Torture, Depression, and Things to Hold On To

The American torture system used the theories of ‘learned helplessness’ in order to better dismember its victims’ minds (via Obsidianwings, who has been writing a lot about American torture).

It’s not all that often that I get really emotional over politics – I try to keep with a style of calm and thoughtful analysis. But, fuck. This makes me mad. Let me explain where I’m personally coming from here.

‘Learned helplessness’ is a phrase and an idea that I know from studying psychology, in particular from the psychology of mental illness. The basic finding that the theory is based on is that if you expose someone to suffering they can’t control, then they internalise that lack of control and won’t make use of any control that they later gain – and that moreover they will develop things like passivity, lack of pleasure, lack of motivation, inward-turned aggression, and emotional disruption.

The theoretical elaboration connects this with depression; that some sort of process like this, of ‘learning’ that suffering can’t be controlled, helps to produce depressive mental illness, with all the misery and self-harm and suicide and destroyed relationships and broken lives that that involves, of which I have a little personal experience.

So I learned about this idea in a sort of medical context; that here’s a mechanism involved in this horrible curse, which we are struggling to understand so that we can reduce it. And I suppose it was illogical to not immediately connect it with government policy and torture. But I didn’t.

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