By David Joel Miller.
Why do they say that people with problems want to be that way?
Lots of people, with varying problems and disabilities, seem to be dismissed with the expression that the reason for their problems is that they do not want to change. Is there any truth to these claims and why do we hear this so often?
First let me give you a list of the things I have heard recently. Some of this comes from professionals, some from the news media and some from just average people. After the list let me tell you why I think we are hearing this more these days and lastly what we should be doing about this.
People with depression are using this illness to avoid doing anything.
Fat people don’t really want to lose weight.
There is no such thing as mental illness, those people just want to get on disability.
People who say they have anxiety are just trying to get other people to take care of them.
The homeless prefer to live out on the street.
Drug users do not quit because they want to use.
The unemployed are unemployed because they do not want to work.
There are many other forms of these statements, but mostly they seem to me to be ways of dismissing people with problems by blaming them for having those problems and then saying that they are unwilling to change.
So why if obesity, homelessness, unemployment, loneliness, drug addiction and mental illness cause all that pain, do people seem to so strenuously avoid doing exactly the things that would change their situation? Doesn’t it look sometimes as if people with problems really do not want to change or they would?
Turns out that change is far harder most of the time than doing nothing.
I can see why society and people who work in the helping fields could start blaming the people with the problems for their lack of progress. As long as we can blame them we do not have to think that our programs and policies might be letting the suffering down. It is easier to think that the homeless like to be out there in the cold, the rain or the snow, than to really try to tackle those issues.
Why do we blame those with problems for those problems?
Turns out that change is hard for humans. We learn a certain way of coping and then we continue that coping style over and over. Even when we come to believe that what we are doing is not working, deciding to do something different and then carrying thorough on that decision is difficult. People in these situations sometimes have to give up everything they have to reach for something else. Here are some examples.
Unemployment is rarely a choice.
If I think that unemployment is caused by a lack of jobs, I might get scared I could end up out of work. If I can convince myself it is because they don’t want to work I can pretend it won’t happen to me.
For a huge stretch of time since World War II here in the United States we have had growth and expanding employment. There have been ups and downs but overall more people work as time goes on. There was a time when any able-bodied person who wanted to work could find a job. Recently we have seen a trend, there are jobs available, but those jobs require advanced skills and are often in distant places.
Many who are unemployed lack the skills needed to get a good job, they may live in places with high unemployment and as a result become seriously depressed. When you are depressed doing anything can be at the limits of your abilities.
For the homeless shelters may mean giving up all you have.
If you are homeless, most of your friends and partners are homeless also. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend you need to leave them behind. Your pet? That dog that kept you warm and comforted you on the cold night? That animal goes to the pound. There are few places a homeless person can take their partner or their pet.
While in the homeless shelter you need to be there in the early afternoon and leave in the early morning. Getting to and from the shelter takes up the whole day. Your life begins to revolve around being a recipient of a place to sleep.
When you have next to nothing you use what tools you can find to cope. Many homeless drink to dull the pain, physical and emotional. Without an address it is hard to get into medical or psychiatric services.
Homeless programs often require that the people they house stop alcohol and drug use altogether to get housed. It is easy to say that the homeless do not want housing and harder to recognize that they may not be willing to give up friends, relationships, pets or other coping mechanisms to fit into the requirements of a given program.
Obesity is about more than just eating less.
Once upon a time we idolize the person with some meat on their bones. When food was scarce the healthy, those who were not emaciated, made it through the winter to live another year. Then times change, food became instantly available, and the ideal change.
Weight loss has become big business. Despite a quizillion diet books and weight loss programs the rate of obesity in America continues to climb. Food is available on every corner. Fast food and food available 24 hours a day in any season. The result of this increased availability of food has not been better health but more unhealthy food.
Most dieters learn all too rapidly that the minute you relax your diet the weight returns and brings a few pounds of extra fat with it. With the weight gain comes physical ailments. Exercise is harder the more weight you need to lose. The modern solution? Surgery to reduce the body’s ability to hold and process food.
The mentally ill are likely to be told to just snap out of it.
For most people who have a mental illness snapping out of it is only slightly more difficult than growing a few inches because you should be taller.
When you have depression, severe major depression, getting out of bed in the morning is an all-day task. This is not laziness, it is horrific work to make yourself do something that you lack the ability to do.
If you have an anxiety disorder, the most common mental disorder in America, you are likely to be told to just not worry about it. If you go for treatment those of you who have social anxiety can look forward to spending hours in crowded waiting rooms with people you do not know and with whom you wish you did not have to spend time.
I know there are exceptions. Programs to treat anxiety that are small and personalized. But all too often treatment programs are organized to meet the needs of the system not the individual.
The truth is that those with problems no not always use programs, not because they like things the way they are but because they are being ask to do more than they are able to in order to access those helps that most of the rest of us take for granted. We need to stop blaming the sufferers for their illness and look for solutions that work rather than create more programs that fail the people they are designed to serve.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books