Jan 3, 2016

The "Right Mental Attitude"

    During this slow period for Social Security news, I thought I would repeat this post I made earlier this year:
     Someone retweeted this to me: "Nothing can stop the man w/ the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man w/the wrong mental attitude,"
     This was tweeted by a man who was a college football player and who is now the sales manager of a large corporation. It sorta fits his background, wouldn't you say?
     There is every reason to encourage people to have "the right mental attitude." That can help take one far. However, taken literally, and many people take this sort of platitude literally, it means that if you've succeeded in life, it must be because you have "the right mental attitude" and if you've been unable to overcome adversity, it must mean that you have "the wrong mental attitude."
     I'm cruel to say this but if the person who wrote this comes down with cancer, his "right mental attitude" may not enable him to achieve any goal he may have. If medical treatment doesn't work, he's going to suffer and die. Whether medical treatment works has almost nothing to do with his "mental attitude." Whatever goals he may have had will not be achieved. If his son or daughter develops schizophrenia, having the "right mental attitude" won't get them very far. They'll probably be unable to work on a regular basis, regardless of their mental attitude. Life circumstances can completely overwhelm any "mental attitude" no matter how "right" it may be.
     I deal with clients every day who feel that their disability isn't so much caused by illness as by their personal shortcomings. They feel that being out of work means that they have failed even though objectively they haven't failed; they're simply dealing with serious illness. It's bad enough to be sick. It's worse to mistakenly think that your inability to work is your fault when it isn't.
     As a society, we're eager to tout the successes of those who have overcome disability with the "right mental attitude" while ignoring the fact that the disability overcome seldom involves factors such as chronic severe pain or chronic progressive illness or chronic severe mental illness. We like nice stories about people in wheelchairs who are still working. We think that's how we'll be if illness strikes us. We'll have the "right mental attitude" and be able to overcome our disability. When we hear stories about people with bipolar disorder who end up homeless, we want to think that can't happen to us because, unlike the homeless people, we have the "right mental attitude." We don't want to consider the possibility that the difference between the person in the wheelchair who is still working and the homeless person with bipolar disorder is the nature and severity of the disability rather than "mental attitude." We think we can control our "mental attitude." We don't like to think about the fact that we can't control illness and injury.
     Writ large, this is the problem with this country's attitudes towards disability. We think that people can control disability with the "right mental attitude" but that's a delusion that leads us to be cruel to disabled people and even to ourselves when we become disabled.


Gayle Myrna said...

I really appreciate this message. Thanks!

Tim said...

For about 30 years, John Mellencamp's Minutes To Memories has been a theme song for me (...suck it up, tough it out, do the best you can!). I played football as a sophmore and junior in HS, but as a senior could barely run due to back/hip pain. It took 15 years and many doctors before being diagnosed by an eye doctor (3-4 cases of iritis in a year and a half) with Ankylosing Spondylitis. The arthritis has spread to my shoulders, hands, knees, ankles, feet and neck. I have aslo been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. My eyes bother me almost constantly, often causing migraines. I also have sleep apnea, and fall asleep often when I get comfortable. After 30 years of chronic pain, I just can't Suck It Up or Tough It Out any longer. Just walking to car some days...

Anonymous said...

Modification to that I think is appropriate--the proper mental attitude will spur, but not guarantee, success, but the wrong mental attitude will almost guarantee failure.

Anonymous said...


I agree with your point, and it is helpful from the perspective of the person with a disability. Good mental attitude can help us make the most of the cards we are dealt.

Where people cross an unfortunate line, in my opinion, is then taking that belief a bit further into the realm of magical thinking. That leads to attitudes and beliefs that people with serious disabilities who cannot work are themselves to blame, due to their "bad attitudes," when in fact they are already making the most of the hand life dealt them and there is no way they could do competitive work regardless of their attitude. It's a short step for such people to demonize people with disabilities, since they are allegedly responsible for their own misfortune and could easily return to work by just changing their "attitude."

If you are a congressperson and you feel that way, you propose legislation to try to cut their benefits. You use that as an excuse to try and make the disability standard more stringent. You castigate ALJs who approve more cases than others. You mock disability claimants and say they are mostly frauds. After all, they only need to change their attitude and they are cured and can report to work the next day. We know who those congresspersons are. Needless to say that ignores reality and is toxic and cruel to people with disabilities.