Pretty dry sounding title, right? Well, sometimes things are just like that. But let me just make a short explanation. In this case, agency refers to the idea that a person is, or can be, an agent in life. An actor, not a spectator, not a victim. What inspired me to think about it, however, was very ordinary. I gave a friend who is recovering from a severe bout of mental illness a ride in my car. The seat had been scooted forward somewhat to accommodate having two people on the passenger’s side, and when he got in the front, he didn’t scoot the seat back again to create more leg room. Perhaps he didn’t notice– he’s not very tall. Perhaps he thought that he shouldn’t adjust the seat because it was “supposed” to be that way. Or perhaps he had less of a sense of acting on the world around him.
That got me thinking. In depression, the mind says “why bother?” or variations on that message (this is an oversimplification, of course). In anxiety, the mind speculates about fearful consequences of actions (“what if?” with dire consequences pictured) and either avoids doing certain things to avert negative consequences, or engages in certain behaviors to avert them. Thought disorders are related, but different, and I’m focused on mood disorders right now.
Similarly, addictions can be seen as disorders of agency. The person thinks they’re in control when they’re not, or engages in a lot of behavior which is centered around the addiction. That’s why, in the perspective of this essay, all the 12 step meetings start with the Serenity Prayer– a prayer for appropriate agency. After all, I’m just as screwed if I keep trying to change things I can’t as I am if I do nothing to change the things I can. The whole thing’s useless unless I know (can tell) the difference.
Part of this is centered around what psychologists call locus of control. In a classic example, someone walking down the street slips on a banana peel. Because we want a compassionate example, our test person will not be injured. But if the person has a wholly internal locus of control, they think “I should watch where I’m going better. I could have been hurt.” If the person has an entirely external locus of control they think “Stupid people shouldn’t drop banana peels in the street. What’s wrong with them?” This is only an illustration, of course: we all do best to look out for ourselves while walking in any environment, and most people would agree that littering, especially with slimy, slippery materials, is wrong. This is just to say that locus of control is not a binary, all/nothing concept.
This brings me to the second half of the title, behavioral health. Note that the title is not “mental health.” That is, in part, because I believe that one can suffer from mood disorders or thought disorders and still be able to act appropriately: and what’s key, the ability to act appropriately (behavioral health) can actually improve mental health. To steal a classic line from the world of 12-step, we can act ourselves into right thinking. Because I set myself a goal of keeping posts to around 500 words, I’m going to stop here. What kinds of actions to take is probably an entire book, but at least another separate post.
Note on how this relates to depression specifically: