"Why Are We Not Acting to Save the World?": ACT and Mental Health

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The topic of mental health has been addressed through multiple outlets this week, especially with the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  This blog post will focus on this topic, looking through the lens of behavior analysis, to pose some questions on shaping and developing adaptive mental health practices.

In their book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change, the authors Steven Hayes, Kurt Strosahl, and Kelly Wilson, have a chapter dedicated to the "Dilemma of Human Suffering."  In this chapter, they shed light on the decades of focus by psychology and modern psychiatry on diagnosing mental disorder and pathology through symptomatic processes.  With the rise in these disorders, the authors ask if the statistical prevalence of mental illness is due in part to the fact that human suffering is actually just a part of all human life.  Is it actually something that we need to address more through behavior change procedures and skill teaching, rather than focusing on its treatment through a traditional medical perspective of diagnose, treat with medication, and measure symptomatic change?  Admittedly, this is a controversial discussion and viewpoint.

Human suffering is indeed something that is always present.  It is a topic explored through many practices, including Buddhism (see our blog on how Buddhism and Behavior Analysis are related) throughout the history of human life.  Interestingly enough, Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson also touch on suicide in their chapter with the fact that human beings are the only "animal" that engage in this behavior.  If this is the case, is developing strategies and behavior to respond to personal human suffering in adaptive rather than maladaptive ways, the answer?

Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a therapy with principles rooted in contextual behavior science, psychological flexibility is a skill that is taught through established and empirically validated behavior change procedures.  If we know these strategies work, and they teach adaptive responding to stimuli that set the occasion for suffering, why is it that so many people don't know and have never learned about these skills?  The answer lies in dissemination.  

In the words of B.F. Skinner (1982), "Why are we not acting to save the world?" and in this case, provide support for and skills to respond during events that set the occasion for human suffering.