Personal Responsibility and Mental Health

This is another reflection on the Florida Adlerian Society’s annual conference last Friday. One of the primary speakers emphasized the role of personal responsibility in mental health. I can imagine, taken out of context, how brutal that might sound. “Are we now blaming victims and ill people for their woes?” the person exposed to just that sound bite might wonder. “Is that what mental health professionals believe?

The short answer is no, that’s not what we believe.

Embracing free will and the dignity of each person, however, ineluctably leads one to emphasize the role of personal responsibility in how one deals with what happens in life. This isn’t something new: it is ancient philosophy dressed up in psychotherapy clothes. So, while someone may suffer terrible misfortunes outside of their control, the impetus to decide what to do about it is within them. Seek help, or sink into despair? Reach up to grasp a hand, or reach out for a bottle, or needle, or some other vial of trouble?

Sometimes people do have some personal responsibility for what happens, and indulge in magical thinking in which bad things just randomly happen to them. I recall a person I met many years ago who got into trouble for buying drugs. He complained about the injustice of the level of trouble; he didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. (I’m pretty much quoting here.) I asked, how do you buy drugs by accident? How do you take a peaceful stroll around your neighborhood and accidentally end up lurking behind a shopping center chatting with the type of entrepreneurs who set up shop near dumpsters and concrete walls? Acting like there is no personal responsibility means that there is no effort to make things better. It’s just a lot of bad luck, from his perspective; no reason to change because you can’t change “luck.”

Often, though, human suffering is due to others’ actions. Just the same, an adult has some power to effect change. The responsibility is not for others’ bad actions, but to take some sort of action to help oneself. Sometimes people evade taking responsibility to make change because it will be uncomfortable, or embarrassing, or mean that they have to admit that at some earlier point they were wrong. Breaking off a destructive friendship or leaving a toxic work environment can be very challenging for a host of reasons, and leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous. Reach out and get help. If the first, or second, or third person you go to for help is clueless – keep looking for the right help.

Typically, people do things that undercut happiness and health in some way and evade responsibility. People have habits that cause insomnia, for example, and complain, as if poor sleep side-tackled them in the hallway due to no fault of their own. We take on extra activities and complain about being too busy. People fail to set limits with their kids and then yell and throw consequences around when their children are irresponsible, disrespectful and unpleasant to be around. People make choices all day, often on auto-pilot, and a great many of us are prone to griping about all sorts of situations that result, as if stuff just happens without cause. Yes, of course, sometimes, stuff does happen…but, if you’re always five minutes late…that’s you. Not the traffic, not the cat, not the dog…it’s you. If your friends are inconsiderate, that’s not your fault, but it is your problem if you keep tolerating it. If you do tolerate it, then take responsibility for it and stop complaining. “Yes, good old Joe is always late but that’s just him; it’s not personal.” You’ve decided to accept it. Stop griping. If you can’t stop griping, you haven’t accepted it. If you can’t accept it, then do something: leave when he’s late. Put your foot down. Tell him off. Lie about what time you’re meeting and get there late yourself (it might work, once). Whatever; if you’re not prepared to do something about it then face that you have decided to let Joe be chronically late without regard for your preferences or schedule because you have decided tolerating it beats the alternatives you’ve identified of annoying Joe or losing his friendship.

Narrowing it down to mental health, whatever a person is suffering, help is available. How one lives is always part of healing. Proper amounts of exercise, sleep and nutrition are part of it, and things for which most people can take some responsibility. Seeking right guidance requires making choices. Unless you belong to a professional mental health association, your friends might not be the best source of professional advice on the specific strategies, to, for example, use mindfulness training, exercise and specific cognitive therapy techniques to rewire your brain and reduce obsessive-compulsive symptoms. You get to choose. That’s not blaming you for your suffering, but it is saying that you have the freedom, responsibility, and capacity to move towards healing.


Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.


Well…something’s crazy (but it’s probably not us)

Yesterday I attended the Florida Adlerian Society’s annual conference; it runs for three days but I was only able to commit to one. It was a great day: wonderful speakers, challenging information, and, of course, the warm and friendly Adlerians in attendance.

Adler is one of the great founders of psychotherapy, but often is relegated to a corner with a few remarks about birth order and maybe credit for starting the child guidance movement. He’s much more than that, and if you’re curious, visit

An interesting point made during yesterday’s talks was the evolution of bereavement in psychiatry over the past few decades.   The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the American Psychiatric Association’s published list of descriptions of various patterns of symptoms. The intention, back in the early 1980s and DSM-III, was to provide a structure for shared dialogue and research for the identified hypothesized mental disorders. No one was pretending these were all clearly identifiable and diagnosable, discrete brain diseases. In the DSM-III days, bereavement, as a category, covered up to a two year long period. If a grieving person was still sad more often than not, still struggling with aspects of grief and getting back to a (new) normal life, mental health professionals figured, depending on the relationship, two years was a reasonable time frame. Of course, some losses never heal – but people somehow figure out how to go on, just the same. The point is, no sensible person thought it was pathological to still have some regular bouts of tearfulness a year or more after your most beloved person died.

In 1994, the next edition of the DSM came along, DSM-IV. It gave people two months – not two years – to get over it and move on. If not – if the person was still crying, or numb, or having appetite and/or sleep disturbances, or otherwise met the minimum criteria for depression…well, that meant that bereavement was over and the person was now diagnosable with a major mental disorder – depression – which was now sometimes described as a permanent brain disease.

In 2013, the DSM-5 was published (note that the change from Roman numerals to integers was done by the APA – it’s not a typo on my part). The DSM-5 got rid of the bereavement issue entirely: now you get two weeks of being sad more days than not, plus the other possible symptoms, and you’re mentally ill with depression (according to the APA). There is no exception for bereavement, although it ought to be noted on the chart. One rationale provided, about which I’ve written in the past, is that this way people can get their health insurer to cover their grief counseling. Whether this makes it worthwhile to pathologize normal grief, I leave each reader to consider.

Are you mentally ill if you have trouble eating or sleeping, or burst into tears almost daily, two weeks after someone you dearly love passes away? I don’t know anyone who thinks so, but the manual that has become the healthcare provider’s and insurer’s standard frames it so.


Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.