provided with decent health insurance, I was offered a spot at a program like this free of charge. Unfortunately, the company I work for is switching insurances, and I’m not positive I can work full-time right now anyway.
It’s taken a lot to find that one little place. Through consistent panic attacks, paranoia, nights of hallucinations, I finally got in contact with a hospital who patched me through to a social worker. The social worker took a week to get back to me, just to tell me she didn’t work for that department anymore. She patched me through to a social worker in a different state who found me a program in less than thirty minutes.
Since none of that panned out, since I can’t find any psychiatrists near me and can’t afford holistic care, since I’m not sick enough to be in a hospital but not well enough to be by myself, I’ve resorted to daily breakdowns. My hope for healing waned. My therapist said I was experiencing “learned helplessness.” Let me explain why I’m not and why, if you are ever told this, you should think about it just as deeply.
Constant struggle with no perceivable escape.
People with learned helplessness have often accepted that they are unable to care for themselves–they believe they cannot control their outcome. They have been classically conditioned to believe they are inept.
The example my therapist gave me to explain the concept of learned helplessness was that of the experiment by psychologist Martin Seligman. You may know him as a positive psychology backer, and an avid studier of learned helplessness. Seligman and colleagues administered shocks to dogs strapped in a harness in a cage. In this case, the cage represented a trap and the shocks an unavoidable outcome. When the cages were opened, the dogs refused to leave the cage even when escape was made possible. The hypothesis here is that the dogs learned to expect pain and to expect no escape.
If learned helplessness is a result of being trapped, beat down, and losing sight of escape, then the mental health system has been systematically abusing people under the guise of treatment for ages.
When are we going to stop blaming the people who experience mental illness, who are constantly being beat down, held back, vilified, rejected, for feeling hopeless? Why do professionals immediately see fault in the person (just keep trying!) instead of fault in the system of support?
Note: This isn’t to say we should rely on others to pick us up–we’ve got to also work on believing in ourselves and coping properly with our experiences. It’s just a lot easier and healthier to do that with the proper guidance and support. No one can do everything by themselves all the time.
In social psychology, there is the concept of external and internal perspectives. There is a term for this I’m blanking on. Those with external perspectives often attribute outcomes to the environment around them, things out of their control, and often come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Those with internal perspectives often attribute outcomes to their attributions, things like their personal drive and work ethic and come from higher socio-economic backgrounds. As you can imagine, there are advantages and disadvantages to both perspectives.
I know people on both ends. I know people who consider themselves successful and attribute that to their constant strive for “something greater”, to their hard work, to their positive thinking, without acknowledging the two-parent home they come from with successful, hardworking role models, without acknowledging the support they had in following their dreams or attending college, without acknowledging the financial opportunities they were provided. I know people who don’t consider themselves successful and attribute that to their traumas, a broken economic/social system, and lack of opportunity without acknowledging their effort has waned.
One advantage to having an internal perspective is that when hardship arises, you are more likely to take proper measures to cope. You are more likely to seek support and utilize the support. The disadvantage is you see others as not trying “hard enough.” You also are less likely to support others in coming up because if you did it “by yourself”, they should be able to as well. You are less likely to take part in the community and less likely to advocate for community-based reform. You may be one of those people who see homeless individuals as useless bums.
One advantage of having an external perspective is that you see the structure of the world around you. You acknowledge (and experience) the pain of a system designed for failure. The disadvantage is depression. The disadvantage is that you give in to what you believe is your fate and struggle in seeing the change that could be made. You are more likely to relate to others who have struggled, and you’re more likely to be involved in helping others because you know what it’s like to feel like you have no one and nothing.
Which perspective do you think most (definitely not all) psychological professionals come from?
Psychological professionals are trained to see the system as something there to support and guide their clients. They also go into the profession with the aim of supporting and guiding their clients. If it feels like that goal isn’t being accomplished, it may challenge their self-concept something fierce. This leads to cognitive dissonance: the imbalance between what someone consciously believes about themselves (including their attitudes toward different things) versus how they behave.
This is where I believe professionals need to be a little softer on themselves. Acknowledge that money, attitude, trauma, self-discipline, and outside support are just a few of the things that determine someone’s success in their mental wellness. Sometimes people can’t find help, and when they can’t find help, when they are sad about that, when they are feeling hopeless and defeated and angry, those feelings are valid. The system is often not our friend and we have a right to be angry about that–because no matter how hard we try, we can’t fix that by ourselves.
No matter how much I exercise, no matter how healthy I eat, no matter if I take meds or don’t, no matter how much I meditate, no matter how much I breathe during my panic attacks, no matter how many times I tell myself the pentagram on my ceiling isn’t real, no matter what I do to cope, I will not have thirty thousand dollars a month for personalized, integrated, holistic, community based, science based treatment.
What would give me thirty thousand dollars to blow? A really, really good job. What would give me that kind of job? Mental stability. What would help me achieve mental stability? A lot of support. How do I get a lot of support? Thirty thousand dollars.
Now, there are alternatives, and the system has set this up so that in order to receive these services, you must never aim higher than them.
County services, for example, are often provided to those below a certain income limit–this includes those on disability. If someone is stable enough to get a part-time job, and that job pays ten dollars over the state insurance income limit or disability income limit, that person risks losing the services which have been most helpful to them. No one wants to risk that.
And so you have an escape route, you see, much like the dogs. You can be well, work as many hours as you can and lose your integrated services. But much like the dogs, that escape doesn’t feel safe, not after having been shocked for so long. Inside the cage, at least you know what to expect. In a twisted reality such as this, the cage actually feels safer.
There are too many factors that go into being mentally well for this one-size-fits-all system to be as effective as it purports.
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