Helplessness is a feeling of being unable to look after yourself or to do anything to help yourself. It is a common symptom in depressed patients. Though most people believe that depression is usually induced by some kind of stress, there are few people who naively believe that stress is bound to result in depression. Normal people react and try to resolve stressors. When people find the stressor is unconquerable, they try to escape from it. When they cannot escape from it, adaptable people try to neglect it, and smart people try to accept it. However, some kinds of stressors, like pain and electric shocks, are not easy to be neglect or accept. For instance, if I am scolded by a man without adequate reason, I may get angry and argue back. If the man keeps on scolding day in day out, I won’t keep up my anger, I won’t escape, either. What I would do is simply think that he is insane. It’s unnecessary to get angry at a person who is mentally ill and unreasonable. However, if a mentally ill person tries to beat me I will escape as soon as possible, since pain cannot be resolved by a psychological thinking. If I cannot escape I will fight back. If I always lose in the fight I may become frightened and helpless.
     All animals escape from pain and electrical shocks. As soon as a mouse is shocked on its feet it jumps, squeaks and rushes away. If a mouse can successfully escape from most shocks, it will never give up escaping even if it has suffered from hundreds or thousands of unpredictable shocks. What do you think a mouse would become like if it never got a chance to escape from repeated shocks? How many shocks are required to make a mouse stop jumping, squeaking and trying to escape? How long will a mouse ‘learn’ that escape is impossible? When a mouse has ‘learned’ that it is useless to try to escape, we say it has ‘learned’ helplessness. We use the ‘escape test’ to examine if a mouse has learned helplessness. The equipment for the escape test is a rectangular box consisting of a hurdle in the midway and a chargeable steel grid on the floor. When a normal mouse is shocked in the escape box, it will rush over the hurdle to the opposite space where the grid floor is free of electricity. When a mouse with learned helplessness is shocked in the escape box, it tends to remain on the same space, trembling and withdrawing. The test will be repeated for 20 times. A mouse failing to escape for more than 10 times is labeled as helpless; a mouse succeeding for more than 10 times in the test is labeled as non-helpless.
Hong CJ