Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Should the Skeptic Community Concern itself with Mental Illness?

If you're not interested in reading today, the short answer is yes. You can also watch JT's speech, "Mental Illness and Why the Skeptic Community Should Give a Shit." It is a very powerful and moving speech, and I do suggest you watch it.

A blog was just put up in response to it. Most responses I've seen are positive, but this was criticized JT's speech. Which is fair, nothing should be immune to criticism. However, sometimes criticisms are just....bad. 

I graduated last year with a degree in Psychology. So big woop, I have a BA in Psychology. In real terms, that means close to nothing. However, as a skeptic myself, and as someone who cares deeply about the cause of mental illness, I feel the need to critique this blog. So, let's start, shall we? The author, Gina, says...

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.
 "Move on" from religion? At what point did JT say that? Approximately 4 minutes into his speech, JT starts talking about his speech from last year about how he debated Christians. He follows that with, 

"But our movement is evolving. The way we approach things is changing, and to come in here and do a talk on how to defeat a bunch of religious arguments....isn't really something we need anymore. You guys know how to beat the 'first cause' argument, you know how to beat the 'fine tuning' argument. And if you don't, there are people who do it a lot better than me."
So at what point does he say we no longer need to work on disproving religious claims? To me, it seems like he's saying we could work on more than one thing at a time? Woah, dude. Crazy concept.

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.
 When did he say that? He does talk about the importance of SSRI's. They are very important. He also talk about his therapy and going to a therapist. He talks about the need for a social support network. Almost every disease has more than one thing you need to do to treat it (many times a change of diet and exercise, plus medication). 

The reason why JT highlights the need for SSRI's (or any other kind of medication) is because mental illness is a physical disorder. Not in the sense that, "oh, my leg is broken, I can't walk," but in the sense of "There is a chemical imbalance happening in my brain that I cannot control with my thoughts." By downplaying the importance of medication in treating mental illnesses, you are making it seem like a mental illness is the fault of the person who is sick. Just the same that it's the fault of someone who has breast cancer. A person with a mental illness cannot just think it away-- that was the entire point of JT's speech, and you seem to have missed that entirely. Yes, therapy also helps. Yes, a social support network is critical. But you cannot just think away a mental disorder.

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.
So....what? Well, shame on him for speaking from experience! In that case, PZ shouldn't have talked about science education...I mean, he works with students, he's obviously too close to the issue to see it clearly. And why does he get to decide what topic to give?! I mean, it's just his speech!

 JT gave one speech. Do you expect him to cover EVERY issue in the world? We should also yell at Jen for not talking about poverty in her genetics speech, and Darrell Ray for not talking about global warming in his.

"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."

According to NIMH, the actual rate (of lifetime prevalence of mental disorders) is 26.2%.  Well, most people in the Skeptic movement also aren't professional biologists; should we stop caring about Intelligent Design in classrooms? Championing people to care about a cause, and educate themselves on it, is not a bad thing, regardless of their "qualifications." JT, at no point, said that we should stop going to mental health professionals and just pretend to be them. He stressed the importance of going to them, in fact. Caring about someone with a mental disorder and knowing the basics about mental health treatment is not getting rid of doctors. 

Also, as a former Psych student, I am greatly upset that you would misquote JT (especially when his entire speech is available online) and say confuse "mood disorders" with "mental illness." According to the DSM, there are many kinds of mental illness, including (but not limited to) mood disorders, anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders, etc. 

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?
If someone doesn't care enough about other people (1/5 of Americans) to educate themselves on mental illness and treat those people with dignity, then they are an asshole. It doesn't need to be the main focus of their attention, but if they can't take the time to realize, "huh, people with mental disorders are really sick, and they can't just cure themselves in a day," then not only are they a bad skeptic, they are also a jerk.

Gina then continues with some non sequitur about JT's blogging habits, which is really irrelevant to his speech and comes across as a personal attack, so I won't touch that.

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.
Wow. This comes across horribly. I really hope the author didn't mean it in the way it sounded, because it sounds pretty bad. Yes, JT (and myself) believe it is okay to suffer from a mental disorder. If you don't think it's okay, then you are an asshole. It's not a choice to have a mental disorder. It is a choice to believe in religious dogma. The fact that you even compared those two things is appalling to me.

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?

She follows this paragraph with "NO," which is interesting, because she doesn't seem to understand what she's saying. So...you just disproved your own bad argument? 

Mental disorders are not founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts. They're founded on biological, environmental, and psychological factors.  As someone who is a psychology student, the author of this blog should have known better than to make such a poor argument. Me having an illogical thought (e.g. "There's probably a murderer behind my shower curtain even though all my doors are locked and no one else is inside my house") is completely different from having a mental disorder.

So, in closing, yes, the Skeptic community should concern itself with mental illness.


  1. There is one fallacy that sums her her main point up: RED HERRING.

    The "what about the starving children" defense is a tired trope and needs to stop cropping up among reasonable people. Human beings are not incapable of focusing on more than one thing at the same time, and similarly, expecting every single person to focus on every single big issue in every single speech they give is patently ridiculous.

  2. I was going to eviscerate Gina's post, but I see you've already got that covered.

  3. I don't understand why anyone would worry about whether it's "okay" for skeptics to be taking on this issue. Skepticism isn't an army with a commander giving orders. It's a loose, leaderless movement, and we like it that way. Every individual skeptic is free to take on the issues that matter most to him or her, and if you don't like those issues? Focus on something else!

  4. Sarah, generally I think you and JT are absolutely right, and you did a great job of taking on Gina's post.

    However, there is one point on which I think Gina may have been on to something, although I would not take it as far as she did. That is the comparison between mental disorders and religion, and JT's significantly greater tolerance for people with the former than the latter. Gina is certainly not the first to compare religion with an illness. Richard Dawkins and Darell Ray come immediately to mind as having compared religion to a virus.

    You assert that religion is a choice, but I'm not sure that that is so. I don't perceive my atheism to be a choice. I look at the evidence and the arguments regarding the existence of god, and am only able to draw one conclusion. The evidence and arguments in a very real sense compel me to be an atheist. I did not chose it and I could not chose otherwise. Why would it be any different for religious people?

    To be clear, I am not questioning the project of refuting religious arguments, of presenting the evidence and arguments against the existence of god and trying to persuade people of the truth. I am all for that. Religious people have made errors in their reasoning, and we should try to show that to them. What I am questioning is your assertion that that error is a choice which makes a religious person morally blameworthy in a way that a person with a mental disorder is not.

  5. For a skeptic, that blogger sure seems to be willfully and woefully ignorant on this issue, completely insensitive and also willing to lie and misrepresent what JT said.