Depression and Learned Helplessness

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“Ever since she was a child Susan wanted to be a nurse. Her grades in High School and College were average. Because of it she doubted she would be able to enter a nursing program. She applied to several programs at some well know nursing schools but failed to be accepted into any of them. She found an online program that she thought might meet her needs. She was accepted into the program and began her studies. During the second semester the government discovered the program was a scam and shut it down. Susan was both frustrated and discouraged. Then, as suggested by a friend of her’s, she found a small school that had a nursing program. She applied and was accepted. She did well during her first semester. However, during the second semester she scored poorly on a quiz that lowered her average in the class from a B+ to a B-. She reacted with great despair because students needed at least a B in the program in order to maintain their status. She now feared that one more low grade on a quiz and she would lose her placement in the school. She seriously considered dropping out of the program.”


Depressed and hopeless, Susan was suffering from learned helplessness. Coined by clinical psychologist Martin Seligman many years ago, the term refers to the fact that no matter what a person does they cannot change a situation. Frustrated by the fact that she had experienced several situations that ended poorly for her, Susan was convinced that there was nothing she could do with regard to her grade on the quiz and her status in the nursing school. In point of fact, all students in the class scored poorly, indicating that the quiz was not valid. She and the other students never considered discussing the issue with the teacher or with the student advisor. Indeed, Susan had learned that she was helpless because, no matter what she did, she would be defeated in nursing school. That was why she wanted to quit the program.


Seligman’s research over twenty years demonstrated the fact the learned helplessness and depression are closely associated. Seligman concluded that certain types of depression could be caused by defeat, failure and loss. Based in cognitive psychology, the individual who suffers from learned helplessness or depression, thinks in ways that are negative. For example, Susan was telling herself that there was nothing left for her to do except quit school. Worse than that, she was thinking of herself as a loser, a person whose life was filled with misfortune. That misfortune she attributed to the fact that she was not smart enough to succeed at life.

The fact is that Susan had always thought of herself in negative terms. Never more than an average student and wishing she could get “A” grades, she gave up on herself as early as elementary school. All through Middle and High School, her performance only proved her low estimation of herself. Susan was not optimistic about herself or about life in general.

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In his book “Learned Optimism” Seligman discusses the fact that pessimism leads to poor performance, poor health and low self esteem. Contrary to these feelings of helplessness, he discussed the fact that cognitive therapy helps people learn to think of themselves as competent and able to influence many things in their lives that they were convinced they could not. One of the strategies he suggests to help overcome learned helplessness is to argue against the negative thoughts and explore the areas of competence that exist in all people. For Susan, it’s important for her to think about a couple of things. First, the entire class performed poorly indicating that there is something wrong with the quiz and the teachers way of grading students. Second, she and other students could go to the student advisor and put in a complaint as a group. After all, there is strength. In addition, all of them could go to the dean for academics at the school. However, she also needs to think about the fact that, though it’s not quite high enough, her grade was fairly good and it’s early enough in the semester to improve her performance, especially since, without the quiz, she was scoring an “A” in the class. In other words, Susan needs to learn that she is not helpless and that she can exert control over many things in her life. In this case, she needs to see that she does have options especially since she is not alone with this dilemma.

If you explore the self help section of Mental Help Net, you can learn more strategies for over coming depression and learned helplessness.

Do you suffer from learned helplessness? Your mental health matters. Take a depression screening test online. Are you convinced that nothing you do can change the outcome of events in your life? You are invited to discuss this in this forum. We look forward to your comments.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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