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Regaining Morale in the Age of Depression

I have been a clinical psychologist for more than two decades and have found that most of my fellow mental health professionals talk far less about morale than do people in athletics, business, the military, and many other walks of life.
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Lifting the spirits of the demoralized is a craft--not a science--and a wall covered with diplomas does not translate to talent and wisdom in this area.

I have been a clinical psychologist for more than two decades and have found that most of my fellow mental health professionals talk far less about morale than do people in athletics, business, the military, and many other walks of life.

In the sports world, most coaches and managers know that when their team is demoralized, depressed, and losing, all the brilliant feedback in the world will not be helpful. They do not think, "If my players aren't following my advice, they must need antidepressants." Instead, they might pick just the right moment to argue with a referee or an umpire, actually trying to get thrown out of a game. This can work to distract players from their failings and to energize them. In the 2007 baseball season, Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella performed a memorable temper tantrum with an umpire, and the Cubs were transformed from a losing team fighting among themselves into a division winner.

A few years after starting my practice, I learned a few things about morale and energy while counseling one 16-year-old boy who was demoralized, depressed, and on the verge of acting self-destructively. Much of the pain fueling this young man's malaise was caused by a series of unfair punishments exacted on him by his high school principal. My cognitive-behavioral therapy and other "appropriate" counseling did nothing but annoy him. Was it then time to send him to the drug prescriber--or time for me to get "appropriately outrageous"?

I told him, "Hey, I want to go to your damn school and tell this asshole off. Who the hell does he think he is, going on some power trip at the expense of kids who can't do anything about it?" This young man took pride in taking care of himself and politely rejected my offer, but he grinned at how out-of-control I seemed to be. He transferred to another school, got along well with his new principal, and graduated. Ultimately, he built a highly successful business and told me what the impact of my tirade was on him, "Somehow all your wild ideas made me react more maturely. I don't know why--it just did."

When people feel overwhelmed by pain, they utilize shutdown strategies. We may try to shut down pain with depression, alcohol, illegal and prescription drugs, or a wide variety of compulsive diversions including nonstop television watching, shopping, eating, and gambling. My personal favorite shutdown strategies are depression and cynicism.

The problem with shutdown strategies is that they don't selectively shut down our emotional pain. Instead, they shut down our entire being and thus can initiate a vicious cycle. When our entire being shuts down, that immobilization is quite frightening, and such fear is extremely painful. So we often try to shut down the pain of fear, and our shutdowns result in increased immobilization.

Truths can set us free, but not always. When one is immobilized and truths are difficult to act on, such truths can result in shutdown strategies. It is true, for example, that exercise is a great antidote to depression, but if you counsel this "truth" to someone who is completely immobilized, it is likely that they will fail to act on this advice, and this failure becomes one more pain.

Similarly, when people have become too beaten down politically, more truths about how the governmental-corporate partnership have screwed them don't energize them to take actions. Instead, these painful truths can lead to shame about how they have allowed themselves to become like sheep. Shame--like fear and failure--is extremely painful, and so people use shutdown strategies such as cynicism.

Morale helps break that vicious cycle of pain, shutdown strategy, immobilization, more pain, and more shutdown strategies. The craft of rebuilding morale is about distracting people from this self-absorbed cycle and energizing them to take positive actions.

Besides appropriate outrageousness and anti-authoritarianism, other components of the craft of regaining morale include a sense of humor, good-hearted mischief, faith that one doesn't equal one's symptoms, and other talents and skills that mental health professionals are neither selected for nor trained in.

Failed treatment can be demoralizing, and so it helps to remember that you may not have in fact failed your mental health treatment--your treatment may have failed you.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of
Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007)