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Learned Helplessness and Personal Injury

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Learned Helplessness and Personal Injury

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learned helplessness in personal injuryHow do people react to recovering from injury suffered in a personal injury accident? Learned helplessness results when a person is repeatedly subjected to a negative situation from which he cannot escape. Eventually he will stop trying and will accept the limitations and not even try to change his situation.

Although I found out about learned helplessness in graduate school, it hit me hard when I hired my babysitter’s out of work husband. I’ll call him Richard. He was a union carpenter who needed money and we needed the only bathroom in our house to be renovated. Once Richard agreed to do the job, I asked him if he could oversee getting the counters in the kitchen changed too. “Oh no”, he said, “I am not a general contractor!” He began working on the bathroom by pulling the sink away from the wall. Then he disappeared for the day. I began to see a pattern. Richard went to the union hall every day to see if there was work. When there was no work, he would come to our house, work for an hour and leave. We had to climb over the sink in order to get into the tub. When I got exasperated on day 10, and asked, “What happens if you find out there is a union job for you?” “I’d take it, of course”, he told me, seemingly oblivious to our need to get the bathroom project completed.

Fortunately for us, he did not get a union job and the work that should have been done in a few days was completed after 2 weeks. I got a vision of Richard as living in a clear Plexiglass box. Our desire to help him out by paying him to do work we needed done backfired on us and we never hired him again.

I encountered Richard in a different form when I read a blog called “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day”. It describes the habits of wealthy people and compares them to the habits of poor people. What was even more interesting than the habits were the comments of those who reacted to them. Michael R was one of them. Here is his comment:

Michael R:

I average between 75 and 85 hours a week and worked 108 hours in the past week. Why? So that the owner of my business can take his family on vacation. Funny thing is, I am on salary, I do not receive insurance and do not make enough money to save for retirement. Forget about vacation. I have always worked hard, for 24 years in my industry, but because of circumstances beyond my control, I never seem to get ahead. Wealth is 10% hard work and 90% luck. Why do I say this? Most people work harder than the wealthy, but because of a lucky instance, they became rich. There is no need to gamble if you have already won. When do I WIN !?!?!

Here is a textbook case of learned helplessness: note his words, “due to circumstances beyond my control”. Others reading Michael’s comments, and those of others who posted similar messages, basically said, “Then get another job. You are in control of your life.”


Personal injury “victims” and learned helplessness

How does this relate to people who get injured? There are people every hour of the day being injured when they’ve had nothing to do with what caused the injury. They are completely blameless. I understand that. But I’m focusing on what happens after they get hurt. How do they react?

  • Do they believe they have bad luck and are destined to not recover, or do they believe they have the capability to return to full health or learn how to deal with the permanent injuries?
  • Do they function from a position of learned helplessness, or do they believe they can control their lives?
  • Do they see themselves as victims or do they see themselves as patients?
  • Does their learned helplessness prevent them from trying to get better?

How do juries react to people who display signs of learned helplessness?

  • How do they feel about people who get on the stand and acknowledge their injuries but show they are working hard in physical therapy or making other changes to accommodate their new lives?
  • Where is the fine line between whining (such a negative word) and discussing the permanent changes a plaintiff has sustained?

Med League is a legal nurse consulting firm that assists attorneys handling cases involving medical negligence, personal injury and other litigation with medical issues at stake. Call us for assistance.

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