Mental Health, social justice

APATHY: In Mental Illness and Social Issues

Remember when the bagger at the market would ask, “paper or plastic?”  It was a reminder of how a simple conscious choice we could make to benefit the environment. It takes about 1000 years for a plastic bag to degrade; when discarded and burned, toxic gases are emitted onto the atmosphere. Plastic has negative effects not only on the atmosphere, but also on the environment. When we make a conscious choice, we choose not to ignore the effects of our actions and take personal responsibility.I often wonder why people stop caring? And, why do they look the other way on social issues or injustices. There are many reasons why people can become apathetic. For some, it may be an underlying medical or mental disease. “Apathy may also occur in various psychiatric and neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington’s disease, and dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.”[1]

Apathy in Mental Disorders

Apathy is seen in some mental disorders and most commonly in Dysthymia, Major Depressive Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Dysthymia is a milder form of Depression, which can last for a period of at least two years in adults and at least one year in children or adolescents. In Major Depression, the episodes are more severe and sometimes chronic. When a person diagnosed with Schizophrenia, their reality is governed by the hallucinations and delusions distorting their reality in which they may show little or no interest in events around them. While mental and physical illnesses are not the only reasons for apathy, others reasons can be due to a person re-enacting adverse experiences in which they continue to feel powerless over a situation and assume a learnt helplessness role. Yet, taking an apathetic stance can also be temporary and very normal way to coping with a stressor or when dealing with a tragedy [see previous blog on tips of dealing with a tragedy].

Apathy and denial can work in tandem

Differences exist between denial and apathy. Denial is when we are choosing not to admit something whereas apathy is simply not caring. In 2008, I worked with an organization called ACTION Network (Against Child Trafficking in Our Neighborhoods). This team of community leaders began addressing child trafficking issues in San Diego. Addressing this serious issue, however, proved difficult as the group had to overcome the denial of child trafficking occurring in the U.S. Once the ACTION Network overcame the denial of child trafficking, they had to begin to address the issue of child prostitution. Many business owners had become apathetic towards this growing issue, resigning themselves to inaction due to lack of resources and awareness. The ACTION Network brought awareness, education and ideas to combat human trafficking. This modern form of slavery is something that occurs when children are most vulnerable, usually run away and homeless youth, victims of child abuse and domestic violence. For more information on some of the work accomplished by the ACTION Network and community agencies please visit http://sandiegohealth.org/sandag/publicationid_1316_7196.pdf

How to defeat apathy and begin to make a difference

There are many ways to begin to make a difference on issues that may seem too overwhelming or too big of a battle for just one person. For starters, change the belief that you are powerless to make a difference. There may be things the individual may not have control over, but making conscious decisions on daily things, something every individual has control over, can have a lasting impact. Allow yourself to become aware even if the reality is too ugly, like human trafficking. Choosing to become aware is a huge step. Educate yourself on the facts of the problem. Examine your thoughts and biases about the issues. By changing this mindset we decrease our judgment, allowing ourselves to understand this issue, and not place blame. Lastly, make conscience consumer choices.  As Albert Einstein famously said “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing”.

[1] Ishizaki, J., Mimura, M., (2011) Dysthymia and Apathy: Diagnosis and Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/drt/2011/893905/

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