Why the Skeptic Community Should Not Approach Mental Illness
November 29, 2011
This past weekend, I had the good fortune to attend Skepticon in Springfield, Missouri. On the last day of the conference, JT Eberhard gave the very last speech of the conference. His speech was titled “Why the Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself with Mental Illness.” Just from the title alone, I knew I would have some sort of emotional reaction to the speech. (The talk can be viewed here.)
Throughout the speech, JT talked about his own struggles with anorexia and depression. Within the first two minutes of his speech, I was crying. I cried pretty much throughout the entire speech, not because I was necessarily in agreement with his hopes for the skeptic community to take on this issue, but because I knew exactly what he was talking about. I know what it’s like to live day by day for years with a mood disorder coupled with an eating disorder. By the time I was 21, I had been hospitalized three times for bulimia. I had taken antidepressants since the age of 15. I had received ECT (electroshock). I had overdosed on Tylenol at the age of 17. Although I am now older and no longer engage in binging or purging behaviors, I struggle with depression and food issues on pretty much a daily basis. It doesn’t go away.
I say all of this to let you know that I know what I’m talking about regarding this subject. I’m not some ignorant fool who has no sympathy for people with mood disorders. I know what this is like. As a result of all that I have gone through and overcome, I am now working towards earning my undergraduate degree in psychology with the hopes of going to graduate school and becoming a clinical psychologist.
The overall theme I gathered from Eberhard’s speech was that the atheist/skeptic community needs to move on from disproving religious claims and instead needs to help teach to the world that mental illness is not something to dismiss or take lightly. This statement quite shocked me because JT is one of the most die-hard people I know when it comes to disproving religion and holding people accountable for their beliefs in a deity. To me, he seems to hold no sympathy for believers. So the fact that he would all of a sudden claim that we should move on from the issue of religion was rather startling.
JT talked a lot about the importance of prescription drugs, specifically SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), when it comes to the treatment of mood disorders. He talked a lot about the importance of the role of friends and family members of people struggling with mood disorders.
SSRI’s, friends, and family. What issue could I possibly have with his speech?
I have quite a few issues with both the speech and the speaker.
First, I’ll take on his claim that medication is THE treatment for people with mood disorders. I’m the first to admit that I take SSRI’s as part of my treatment for depression. However, I disagree with JT’s statements that seem to say that SSRI’s are all that are needed for treatment. He said nothing about the importance of therapy. Issues like these are not easily fixed with medication. It takes the combination of drugs and therapy in order to even begin to combat this stuff. And even if you do start to take medication for the treatment of mood disorders, if you’re not ready to be happy, the medications may do little to improve your mood. When I had ECT (electroshock) done 10 years ago, I wasn’t ready to be happy. I wasn’t ready to feel good. So although the ECT did have a positive effect after several rounds of treatment, I counteracted the positive aspects by staying in my funk of sadness. After so many years of being sad, I didn’t know how to be happy. I had forgotten what it was like. I was basically addicted to my sadness.
Prescription drugs are NOT a cure-all for mood disorders. They play a very important role in the treatment of mood disorders, but they only represent a part of an overall treatment program.
JT talked vehemently about his belief that the skeptic movement MUST take on this issue of mental illness not being something that’s “all in the head” of those who suffer from mood disorders. What issue could I possibly have with this?
I have a lot of issues with the claim that the skeptic community needs to take on this issue.
One issue I have with this whole thing is the fact that he specifically chose the issue of mental illness. I believe that he chose this because he himself suffers from a mood disorder; it’s what’s on his mind. Maybe he has been shunned in the past by people who didn’t understand that a mood disorder can’t be fixed by simply willing it to be so. I don’t think it’s okay just to pick a topic simply because you believe it should be focused on. What about other issues? What about focusing on uncovering social issues in undeveloped countries? What about focusing on other medical illnesses? I don’t think it’s okay to take on the issue of mental illness simply because someone fairly well-known in the skeptic community believes that the issue should be taken on.
You see, these issues are not easily dealt with. How can a community of non-professional laypeople (at least when it comes to the field of clinical psychology) take on this issue when they’re not even trained in it?? Professionals don’t go through years of schooling and training for nothing. Mood disorders are multi-faceted; they are composed of many different components. They can’t be fixed just by taking a pill. They cannot be fixed just through the support of family and friends. I don’t think it’s okay for people who are not trained in the treatment of mood disorders to take on this issue just because 25% of the US population (according to JT) suffers from a mood disorder.
I strongly disagree with JT telling the audience that they MUST be there for their family and friends who are suffering from mental illness. You can’t make anyone take on anything. What if they don’t want to take on this issue? Just as some skeptics choose to focus on religion while other skeptics choose to focus on alternative medicine or other forms of skepticism, people have the right to decide whether or not to focus on a specific issue. Someone who is forced to do something against their will or desire may actually cause more harm than good.
What about the fact that some people don’t want help? Sometimes no amount of intervention or pleading and begging can “fix” someone suffering from mental illness. I remember back in high school when some friends of mine chose to try to help me through my struggles with depression and bulimia. I didn’t want their help. An eating disorder is usually a VERY private thing. It’s not something you generally talk about freely with people. Unless they’re a minor, I don’t think that it’s okay for family and friends to try to force someone to get help. If they’re not ready for that help, begging, pleading, and ultimatums are not going to help them until they are actually ready to receive treatment. While I do accept that it is a VERY good thing to interrupt someone about to attempt suicide or take them to the hospital after they’ve overdosed on something (that’s what my parents did for me back when I was 17), I don’t think you should try to treat them or force them to talk about it.
Another issue I have with this whole thing is the fact that JT actively blogs about his struggles with excessive amounts of exercise and fears of gaining weight. I do think it’s okay to blog about one’s struggles; however, I do not think it’s okay to use the online community as a way to also further your struggles and support your unhealthy habits. JT regularly posts his workouts, his weight, the amount of calories he has to consume, etc. He claims that talking about this stuff helps him in his recovery; could it in fact be that receiving comments about these things actually helps to perpetuate his disorder? People who suffer from eating disorders sometimes love to engage in telling each other battle stories. Basically, people duke it out to see whose story is worse. How many times have you been in treatment? What was your lowest weight? Also, some things are considered triggers for people in recovery. Numbers and specific types of foods and behaviors are NOT good to talk about when you’re dealing with people in recovery from an eating disorder.
I can easily see certain issues arising if the skeptic community takes on the issue of mood disorders (and eating disorders for that matter). What started out as an attempt to help people can turn into a place where people can actually get support that perpetuates their disorder.
Another issue I have is the fact that JT readily believes that it’s okay for people to suffer from mental illness, while it is not okay for people to believe in and follow a religion. He claims that people should be able to see the facts and the evidence (or lack thereof) and immediately accept the fact that there is probably no God. Why? Because religion does bad things to people.
Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts? Why not apply the same type of logic to this claim? Just present enough evidence to someone that their thoughts do not accurately represent actual reality, and they should immediately accept the fact that they are a good person and should be happy. Mental illness does bad things to the people suffering from them. Seems fair to expect people suffering mental illness to just disprove its validity, right?
NO. I find it to be extremely hypocritical for JT to allow people to suffer from mental illness while at the same time having little to no empathy for believers who do not readily accept our claims of why God does not exist.
Mental illnesses are extremely complex. They are not like other skeptic issues (such as UFO’s or ghosts) where someone can just go and learn about the claim and be able to accurately de-bunk it. They are not easily fixed through medication. They can take years to get through, and even then, they’re still there in the background.
These are the reasons that I DO NOT think the skeptic community should take on the issue of mental illness.
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About the Author: Gina Colaianni
Gina Colaianni is a senior psychology undergraduate student at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. When she isn't pondering the existential crises taking place in the world today, she can be found reading, attending secular and skeptic meetups, or working towards her goal of attending graduate school through the process of blogging about her personal failures, successes, and shortcomings.
#1 Brian Lynchehaun (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 8:55am
It seems to me that you have grossly misunderstood JT's presentation.
JT's argument was that we should equally apply skepticism to people claiming that people with mental health issues are 'bad' or 'wrong'. JT explicitly denied your claim that "Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts?": mental disorders typically have a basis in the physical disorder of the brain, and are not merely a set of beliefs that someone has.
In so far as religious belief may be a mental disorder, then people with a religious belief should be treated as you would people with a mental disorder.
In so far as religious belief differs from a mental disorder, then people with a religious belief should be treated differently from those with a mental disorder.
This seemed to be a relatively straightforward point that he was making, and I'm somewhat surprised and disappointed to see it both misunderstood and misrepresented on the CFI website.
#2 Dren Asselmeier on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 9:30am
Thanks for your thoughts. This blog is meant to be a place for students to talk about important issues and share information and perspectives. This is Gina's perspective on the talk that JT gave and not meant to be a misrepresentation, but an opinion. Nothing written by the students here is meant to be an official stance of CFI, so I would hope that you would not be disappointed in our attempt to open up discussion, though you disagree with Gina's ideas.
#3 Jason Balicki (Guest) on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 9:49am
I don't think Gina saw the same talk I did. Not once did JT say that medication was better than therapy or that we should abandon other issues to focus solely on mental illness. Basically, this is a poorly thought out strawman.
#4 emilyhasbooks on Tuesday November 29, 2011 at 9:51am
I think you missed JT's point. He asks that we in the Skeptic community continue to lay into the other issues, and that we also address the attack on medical treatment for mental disorders while being a friend & advocate to those suffering from such issues and reducing the stigma of mental illness.
#5 Franklin (Guest) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 at 8:00am
Thanks for the article Gina, I really enjoyed your viewpoints, even though, as some others said, I think that you may be incorrect on what the overall message of the presentation was.
But it's unfortunate that many of the commenters fail to look past this and realize that many valid points are brought up. For example, is it fair for JT (and others) to so readily criticize (and ridicule!) religious delusions when he's asking us to empathize and try to understand his own? It's a topic that has a lot of merit.
I also really appreciated having an alternative viewpoint from someone that also has a history with mental disorders, it's very brave of you. And sharing your experiences has been very useful, such as when you clarify that medication (almost) always isn't enough for treatment. Mental illness is a very general topic, and hearing only one person's experience can by no means be representative. So thanks for sharing! I really appreciated the additional insight.
#6 Terry Gherin (Guest) on Thursday December 01, 2011 at 9:33pm
And the JTsuits rush to chastise you for contradicting their Lord and Master. It makes me laugh. People agreeing with what their "fearless leader" has to say, but disagreeing on just exactly how he said it. Reminds of something, I just can't quite place it.
#7 guest (Guest) on Friday December 02, 2011 at 7:10am
"NO. I find it to be extremely hypocritical for JT to allow people to suffer from mental illness while at the same time having little to no empathy for believers who do not readily accept our claims of why God does not exist."
wait what? Did you just equate religion with mental illness or are you implying mental illness still lets you see reality and you just have to "get over it"?
Also, most adults can discuss more than one topic, I am sure the skeptic community can disagree with religion, the treatment of mental illness AND social issues. Enough people out there to get engaged.
#8 Thrulnauk (Guest) on Friday December 02, 2011 at 1:49pm
#9 D4M10N (Guest) on Friday December 02, 2011 at 2:39pm
I appreciate that you are taking a skeptical approach to JT's speech. I think it is healthy for skeptics to be openly skeptical of each another.
That said, I am very skeptical of your conclusion that skeptics should not be involved in debunking the bunk we might find within this particualr field of study. Surely there is some pseudoscience and quackery to be had within the mental health industry, just as there is in any other aspect of the massively profitable health care sector.
If, for example, homeopaths and chiropractors and astrologers claimed they could magically alleviate depression, that would undoubtedly fall under the purview of mainstream skepticism, right?
#10 CC (Guest) on Friday December 02, 2011 at 3:23pm
On the whole, I think this blog post is rather poorly thought out.
However, as someone who used to suffer from an eating disorder, I agree that JT should probably step back from posting stats on his workouts, calorie intake, weight, etc. It's triggering for other people with ED's.
#11 Jessie (Guest) on Friday December 02, 2011 at 5:08pm
Franklin, I'm afraid that you have it all wrong. JT is not asking us to empathize with his "delusions." He's asking us to empathize with HIM, and others who suffer from mental illness, because most of us will never understand what it feels like to have a mental illness. He knows quite well that his delusions are not founded in reality and he is working hard to get healthy.
If he wanted us to empathize with his DELUSIONS, he would have stood up there and said somethinng like, "Giving up food and losing a lot of weight is great, you should all try it sometime!" Or, at least, "I know that all of you enjoy eating, but I do not. I personally find that not eating brings me inner peace, and I expect all of you to respect that belief."
#12 phil zombi on Friday December 02, 2011 at 5:58pm
"JT talked a lot about the importance of prescription drugs, specifically SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), when it comes to the treatment of mood disorders."
While JT did not specifically mention therapy as a means of coping with mental illness I am inclined to belief that was an oversight rather than deliberate exclusion. I could be wrong about that. But the topic obviously has personal meaning for JT that might make it a bit harder to maintain a sense of intellectual detachment.
"I strongly disagree with JT telling the audience that they MUST be there for their family and friends who are suffering from mental illness. You can’t make anyone take on anything."
I think that you make a good point here. It has taken me a long time to realize that you can't save people from themselves. That having been said, I think that you are conflating being there for someone with intervention-esque behavior ( i.e. "get in the car we're going to get you sorted out). We need to support the people in our lives that suffer from mental illness. The specifics of that support will vary from person to person. If a friend is ready to seek treatment then help them with that. If not then the best you can do might just be picking up the pieces after they fall apart.
Ultimately, I think that this issue should be important to skeptics not because we are all trained mental health professionals, but because the stigma of mental illness contributes to a great deal of suffering that could be alleviated if more people sought out treatment. We can't all know the best ways to treat the disorders that plague our minds but we can remind people that having an illness that affects your brain is like having a an illness that affects your lungs. It doesn't take a P.H.D. to recognize that.
In closing (sorry about the lengthy comment), I am glad that you found the help that you needed. While I disagree with the main thrust of this piece, I think that have valid concerns about how the skeptical community might approach this topic. Thank you for writing.
#13 Bytor on Monday December 05, 2011 at 11:45am
Terry@#6: Actually, I was thinking how politely and reasonably the commenters have voiced their disagreement with Gina on what JT said. Assuming I;m catching properly what you intend to imply, it seems to me that you're the only example of it in here.
#14 Ben Fenton (Guest) on Tuesday December 06, 2011 at 4:25am
The last thing the skeptic movement needs is to start stigmatizing and attacking those who are mentally ill or want to address mental illness. It's too bad you spent this post misrepresenting the content of JT's speech, too.
You've said it, loud and clear: people with mental disorders should stay away from the skeptic movement, as the issues that affect them within the community are not a burden upon them, but upon us. At least, that's what you say. The rest of us will not abandon and marginalize those with mental differences.
#15 Terry Gherin (Guest) on Monday February 06, 2012 at 4:51pm
I'm highly amused that none of the JT-suits seemed even remotely interested in mental illness until His Holiness rose it high over his head and proclaimed it His flock's a newest cause. (wanna make sure to capitalize as not to offend the sheep.)
Sorry, but I've seen these people firsthand and they are nothing but mindless, sycophantic drones. I believe JT has the noblest of intentions, but no...just, no. If he tells them to go out and start taking dumps in church parking lots they will blindly obey.