6 Reasons that Social Justice Is Prevention of Behavioral Health Problems

Kevin D Arnold, PhD, ABPP
Executive Director at The Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy of Greater Columbus, Inc.

Social Justice (SJ) has become the center of many discussions in political and behavioral health arenas.  Perhaps one reason that those discussions turn to disagreements rests within misunderstandings of the connection between marginalization of certain groups within our society and the behavioral health problems that result from that marginalization.

Marginalization is not the denial of advancement, based on most theories, but is instead the denial of opportunity for success based on capricious factors (skin color, gender, etc.).  Marginalization can flow from either systematic discrimination or implicit biases affecting decisions (e.g., not hiring a candidate because they have tattoos even though they are qualified).

SJ initiatives entail, usually, both systematic policies and procedures to prevent systemic marginalization and efforts to overcome implicit biases in organizations and individuals.  For example, assessing biased impressions of an individual based on pre-conceived notions can lead to awareness of those biases within an organization or individual, and promote both macro and micro changes to overcome marginalization risk.

Reasons the Social Justice is Preventative

  1. Learned Helplessness: Marginalization, because it is capricious by its very nature, produces a punishing event to individuals and groups when they are its victim.  Within learned helplessness as a concept, such punishments (e.g., denial of opportunity without any rational basis) teach people to see themselves as helpless to overcome obstacles.  Learned helplessness usually produces a reduction or elimination of self-determination, robs people of motivation and undermines societal access to human resources.
  2. Generalized Anxiety: One factor within the etiology of anxiety development is a lack of any good problem-solving opportunities when people are faced with frustrated efforts to attain a goal.  Usually, motivation rests upon early learning of pleasure or satisfaction with specific activities or objects.  When that learning is thwarted because of marginalization, people develop anxiety as they experience denial of goal attainment without adequate problem-solving opportunities.  For example, a woman who is denied an opportunity because of her gender cannot create a non-woman problem-solving strategy to attain her goal.  When repeated marginalization occur, people typically develop a general anxious response to the trying to work toward a goal, leaving them avoidant of the very things that previously enriched their lives.  Hard work, for example, is no longer motivating, and efforts at success can produce anxiety/distress. 
  3. Depression: Learned helplessness can easily convert to hopelessness, and the combination of those two ways of thinking are key elements in depression.  Marginalization undermines motivation and robs people of hope, leading to an increased incidence of depression and reduction of personal efforts to find rewarding life experiences.
  4. Anger/Agitation: For those that react with escalated feelings in the face of frustration (rather than helpless reactions), marginalization can produce interpersonal sensitivity and anger.  Because implicit bias is implicit, the words or actions of those marginalization someone can be easily confused with other normal, typical behaviors.  Victims of marginalization are taught to be suspicious of these normal behaviors as well as the implicit biases through a process known as generalization of learning.  The victims become overly sensitive to the “underlying” meaning of phrases or non-verbal communication, easily cuing up an anger response in situations that are not necessarily marginalizing.  The resulting interpersonal conflicts undermine social interactions and further serve to ostracize the victim.
  5. Double Implicit Biases: When behavioral health outcomes affect victims of marginalization, the result is a doubling of implicit biases in those who marginalize.  Psychologists are well aware of confirmatory biases, or the tendency of individuals to focus on information that confirms pre-existing biases to the exclusion of other information this is disconfirming.  When victims of marginalization become depressed, avoidant, or irritated, those with implicit biases believe their prejudices are confirmed by the lack of motivation, the avoidance of situations, or the expression of irritation.  Those who marginalize double the strength of their biased implicit beliefs.
  6. Reduction of Human Resources: As the factors noted here play out, the impacts include the reduction or elimination of valuable, talented individuals from the workforce. This outcome can sometimes be the result of the victims’ withdrawal or removal from societal participation in work or the result of increased marginalization by hirers due to the ever-stronger growing biases they hold.  Sometimes those increased biases drive systematic marginalization (policies against hiring those with piercings) or implicit marginalization (individual hirer actions based on biases out of their awareness).

The prevention of behavioral health problems requires the reduction or elimination of risk factors that are associated with in development or worsening of the problems.  SJ, systematic efforts to eliminate marginalization and implicit biases, becomes a preventative tool against a cause of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and agitation.  When the personal barriers of behavior health problems can be reduced or eliminated through prevention, our society benefits from increases in talented human resources, happier social structures, and motivated citizens.