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Ethics and Mental Health

hackerWith a new corruption scandal every day, it got me thinking about the relationship between ethics and mental health.  As in: Are ethical people healthier? Are they happier?  Could blurring moral lines be contributing to poor mental health?Most people would agree, in the abstract, that honesty is important.  In theory, we should treat others as we want them to treat us.  But in practice, many find themselves doing otherwise.

It can be surprisingly easy to rationalize bad behavior.  We can say, “Well, they deserved it.”  Or, “It was just the one time.”  Perhaps, “Other people are doing far worse and profiting from it.”

There are all kinds of stories we can tell ourselves to justify unethical behavior.  But deep down,  I believe that we know better.  On an emotional level–which is where a lot of our self-esteem originates–we know the truth.  And if we behave in indecent ways, we will come to feel that we are less than we should be, and we’ll be forever playing catch up.

In some cases, that will mean that we commit more unethical acts because we feel that’s the only way we can succeed.  It’s hard to imagine ever authentically feeling good about yourself if you think your only path to get ahead involves running over others.

And if you’ve ever told a significant lie, you know that it tends to beget more lying.  You have to keep track of your story, and you might lie to avoid getting caught.  It’s incredibly stressful, which can increase anxiety and depression.

That’s not to mention the toll that it  takes on other people’s mental health.  It’s quite demeaning to be lied to, or to have a promotion go to someone else who was willing to play a dirty game.

Everyone takes an unethical shortcut now and again.  But if you find that you’re habitually engaging in lying, cheating, stealing, etc., then it’s time to take a long look at whether it’s really getting you ahead, or further behind.  Once you recognize the pattern, here are some ideas of what you can do.

You know the old saying: It’s not the act, it’s the cover-up.  So when possible, come clean, and stay clean.

Recognize that you can be better than your recent actions.  Be creative, and find other ways to accomplish your goals.

Realize that you’re devaluing everyone around you, as well as yourself.  Place a higher premium on your life, and on theirs.

If you’re in a situation where you feel the only choice you have is to do wrong, again and again, then figure out how to change your situation.  Get a new job, or new friends.

Stop making excuses.

Hacker image available from Shutterstock.

Ethics and Mental Health

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). Ethics and Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jan 2014
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