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PsySR BlogCreative Maladjustment and Learned Helplessness by Andrew Phelps and Lynne Stewart

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his address to the American Psychological Association in 1967, urged "Creative Maladjustment" as the appropriate behavioral response to life in an unjust society.

Compliance with the norm of social injustice is problematic, Dr. King noted. But one can abide in a wholesome and justifiable position in the face of injustice through creative maladjustment, by which he meant a commitment to upholding the values of freedom and dignity for all. He called for fundamental changes in behavioral science so that behavioral research and "treatment" embrace the values of freedom and dignity (see

As mental health client/survivors, we are familiar with creative maladjustment. It is how we cope with corrupt and abusive portions of the mental health system. Some of us have experienced a very real form of psychological torture while "behaviorally managed" in that system. Following our best values, we now creatively maladjust by speaking out publicly (and privately) about the injustices, by staying away from this system, and/or by becoming experts at theory, methodologies and techniques of practitioners in order to glean what is useful.

"Learned helplessness" is a behavioral methodology that is often used as a tool for control. We learn from Jane Mayer in her new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, that it is a core component of today's practices of torture in interrogations. The results of learned helplessness consequent on involvement with the behavioral health treatment paradigm also can be seen in the client/survivor population. Some of us live in hideous and dangerous environments, many seek help from a system "in shambles" (as described by the report of the New Freedom Commission), and generally we eke out an existence with inadequate resources.

Persuading the American Psychological Association to stop the involvement of psychologists in interrogation torture will provide a Band-Aid for the problem: It brings the issue of "learned helplessness" to the surface. What Stephen Soldz et al. call "the strategic helplessness of the APA," however, is deeper than an accommodation of detainee torture, rendition, and the like. King had it right. The problem is that the system of behavioral management by way of clinical psychology needs to be reorganized.

King's original address was upstaged by his assassination and the subsequent riots. Now, 40 years later, psychology needs to shake off that shock and apply his inspiration thoughtfully and with seriousness of purpose.

Dialogics, with its focus on how the subjective responses and complex interactions at play between all participants in a dialogue powerfully affect the flow of the dialogue, needs to be promoted, and interpersonal dynamics closely examined and consciously engaged. A new "nudge" approach needs to be nurtured, and the dynamism that Foucault calls the 'clinical gaze' needs to be deconstructed, as it has been already in Italy.

We should promote "creative maladjustment" by emphasizing each person’s freedom and dignity, including in the relationship between client and therapist. We should take seriously the mandate to help people carefully and effectively, in ways that respect their values and perspectives and that nurture their sense of their own worth and their own power.

As client/survivors, we want to work with psychologists committed to social justice to develop a new approach to replace the old-line behavioral science habit of leaning on learned helplessness. We need to work together to apply creative maladjustment to the dilemma of the client/survivor.

Client/survivor activists, however, have continually encountered what seems to be tokenism in our efforts to work as peers with clinical professionals and even with many of the social-justice psychologists. The APA needs to get the harm out of clinical practice, and our networking with social-justice psychology needs to overcome tokenism.

Given Psychologists for Social Responsibility’s mission to promote a "culture of peace with social justice," PsySR’s role here should be to create an initiative to move psychology in the direction of overcoming learned helplessness and embracing creative maladjustment. The prescription of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 speech to the APA should be honored, the values of freedom and dignity should be promoted -- all in the pursuit of social justice. With that goal in mind, we invite psychologists interested in working in coalition with client/survivor activists to help us create a PsySR initiative where we can pursue this challenge together, in a frame of mutual respect and dignity.

King's advocacy is for a better psychology. This kind of positive approach is essential to bring the APA back into an ethical and wholesome space.

PsySR member Andrew Phelps is a client-survivor activist, a Ph.D. mathematician, and the former chair of the Berkeley Mental Health Advisory Board (now, Commission). He currently teaches part-time at San Jose City College. He can be reached at Lynne Stewart is a client advocate and organizer from Riverside, CA. She was Chief Administrative Officer of the California Network of Mental Health Clients for its first five years (1983-1988). She is currently editor of the DBSA Riverside journal "Thermometer Times" and their statewide quarterly. She can be contacted at

Posted August 12, 2008

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