Without personal responsibility, “help” doesn’t help
As the President expands mental health services, it’s a good time to address a significant flaw in our mental health system: its denial of personal responsibility.
Our system treats unhappiness as a disease, which trains people to see happiness as an entitlement that the healthcare system can deliver. The truth is that mental health comes from skills that must be learned. The disease model obscures the importance of building skills. It invites us to blame disorders instead of taking responsibility for our wellbeing.
It’s nice to have help building skills, but help cannot substitute for personal agency. Help doesn’t help if you end up seeing yourself as a victim of a disease rather than an active learner of essential skills.
We all need to learn self-management skills. The disease model promotes the misconception that some people feel good effortlessly, while others are shortchanged. This view is both unhelpful and biologically false. Our happy brain chemicals (like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin) are designed to do a job, not to flow all the time for no reason. They are constantly responding to our thoughts and actions. Everyone can build wellbeing by taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions. You don’t do this is you see yourself as shortchanged. Help does help if it trains you to see yourself as shortchanged.
“Getting help” has come to be viewed as an end in itself, as if “accepting help” is all one must do. Once a person enters the system, they are taught to “manage their disease,” and even to “advocate” for their disease. They learn to see themselves as victims of society’s inadequate accommodation and sensitivity to their disease. The focus drifts away from building self-management skills.
Mental health professionals are well-intentioned and hard-working, but their training rests on the “our society is the problem” mindset. This word view suggests that ordinary people are not responsible for the consequences of their actions. All consequences are blamed on oppressors. One must embrace this mindset to get credentialed in a mental health profession. In the end, “getting help” means being taught that “our society is the problem.”
The habit of blaming society undermines mental health in the long run because personal responsibility is the foundation of mental health.
This is not the definition of mental health we typically hear from the mental health professions. But the human brain evolved to promote survival, not to make us happy. It saves the happy chemicals for steps toward meeting survival needs, defined in its own quirky way. Your sense of wellbeing rests on your confidence in your ability to meet your needs. The blame-society mindset tells you to expect society to meet your needs, and that you should focus on the needs of others.
This world view makes personal responsibility taboo. That kind of help doesn’t help.
Even worse, it leads people to feel oppressed by the ordinary demands of life.
If you question the blame-society mindset, you are accused of stigmatizing and traumatizing. You are called insensitive and cruel. You risk being shunned or attacked. It’s tempting to just join the blame game like everyone else.
Taking responsibility is hard, of course. It’s harder to do in adulthood without a foundation built in youth. The human brain is wired by early experience. This is all the more reason to teach self-management skills to young people instead of teaching them to seek wellbeing from pills and social theory. What will happen to a society that trains young people not to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions?
We humans are not hardwired at birth. Our brains wired themselves by experiencing rewards and pain. Children are often rewarded for bad behavior, and thus get wired to repeat bad behavior. Such behaviors are easily labeled mental illness. A diagnosis can bring help, but it may not bring what the child needs most: a healthy incentive structure that builds healthy self-management skills.
If medication doesn’t solve the problem, hopes are placed on another and another. A young person learns to believe they are broken instead of learning to build self-management skills. Soon, they will learn to blame the world for failing to accommodate them.
In the name of “compassion” and “empathy,” healthcare professionals are spreading the idea that mental illness is epidemic and that life today is horrible. In truth, life today is better than ever. In the past, people went hungry, got attacked by neighboring tribes, had vermin crawling everywhere, did repetitive labor from childhood, and often had family members die in the bed next to them. We have no reason for despair, and no good reason to fund despairing social theories in the guise of healthcare.
Negative feelings come easily to a brain that evolved to promote survival. We humans have always struggled to manage our natural negativity. Today, we are fortunate to have more information about how our brain works. We can use that new knowledge to build our self-management power. But that doesn’t happen when new knowledge is filtered through the blame-society lens.
We humans have inherited a brain from our animal ancestors and added on. This brain is hard to manage, which is why societies have always stressed the teaching of personal responsibility. We can teach people about the challenge of managing their brain instead of selling the illusion of effortless happiness. Such Illusions are not compassionate and they are not a good use of tax dollars.
What can be done?
How can it be done fast?
Perhaps a system-wide training about unconscious bias against personal responsibility. Mental health professionals can learn to stop seeing their patients as victims of society. They can start rewarding the behaviors we want rather than the behaviors we don’t want. The victim mindset hurts patients, their loved ones, and society at large. It only helps people who are marketing victim theories.
This podcast has further exploration: