Ethical Development & Morality: Key Elements in Recovery from Mental Illness


I learned that ethical development and morality were key elements in my recovery from mental illness.

For example:

  • Knowing right from wrong: making moral choices
  • Acting in accordance with ethical decisions
    1. Strong internal locus of control: ability to carry out decisions
    2. Maintaining integrity: others can count on me to do what I say I will do
    3. Consistency in moral choices: not vacillating on a day to day basis


I learned these elements of good mental health:

  • Doing no harm to others/respecting the rights of others
  • Treating others with patience and kindness
  • Meeting situations with a sense of justice & fairness
  • Having compassion for:
    1. Those less fortunate
    2. The suffering
    3. The weak
    4. The excluded

In addition, maintaining good ethics for physical and emotional health includes:

Refraining from sexual immorality and/or promiscuity; refraining from smoking, alcohol, and substance abuse


Illustration #1

I heard on the news one morning that a man had been arrested. He had robbed a business establishment and then kidnapped a woman, taking her to a house where he beat her, sexually assaulted her, abused her. When he was apprehended by police it was reported that he told them: “I had nothing better to do.”

This example shows a lack of moral compass. The person who committed the criminal acts appears to see no difference between right and wrong. Yet, it is possible he does know the difference and chose the evil behavior freely with no concern for the consequences. Since we cannot read his mind, only an interview with the man could shed some light on his motives. But whether he would speak the truth or not would be uncertain.

This illustration also shows a lack of empathy. The arrested man lacked any concern about other people’s feelings or the suffering of others. What is empathy?

“Empathy is something we have that allows us to understand how other people feel. This is something that allows us to become more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. We will then be more likely to help those who are hurt or troubled—treating others with compassion. It is also something that generates a powerful emotion that urges us to do what is right because we can recognize how our behavior affects others, the impact of emotional pain on others, and it stops us from acting in a cruel manner.”  Excerpt from Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing by Michele Borba; copyright 2002

Illustration #2


Another segment on the morning news caught my attention. The reporter said that in a small town the city officials were planning to do renovations of an outdoor playground in a park. The reporter said that not all handicapped children could currently use the playground apparatus there, especially those who use wheel chairs. They wanted to accommodate people with various physical challenges. The segment then showed a little girl, about 9 or 10, in a wheelchair as she was trying to go over a bump to reach a platform on the playground but was unable to do it.

They then recorded her voice and she said, “I can’t play with the other children; I can’t play with everyone and no one will talk to me.” She looked very sad.

The ethical point of the story is this: What we see in this situation is a child treated as an outcast by other children because they are refusing to talk to her and include her in their social interactions. They do not give her an opportunity feel as one of the group. This shows a lack of empathy and compassion for those with special needs or challenges. Such cruelty can be curbed by grownups, i.e., parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, who will teach the children how to love others and how to be kind. Various role models can exemplify what it’s like to be a caring human being which is an example of positive ethical and moral behavior and a hallmark of good mental health.

The physical renovations will, indeed, be helpful; however, the social and emotional inclusion of friendship may still not be offered. The girl’s disposition may be kind and polite, exhibiting a warm, affectionate personality. But if the other children are not receptive and see her as “different,” or unusual because of her physical limits, and if they are not taught by grownups to be inclusive of others, the girl will not experience a welcome at the playground. This most likely will cause extreme suffering and perhaps permanent emotional scars for the rest of her life.

Good ethics and moral behavior strives to show compassion and empathy toward others no matter their differences or circumstances. It refrains from looking down on others in a cruel, judgmental way. Good ethics and morality involves helping others feel valued by upholding their intrinsic worth in our thoughts, words, and deeds—the way we treat them. People can feel if they are valued by others and it is our moral obligation to help others feel loved no matter how different they are from us.