One of my biggest struggles as a social worker in the human services is challenging learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomena in which clients, patients, or any person connected to a larger system becomes so conditioned by it that they begin to need connection to it as if being a recipient of services becomes part of their identity and way of living. As a person who never been that reliant upon any system, but connected to one for access to its available services (i.e. mental health treatment) I would never go as far 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 phenomena 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 wellbeing, 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 they forget, and unlearn how to do things independently. It pains me to watch a person so ingratiated into the system that being connected 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 supermarket check out lines, in community centers, 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 rare and far and few in between as you may think. These are not always the most dyregulated, most chronic, and most isolated people. I have work within in 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 judgmental view of interpreting the behaviors of our clients. For example, in many cases due to cognitive issues or disconnection to reality, people reliant upon the system do not even realize they are connected to it. All while, they are participants in a larger network of care, ether 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 realize they have reached the very apex of 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 realize they are even in a hospital receiving treatment. For many people experiencing psychosis who are connected to the most intensive level of services but are so symptomatic that they don’t appreciate or realize the level of support that they are getting from their providers.
This happens very often with clients or patients who are so invested in caring for themselves, due to the extreme nature of their illness, that they’re focus is getting better and not thinking about or concerning themselves with the nature, or intensity of their care. The fact of the matter is though, as a clinician, putting a client like this back into perspective and making it clear, from a systems standpoint, how serious their case is, or precarious, in the event they loose connectivity to the system how at risk they might be to relapse. Even worse, a person can sometimes lose access to treatment, which, may jar him or her into making noise and complaining to their local community mental health board, but only have their services re instated if there symptoms begin to overtake their coping mechanisms and their behavior is alarming. In these cases, patients rebound into the system which is more interested in controlling the risks to public safety.
Understanding our problems and issues in a larger context is the first of many steps to finding more appropriate treatment fits, connecting with other peers with similar situations and creating a larger community at 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, e.g. therapists, case managers, family, or the larger community and leave their isolating, and patterns of behavior which disconnect them from other people behind. These are situations which extreme paranoia, depression, or other mental health disorders become so profound where the management of the symptom takes over a persons life and in order to cope, maladaptive patterns of behavior are put in place which mask the issue, but contribute, ultimately, to the extension and prolonging of the problem and its treatment.
Sometimes as social workers we want to fix our clients problems. Sometimes, due to the limitations or constraints of the system, we clinicians have to just go ahead and do things for our clients. Instead of teaching people to remember their appointments, or make sure our clients attend session, we social workers go ahead and make reminder calls or reach out to clients to check in with us instead of teaching clients to access services on their own. These are all micro-level and clinical examples of learned helplessness in play. Learned helplessness functions at the macro level too. There are cultural issues which feed into learned helplessness, whether they are due to immigration, race, medical, age and ageism, all of these intersections which impact learned helplessness contribute to its power over the population, furthering our reliance on systems which disconnect and estrange us from the larger community.
We need to get to know our neighbors, the people around us, who live amongst us. Whether we are helpers, or help seekers, living is about survival, and people are more likely to succeed 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 neighbors 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.