Replacing Defeatism With Empowerment

Sad woman hugging her legs and looking to the side

Many adolescents with substance abuse issues and mental health diagnoses feel completely defeated and may even be at risk for suicide. Others perhaps are more apathetic, considering themselves “incurable” or thinking that their life is “not worth the work.” When a client has this level of defeatism, how can you, as a professional, help to inspire them? How do you replace apathy and defeatism with empowerment?

Adolescents and Apathy Both Begin With an “A”

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that both apathy and adolescents begin with the letter A, but apathy truly is a common trait amongst youth in general. Apathy can be even more common amongst those with a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse issues. At least on the outside, they verbalize a lack of interest in their life or in healing or improving themselves.

Teens who view themselves as “incurable” or “not worth the work” to get and stay sober or be mentally well can be very difficult clients to work with. As a professional, the challenge can be finding something that they do care about, something they are willing to work for. Sometimes, the first step is to simply demonstrate that you care about them and that you are not going to give up. Sometimes the best cure for apathy is caring.

Defeatism: A War of the Mind

If physically being in the trenches describes working together in the most difficult of circumstances, then defeatism is like being at war with your client’s mind, only your cause is to get them to actually fight for their life. The stakes are high, too, as teens who have given up on themselves are at higher risk for suicide. Adolescents with substance abuse and co-occurring mental health diagnoses are already at high risk for suicidal thoughts and suicide.

While working with a client using various modalities of talk therapy is important, having the proper medical supervision and care during this time is also necessary. Remember that this battle does not need to be yours alone, and it is okay to surrender a client to a more restrictive course of treatment if it will save their life.

Finding Meaning in a Teen’s Life

Discovering meaning for an adolescent who has given up on themselves can seem impossible. However difficult it may be, the meaning is usually there, it is simply buried beneath a lot of pain and negative thinking. Again, treating co-occurring depression, substance abuse, and more may be necessary before this is possible.

Some ideas for reaching the seemingly unreachable:

  • Where possible, a pet, service animal, or animal therapy may help
  • Art or music therapy may help if they have previously shown interest in these areas
  • Small acts of kindness toward others that offer tangible rewards such as gratitude or smiles from the recipients
  • Give clients a daily task, no matter how small, and acknowledge and encourage their completion of the task

Finding the tiniest sliver of meaning can help to begin cutting through the defeatism. Time and patience are needed to work through all of the negative thoughts and self-image. But finding that spark to help your adolescent client realize they have value and that their life matters is worth the work.

Searching for Inspiration

Beyond overcoming defeatism or even just apathy, adolescents need to be inspired to continue to progress away from being at risk for suicide. Finding purpose and inspiration for living is something that many people struggle with, yet there is always that one person or thing that keeps people going. Your job as a professional is to help your clients find that inspiration.

Offering them opportunities to experience new activities, foods, skills, and more may seem like good ideas, but be sure that they are engaged on some level with the desire to live and have a manageable purpose each day before they are overwhelmed by new experiences. Giving them opportunities to listen to or talk with others who have been in similar situations and overcome their challenges can be one of the best ways to inspire them when they are ready to listen.

Empowering the Uninspired

When you can help clients move past apathy or defeatism and find meaning and even inspiration, the next step is to help them feel empowered. Have them write down their strengths and help them to match them up with their goals and dreams. Help them make daily goals to reach their targets, reminding them that like life, recovery is a journey, not a destination. Realizing their strengths and potential can help empower your clients to steer clear of apathy, negative thinking, and defeatism by giving them the purpose to keep moving forward.

Apathy and ultimately defeatism can become dangerous for adolescents, particularly those with mental health or substance abuse diagnoses. The risk of suicide is higher for these teens. To take them from such unhealthy places to empowerment takes time and patience, acknowledging that you may have to search for something to give their life meaning. At Sustain Recovery, we specialize in helping teens who may have struggled in outpatient or traditional residential programs. Our extended outpatient care provides the structure and safety they need combined with the ability to progress at their own pace and reintegrate into their lives. Call Sustain at (949) 407-9052 to find out if our program can help your client. Our Irvine, California, facility offers everything adolescents need to push past their substance abuse and mental health issues to find the underlying causes for their behaviors. We work with families to help them heal together and become empowered to find and maintain their recovery long-term.