Depression has us in its grip. One in five people suffering from it is pretty serious, but worse is that social attitudes to depression are so helpless. (see Depression’s a Bugger)
This is ironic since the learned helplessness model developed by Martin Seligman and colleagues in the 1970s (see below) has been so influential in our understanding of depression. Subsequently, this understanding has contributed to developing cognitive behavioural treatments for depression.
Learned helplessness occurs when someone experiences a stressful event repeatedly and they have come to believe that they can’t control or change their situation, so they don’t try.
We are not helpless in the face of depression. If you suffer with it you may well feel that you are, that’s part of the syndrome. One way to break free is to learn your way out of it. That takes patience, persistence and a sense of purpose. And it helps to be among people who aren’t depressed (though that can be pretty annoying if you are feeling down, I guess).
If society is responded to the rise in depression with helplessness, then society has bought into precisely the thinking styles that contribute to depression in the first place. Rather than helping depression sufferers, we are adding to the weight of negative belief that contributes to helplessness, and perpetuating the cycle.
The concept of learned helplessness was discovered accidentally by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. They had initially observed helpless behavior in dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone.
Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the classical conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over a small barrier.