Individual Human Potential and Mental Health

The lasting legacy of 2020 and 2021 may be the loss of confidence in individual human potential. As many take sides in countless debates, finding refuge in large amorphous groups, confidence in individual capability and achievement to overcome perceived obstacles has suffered. Ironically, this segmentation of complex human flourishing into silos of ideology, race and class erodes the community we need to work together toward to enable each one of us to thrive.

Examples abound. The idea that a person succeeds or fails based primarily on the color of their skin totally ignores the contribution of grit, effort and character in forging a satisfying, caring life. Conflating one’s behavior toward reducing the spread of a contagious disease with political opinion or moral virtue denies a respect for the discoveries, and questions, of science necessary to survive in a challenging, competitive world. Separating immigrants into categories of those who are desirable and those who are not overlooks the capacity for all to accomplish good once they arrive and are afforded the advantages of opportunity we all share in the United States. And the idea that a person’s success should be appropriated in order to compensate for another’s failure reduces us each to a fictitious equality of outcome that has no parallel in history or nature.

Examples of individual potential break though the noise of collective blame and the searches for sweeping generalities. That a vaccine for Covid-19 was developed in months is a tremendous work of success of a program like Operation Warp Speed. But the actual work, the true advances, were accomplished by individual scientists motivated by curiosity and purpose. The fact that so many businesses, from neighborhood coffee shops to huge corporations, were able to pivot, immediately change business models, and thrive in the face of the greatest economic crisis in most of our lives is a testament not to big relief packages, but to individual managers throwing every workable idea they could muster into their organizations and working their tails off to survive.

Parents upended their lives to compensate for slow, fearful schools and the ambitious took the opportunity to learn new skills and brighten their expectations. Still, the narrative is that we are a failing society that conspires against affinity groups to succeed by holding people down. We have replaced the hero with helpless masses driven to blame others for every misfortune they encounter.

Yet, in the field of mental health, only a certainty of human potential can push a person with behavioral problems toward wellness. Yes, there are disparities in treatment availability. Yes, some are treatment resistant. Yes, some who honestly try will not get better. But for most people and most families truly interested in getting well help is available. When help is identified, the ability to overcome a mental illness shifts back onto the individual. The individual with the potential to thrive.

The challenged person, with the encouragement of family, friends and caregivers, must make the decisions to take their medicine, keep their appointments, and do everything possible to become and remain productive. Human potential can bring a person to a good life. But it requires the effort of the individual to approach a chance to grow and contribute back to the society that rewards individual effort and joins together to move forward in the face of any challenge – as a brave, quiet, loosely coalesced group of hard-working people has done in 2020 and 2021.

I do not avoid or diminish the role of community in an empathetic life full of caring contributions that make the world a better place for all. Community offers common purpose and worth. Within communities we contribute our best and find support when we need it. But communities of complaint, communities that deny the contribution of motivated individuals, communities constructed to attempt to correct some injustice by vilifying and co-opting the rights of others will never last. Unfortunately the damage they do while they bare their teeth and air their complaints can hold back, even make opponents of, self-responsibility, meaningful work and true human flourishing. 

Mental health relies on the individual seeing a chance at wellness and applying the therapies and self-discipline required and available to grow into promise. When one is confronted with dependency and surrender, the desperate options erected by the cultural zeitgeist and many in the psychiatric community today, one can only be expected to fail. Risk becomes meaningless. Role models overlooked. Potential is ignored.

You can complain that the playing field is not level. It never was. You can object that the cards are stacked against you. They always have been. They certainly were for me and others with bipolar disorder who struggled on food stamps and languished in inpatient psychiatric facilities. But intrepid people with initiative overcome obstacles, not succumb to them. It’s called potential because it’s not guaranteed. But it is latent in everyone. To find it and to draw on it is to make the most of yourself despite the odds against you. This potential is the great equalizer, and tapping it is the sure path to help yourself, to succeed, and to give back to others so that they can reach and grasp their possibilities as well.