Systems Issues

Learned Helplessness and Self-Determination in Mental Health

Mental health struggles are inherently tricky, and many people turn to mental health services as a source of help. However, this can lead to a phenomenon called learned helplessness. This psychological condition occurs when an individual believes they cannot affect the outcomes in their environment, leading them to rely even more on others for assistance. In this article, we analyze the impacts of learned helplessness from a mental health perspective and explore how increasing self-determination can help someone overcome it. Additionally, we look at the barriers that can prevent individuals from accessing self-determination and overcoming learned helplessness.

In the 1960s, Martin Seligman and his colleagues demonstrated a phenomenon they termed learned helplessness. Seligman and his team subjected some dogs to electric shocks that the animals could not control. When placed in a box with a divider that they could jump over to escape the shocks, those same dogs who had been previously exposed to uncontrollable shocks did not try to escape, demonstrating that even when faced with an opportunity for relief, they hadn’t figured out how to take advantage of it because their prior experience told them their actions didn’t make any difference.

Chronic stress or trauma can lead to a phenomenon known as learned helplessness, in which people feel incapable of controlling their environment and the events that occur. This can cause a lack of motivation and powerlessness in individuals, primarily when they mainly depend on external resources – like therapy – for support.

Reliance on the Mental Health System

The mental health system is a powerful tool for those needing help. However, relying solely on the system can lead to an unhealthy reliance limiting individuals from taking control of their mental well-being. Beyond the power dynamic between patient and professional, which can result in a lack of autonomy, there are also issues with limited appointment availability and access to specific treatments, leading to feelings of helplessness and frustration among individuals looking for care. Individuals must supplement traditional care with self-care strategies such as breathing exercises or meditations to ensure they have control over their mental health outcomes.

Self-Determination and Mental Health

Self-determination is a critical factor in achieving mental health and well-being. When individuals are empowered to make decisions and take actions that align with their values and goals, they tend to be more engaged in treatment and benefit from more favorable outcomes. This involves being active in the decision-making process when it comes to care, such as setting objectives, selecting treatment options, and providing feedback on the effectiveness of the treatment.

Barriers to Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Overcoming learned helplessness is not easy, and there are several barriers that individuals may face when trying to regain a sense of self-determination.

These barriers can include the following:

  1. Fear of Change: Change can be scary, and individuals with learned helplessness may feel comfortable in their current state, even if it is not ideal. The fear of the unknown can be a significant barrier to overcome.
  2. Lack of Resources: Individuals who have experienced trauma or chronic stress may lack the resources necessary to change their lives. This can include financial resources, social support, or access to mental health.
  3. Stigma: There is still a significant amount of stigma surrounding mental health challenges, and individuals with learned helplessness may feel shame or embarrassment about their struggles. This stigma can hinder seeking help and making changes in their lives.
  4. Systemic Issues: Systemic issues, such as racism, sexism, and ableism, can create significant barriers to overcome learned helplessness. Individuals who face these issues may feel powerless and lack access to the resources necessary to make changes in their lives.
  5. Lack of Support: Support from friends, family, and mental health professionals is crucial in overcoming learned helplessness. However, individuals lacking support may struggle to find the motivation and resources necessary to change their lives.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Despite the barriers to overcoming learned helplessness, there are steps that individuals can take to regain a sense of self-determination and take control of their mental health.

  1. Build a Support System: A support system of friends, family and mental health professionals is essential in overcoming learned helplessness. These individuals can provide motivation, guidance, and support during recovery.
  2. Focus on Self-Care: Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, and healthy eating, can help individuals feel more in control of their lives and mental health.
  3. Set Goals: Setting achievable goals can help individuals feel a sense of accomplishment and control. These goals can be small, such as going for a walk every day, or more significant, such as returning to school or work.
  4. Seek Professional Help: While relying solely on the mental health system can lead to learned helplessness, seeking professional help can still be essential to recovery. Finding a mental health professional who respects the individual’s autonomy and involves them in the decision-making process regarding their care is crucial.
  5. Challenge Negative Thoughts: Negative thoughts can significantly hinder overcoming learned helplessness. Challenging and replacing these thoughts with more positive and empowering ones is essential.


Learned helplessness can heavily impact a person’s mental health and overall well-being, but some steps can be taken to reclaim autonomy. Assembling a solid support team, paying attention to self-care habits, formulating realistic objectives, seeking counseling from qualified professionals, and confronting negative attitudes are all viable strategies for overcoming learned helplessness. Nevertheless, it is essential to remember that progress may not be linear – recovery is a process that requires time, determination, and persistence.

Categories: Systems Issues

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