On Dependency, Learned Helplessness, and Non-Self-Reliance
By Ken K. Gourdin
I recently posted on behavioral health issues at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion. In response to another poster, whose thesis (at the risk of overstating the case or of misstating his position), essentially is that society and too many of its institutions, including the behavioral health care system and perhaps, to a certain extent, even churches, foster a culture of learned helplessness and do not encourage resiliency and self-reliance. I wrote:
I agree with [another poster] to a certain extent, and I am no stranger to behavioral health issues: I’ve been in group counseling, in individual counseling, in day treatment, on meds, the whole gamut (about the only thing I haven’t done is receive behavioral health treatment in an inpatient setting). If someone needs certain supports to facilitate life effectiveness, s/he should get them. Often, though, it seems that the “supports” are less about facilitating life effectiveness than they are about facilitating/perpetuating ongoing “support.”
I’ve been a victim of this, to a certain extent. Some of you know that I tried to sue a behavioral health provider for misquoting me in his diagnostic interview and reaching materially inaccurate conclusions as a result, losing at the prelitigation stage. I was referred by Vocational Rehabilitation. When I expressed concerns regarding the provider’s conclusions to my Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, his first (and essentially, his only) response has been to defend the provider. Part of my counselor’s reasoning has been, “Well, you haven’t taken your meds, haven’t seen a psychiatrist, haven’t been in counseling,” et cetera. And my response to that is, “Don’t people ever get well?” I have been successfully employed (albeit outside of my would-be chosen field, and, thus, under-employed) … including resisting the impulse, however tempting, to pull the covers up over my head when the alarm goes off and to sing, “One less … phone to answer” and/or “Make the world go away, and get it off of my shoulders” … for nearly 18 months now. Before that, while I had occasional part-time, non-benefitted work mingled in with extensive volunteer work, I had not worked full-time in a benefitted, paid position for nearly eighteen years.
I have been exceedingly well treated by my current employer, but I now have come full circle, and am back doing the kind of job I decided to go to law school … sixteen years ago … to try to escape: answering phones, all day, every day, five days a week. If I were looking for one, I’d have an excellent excuse to say, “Forget it. This isn’t what I signed up for.” [Imagine gruesome ending here]. [Or, less drastically, imagine me (as I mentioned above) pulling the covers over my head and singing to myself, “Make the world go away, and get it off of my shoulders …” and/or “One less … phone to answer …”]
Why don’t I? Well, at least part of the reason is that I don’t want to give an idiot psychologist and/or my VR counselor the satisfaction of being able to say (if only symbolically, rather than literally), “Aha! See? We were right! You’re ill, ill, ill, ill, ill! Face it! You’ll never be well without the perpetual intervention of psychologists, and medication for life, and other forms of extensive treatment.”
Long story short? Does the system help people get well? It can, but those people have to (1) know they have a problem; and (2) want help for it; and (3) believe they can be helped with it, and they have to be motivated enough to follow through. (Yes, I know such motivation often is lacking because of severe depression and other problems related to various illnesses, but the aim of treatment should be to pull people out of such holes far enough that they can pull themselves the rest of the way out.) Ideally, the way the system is supposed to work is to give people the tools and the wherewithal to deal effectively with their own problems; too often, though, the system ends up fostering dependence on itself.