One of my biggest struggles as a social worker in human services is challenging learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which clients, patients, or any person connected to a larger system, becomes so conditioned by it that they begin to need a connection to it, as if being a recipient of services becomes part of their identity and way of living. As a person who has never been that reliant upon any system, but connected to one for access to its available services (such as mental health treatment), I would never go so far as to say I find people engaging in learned helplessness to be beneath me or anything of that nature.
On a deeper level, I do find this phenomenon to be very disturbing. I am a social worker and a person with lived experience who uses the system, accesses it at various levels, but has never been so reliant upon its array of resources and services that I have been conditioned by it. What I mean by this is, if the system fails me, or my needs bump up against its interests, I will not be so jarred or shaken that my bejewelling, world view, and quality of life are at risk.
I have worked as a peer, clinician, and helper with people who cannot help themselves because they are so dependent on the system to do it for them, that they forget and unlearn how to do things independently. It pains me to watch a person so ingratiated into the system that their connection to it becomes more important than how they benefit from it.
I have witnessed this manifest in different ways. I have seen clients yell and scream at their workers in the community on a supermarket checkout line, in community centres, or in hospital waiting rooms and ER’s, just because they have no other emotional outlet to vent. Indeed, I have experienced being hollered at just because my clients are so isolated and disconnected from natural supports, that I am, as a representative of the system, and extension of its services, the only option for clients to release their extreme build-up of negative emotions and disturbing thoughts.
Cases like I am describing aren’t as few and far between as you may think. These are not always the most deregulated, most chronic, and most isolated people. I have worked within a very populated region which has a vast spectrum of needs and range of supposed functioning. In most cases, though, the converse of the scenario I described is what is occurring and really requires people like myself who have an issue with learned helplessness to get over this bias and judgemental view of interpreting the behaviours of our clients. For example, in many cases, due to cognitive issues or disconnection to reality, people reliant upon the system do not even realise they are connected to it. All the while, they are participants in a larger network of care, either government-funded or operated at a higher level than a local non-profit or community clinic.
Some people are so confused or persistently agitated that they cope by disconnecting from what is going on around them and, in turn, do not even realise they have reached the very apex of the care and system support their county or state has available. This is true also in the state hospitals where people are so disconnected they do not realise they are even in a hospital receiving treatment. Many people experiencing psychosis, who are connected to the most intensive level of services, are so symptomatic that they don’t appreciate or realise the level of support that they are getting from their providers.
Understanding our problems and issues in a larger context is the first of many steps to finding more appropriate treatments. Connecting with other peers with similar situations and creating a larger community at a level in which participation and peer networking is possible. This momentum and mobility in the recovery process is only possible when people develop and tune into their problem in a larger more global context. This requires the type of insight building only made possible when clients begin to frame their situations through connection to others, such as therapists, case managers, family, or the larger community, and leave behind their isolating and patterns of behaviour which disconnect them from other people. These are situations in which extreme paranoia, depression, or other mental health disorders become so profound that the management of the symptom takes over a person’s life, and in order to cope, maladaptive patterns of behaviour are put in place which mask the issue, but contribute, ultimately, to the extension and prolonging of the problem and its treatment.
We need to get to know our neighbours, the people around us, those who live among us. Whether we are helpers or help seekers, living is about survival, and people are more likely to succeed when banded together and looking after one another. Being reliant upon a system and letting something else define the problem for us, instead of the community identifying its own issues, estranges us from network building and bonding with our peers. Sure, ‘Meals on Wheels’ is important to some folks and serves a vital function for some families, but so does neighbours bringing a plate of food to the next house when we know that family is in need. We have lost the very essence of community building and the very fabric of humanity which isn’t afraid to band together and change what really needs changing. The less human contact, the less empathy, the less we care about one another and what’s at stake for our friends, families, and those we love to get what they need for themselves and be better for it.
Maxwell Guttman teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg where he shares his insights on recovery and healing.
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