This is not an okay way to talk about depression and suicide

Warning – I’m about to break the hive mind and disagree with a fellow blogger.

Chris Clarke has a post up at Pharyngula “On using suicide as a rhetorical strategy.” His post is in response to Hugo Schwyzer admitting that he had just spent a week at a psych ward after he committed himself. Chris refers to this as a “passive aggressive” reference to suicide, and paints Schwyzer as an attention seeking faker. Why?

“And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.

[...] But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.

Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.”

As someone who just spent months working up the courage to write what could probably be described as an overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” public blog post about my severe depression, this punched me right in the gut. Who are you to judge how people who are “actually” depressed or suicidal really act? Who are you to judge whose depression or suicidal tendencies are legitimate or fraud? Do you really think you can figure that out through the internet and with no psychological expertise?

I don’t defend Schwyzer’s previous actions. But policing the behavior of depressed people, trollish assholes or not, makes it harder for those with depression to be open about our illness. The stereotype of “depressed people as fakers” is a horrendously common one. No amount of qualifiers about how this doesn’t apply to people who are “actually” depressed helps, because you’re still perpetuating that stereotype.

It’s the reason it took me years to admit my depression to any of my friends, because I was terrified no one would take me seriously and would just think I was an attention whore. And you know why I had that fear? Because some of my “friends” did just that.

It’s the reason it took me another decade to seek professional help from a therapist, because they convinced me I was actually a faker who didn’t need help.

It’s the reason why I didn’t ever talk about my chronic depression when I first started blogging, because I was afraid Christians would use it as a weapon against me.

It’s the reason why it took me months of courage to talk about my depression now, because I feared my internet haters would scour my blog and twitter feed for any comment that could be interpreted as “happy” so they could label me a liar. If Chris had published this post a week ago, I may have never opened up about what has been happening to me out of fear that’s how people would view me. And I would never have experienced the relief I felt from releasing that pent up emotion and hearing all of your wonderful support.

I know Chris has experienced depression himself, but that doesn’t make his comments okay. Even though Schwyzer may be despicable for what he’s done, despicable people can also succumb to depression. Depression is soul sucking, and I wouldn’t wish it on even the worst of my enemies. So when someone admits they just came out of a psych ward – which is reflecting on something that already happened, not making a threat about the future – my instinct is to give them at least a little bit of empathy. Not to question their motives.

Abusers threatening self-harm as manipulation certainly happens, and it’s a serious issue. No one should have to just suck it up when they hear “if you leave me I’ll kill myself” or something similar. I hope someone with more training in that area (Miri?) will comment on how to deal with it, since I do not want to give uneducated advice about it. I want to be able to have that discussion without perpetuating stereotypes. So at the very least, can we not dictate what’s proper social media behavior for those with depression?

Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution

I’ve been waiting so long for someone to write this book.

Salon has a great interview with Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist who just wrote “Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live.” The Paleo diet? How evolution surprisingly supports 1950s gender roles? Yeah, those ideas aren’t actually supported by evolution after all – something that should come as no surprise to my readers.

It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist, as Zuk summarizes, that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”

The most persuasive argument Zuk marshals against such views has to do with the potential for relatively rapid evolution, major changes that can appear over a time as short as, or even shorter than, the 10,000 years Cordain scoffed at. [...]

There are human examples, as well, such as “lactase persistence” (the ability in adults to digest the sugar in cow’s milk), a trait possessed by about 35 percent of the world’s population — and growing, since the gene determining it is dominant. Geneticists estimate that this ability emerged anywhere from 2200 to 20,000 years ago, but since the habit of drinking cow’s milk presumably arose after cattle were domesticated around 7000 years ago, the more recent dates are the most likely. In a similar, if nondietary, example, “Blue eyes were virtually unknown as little as 6000 to 10,000 years ago,” while now they are quite common. A lot can change in 10,000 years.

Read the whole piece, as it’s a great summary of why these sort of standard evolutionary psychology arguments are so flawed.

Now, I do think evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential. Obviously the brain evolves like any other organ, which has fascinating effects on behavior. But the field is in its infancy, and is currently propped up on arm chair speculation and frequently unfalsifiable claims (claims that are impossible to prove wrong).

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology.

Like I said, evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential because the brain evolves. But I think we need to establish a much larger base of information before we can even remotely accurately interpret data. We need to understand the staggering complexity of the brain and the genomic contribution to that complexity before we can really start investigating what’s going on, and even then it will not be as simple as thinking “What would cavemen do?”

Guest Post: Skeptical dog training

The following is a guest post by Julie Lada, a veterinary student and skeptic who blogs at My DVM Vacation.

Dog training is a hot button issue right now. Dozens of TV, magazine and book personalities are dying to tell you the best way to get your dog to stop jumping up on your guests or going through your trash. In some ways, that is a great thing. Traditionally, dog training consisted of a rolled up newspaper. Getting the issue of dog behavior and training into the public awareness is a huge step for behaviorists and people who are passionate about pet welfare. However, as usual, anytime a topic becomes popular and a profit can be made off of claiming to be an expert, you get bad ideas and bad information being promoted just as heavily as the good. Television shows in particular focus on which host is the most charismatic rather than the most knowledgeable or accurate.

Part of the challenge for me personally, being a vet student and passionate animal behavior geek as well as a skeptic, is the pervasiveness of bad ideas in my field of study. From acupuncture and homeopathy being commonly accepted practices within veterinary medicine to witnessing a colleague perform an “alpha roll” right in front of me, it’s a daily struggle to balance my desire to address these issues with the need to still maintain good relationships and not become known as the token naysayer.

Dog training is one of those topics that must be handled with a delicate touch. A method isn’t purely a method anymore when you’re talking about its application toward an animal that a person feels a strong emotional connection with. The method becomes the person employing it, and its effectiveness becomes intrinsically tied to their value as a pet owner. Like it or not, as any trainer or behaviorist will tell you, the moment you say something like, “Dominance-based training is not as effective as we previously thought and can actually have detrimental effects on an animal” it becomes translated by the person you’re talking to as, “You’re a bad owner and you abuse your dog.”

The problem with any topic in medicine is that bad arguments can be made to sound very persuasive and convincing by using the lingo. The argument behind dominance-based training methods is an excellent example of this (BARF diets are another good example). Advocates such as Cesar Millan point to wolf pack hierarchy models as an example of “natural” applications of dominance-based behavioral conditioning. They tell dog owners to be their dog’s “alpha” by using techniques employed by wolves such as throat holds and alpha rolls. They also attempt to shame owners by telling them that disobedience is a form of dominance which proves that their dog doesn’t respect their status as “pack leader.” The appeal to nature fallacy is something we skeptics are well aware of but it is unfortunately remarkably persuasive with the general public.

A huge, glaring problem with the dominance hierarchy argument is that it makes the assumption that behavior models which we have obtained based on the study of captive wolf packs are reflective of natural behavior in the wild. This is patently false. Firstly, the dominance-based hierarchy suggested by Millan only occurs in captive wolf packs. Wolf packs in the wild consist of genetically related members with the breeding pair being the “alphas.” The frequent displays of aggression and dominance seen in captivity do not occur in a natural setting. Secondly, feral dog “packs” – the aggregates formed by stray dogs – do not display this hierarchy model, so even if it were true of wolves in the wild this model does not appear applicable for domestic canines. (Mech, 1999; Taylor & Francis, 2004)

And then there’s the problem with the word “dominance” itself. Common usage would lead most people to believe that dominance is a personality trait; something a dog just is. A common thing we hear from our clients is, “She’s just so dominant!” Or claim that their dog is trying to be dominant over them. Dominance has a very specific meaning within the context of animal behavior and it isn’t something an animal just is. This is a common misunderstanding and something I’ve even seen my colleagues use. Dr. Sophia Yin, a DVM with a Master’s in animal behavior and a widely renowned expert in dog behavior does a pretty good job of summing it up here. She has written extensively on the topics of dominance, aggression and training and I highly encourage anyone with a dog to spend several hours reading her articles. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior reinforces Dr. Yin’s position with their official statement on dominance theory:

“Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)… In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead.”

But beyond the implausibility of the theory behind the use of dominance and physically aversive stimuli in dog training, as well as the misuse of the term “dominance”, there is the added factor that it just doesn’t have a wide range of practical use. Meaning in the majority of cases, it doesn’t work. Several recent studies have confirmed that dominance/positive punishment training methods have a number of negative effects on dogs (including physical injury and death in cases of choke chains and prong collars being used incorrectly) and can actually impair learning ability. These methods also cause fear and escalate aggression in terms of frequency, magnitude and situational aggression – meaning a dog that wasn’t previously aggressive becomes aggressive, or a conditionally aggressive dog begins to display aggression in situations where it previously did not (Husson et al, 2009; Hiby et al, 2004; AVSAB, 2008). This is particularly worrisome for vets and shelter workers. An owner employing dominance-based techniques toward their dog who is aggressive toward other dogs can actually cause that dog to not only be more aggressive toward other dogs, due to the added negative association with pain and fear, but also cause the dog to redirect its aggression toward its owner. In which case the problem goes from being something that could possibly be solved via proper training to what is a probable euthanasia case.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as clicker training are gaining in momentum, and it’s got behaviorists cheering in the streets (or rather, their offices). These techniques avoid the negative associations with pain and fear seen with dominance-based techniques and thus the ramping-up effect on aggression.

Finally, I know that this is a contentious topic and no doubt the comments will be full of anecdotes from those who have used Cesar Millan’s or other dominance-based techniques successfully. A few words on that.

First of all, there are always outliers. I saw something recently that I quite liked and determined to borrow that said that between 80-90% of smokers will develop lung cancer, which means that 10-20 out of every 100 smokers will not develop lung cancer. So you will often hear claims such as, “My father smoked two packs a day for forty years and died in his sleep at 85 years old!” And while true, it does not disprove the fact that overall smoking is highly associated with lung cancer.

Also consider that the effect of fear on the cessation of all forms of behavior is fairly well documented. Simply put, a fearful animal will stop doing anything, including what you wanted them to stop doing. A dog that is fearful of inviting a painful stimulus can appear to an owner to be “cured” of the unwanted behavior. In fact, the underlying issue of why this dog was exhibiting the unwanted behavior is still unaddressed. A dog that is fear aggressive toward strangers, for example, is still terrified of strangers but simply stops reacting. Don’t confuse this with being a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog. An animal that has stopping displaying observable fear signals is still fearful, and the use of punishment can contribute to a more unpredictable animal that will give no warning before attacking (AVSAB, 2007)

Just to sum things up on a personal note… A couple of years ago while in undergrad, I was finishing up a meeting with my animal behavior professor and Millan’s name came up. He told me, “You know, every conference I go to, at some point we behavior types get together for drinks and he always comes up. We take turns bashing him over martinis.” So the next time you’re tempted to watch his show or buy one of his books, do so knowing that Millan is the Ray Comfort of the canine behavior world. And dominance theory is the Crocoduck.

Would religion help my psychological issues?

From the mailbag:

Do you think your current psychological problems would be less severe or even non-existant if you could rely on a faith? (= + faith community?) Sorry if too provocative.

Honestly, no. I’ve dealt with these issues since I was little. It’s overlapped my naive atheism, my desperate attempt at deism, my agnosticism, and my well informed atheism. And you know at what point I was most miserable? When I was desperately trying to force myself to believe in a God that I knew didn’t exist.

Knowing that I was the only one who could make things better, not some mythical being? That was empowering. It’s not perfect and doesn’t replace counseling, but it certainly helped.

This is post 41 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Picking on myself

I couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was checking out UW’s mental health clinic, mainly because I wanted to facepalm at the Traditional Chinese Medicine/acupuncturist screener. I wanted to explain why I was going, for two main reasons:

  1. I don’t want people to worry about me, especially since it’s not that bad. I know I concerned a lot of people, including some who emailed me personally, so I wanted to let them know I was okay.
  2. Mental health has a lot of stigma attached to it because people are so embarrassed to admit anything is wrong. And frankly, it’s silly. We don’t tease or shame people for having bronchitis or cystic fibrosis or other physical ailments. And hell, mental health is still physical – the brain is an organ, not some disembodied spiritual puppet master. If we don’t mock people for being deficient in insulin, we shouldn’t mock them for being deficient in serotonin.

I was especially motivated by JT Eberhard’s bravery in so openly discussing his struggles with anorexia on his blog. So I want to do my part in breaking down that stigma, and talk about why I was going.

I don’t pick on myself. I pick at myself.

Dermatillomania, Compulsive Skin Picking, BFRB (Body-focused Repetitive Behavior). There are a lot of names for it, mainly because it’s only recently being recognized, and no one knows quite how to categorize it. It’s part of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Spectrum along with classical OCD, anorexia, body dysmorphic disorder, hypochondria, and Tourette’s. It’s very closely related to the more well known trichotillomania, which is compulsive hair pulling. But instead of plucking hairs, I peel at the skin on my fingertips and lips.

It was weird when I finally realized there was a term for what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid. But it was even weirder when I read the description of the disorder. It was like a stranger has been secretly spying on me when I read this article:

What I am referring to is not the kind of little bits of rough nail or cuticle that everyone picks at or bites from time to time, nor is it the occasional blemish that people might squeeze or pick. These nail-biters continually bite their nails past the nail bed and their cuticles until they bleed and are constantly walking around with red, sore, and sometimes infected fingers. Those who pick their skin compulsively have their faces and bodies covered, at times, with red sores and scabs known as acne excoria, a self-inflicted skin disorder that resembles acne. The smallest pimple or blemish must be opened and picked at or squeezed, either with the fingers or another implement such as tweezers, needles, pins, toothpicks, etc. Numerous scars are often the result.

It’s funny. These particular examples sound gross and extreme to me because they’re not my particular tick. But what’s become normal for me is probably bizarre to all of you. I pick at the skin on the pads of my thumbs and fingers, and at my lips. It starts with a bit of dead skin that many people would pick off. But my problem is I can’t stop. You know how little kids like to put glue on their hands, let it dry, and then peel it all off? It’s the same fun – except I’m pulling off skin that’s not ready to come off.

Sometimes I go too deep, or go too far, and I’ll bleed. The result is bright red, scarred thumbs that look miserable and hurt to bend, or bruised and chapped lips that I perpetually blame on the weather. It’s clear that it’s a compulsion. You’d think the first time I made myself bleed I’d stop, right? But I’ve done it probably hundreds of times, and most of the time I can’t even stop while I’m bleeding – the job has to be “finished” until everything that can be removed is.

Why? The article gets it right again:

Another similarity between these problems and trichotillomania is that they seem to happen when people are in one of two modes. Some do it in an automatic way, as if they are in a trance and not really thinking about what they are doing. Usually, they are involved in some other activity at the same time such as reading, talking on the phone, working at the computer, watching TV, etc. For others, the deliberate picking or biting is their main activity at the time, and they will frequently interrupt other activities to engage in it.

There is also a strong commonality seen in the various purposes behind these three problems. At the most basic level, they satisfy an urge. Many report an almost uncontrollable feeling of needing to do them. Pulling, picking or biting also seem to deliver a pleasurable or relaxed sensation. When sufferers feel stressed, doing these things has a kind of soothing effect on their nervous systems, and reduces levels of stimulation. On the other hand, when they are bored or inactive, they seems to provide a needed level of stimulation to the nervous system. This probably accounts for why so many people who dislike doing them find it so hard to stop. It simply “feels good” at the time, no matter what the consequences.

If I’m stressed, I pick. If I’m bored, I pick. Sometimes I don’t even realize I was doing it until the damage is done. And worse, sometimes I realize I’m doing it, and my mind is screaming “Just stop!” and I can’t.

And as time goes by, it gets worse. Not in intensity, but in scope. The more I peel, the more the skin around the edge gets weak – so I then have more stuff to peel in the future. Which means what used to be a little pink spot near my thumbnail has crawled almost to the base of my thumb.

So that’s why I went to get help. I want to stop before my whole hand is a scarred mess, or before I take a chunk out of my lips that won’t grow back. I wanted to stop feeling ashamed when people asked what was wrong with my thumb (A paper cut? A blister? A skin disorder? Who was I kidding?). I wanted to stop freaking out about someone noticing it in a photo or when I shook their hand.

But I couldn’t do it with willpower alone. And I couldn’t do it with friends yelling at me to stop – that just made me feel even more terrible, which ironically would make me pick more. Though I did find a trick to stop picking at my nails – I cut them very short. Forgetting to bring nail clippers on a speaking trip is a tragedy for me.

But an unexpected upside to all of this? I get to geek out about the science behind it.

I know, always the nerd. But it’s intriguing. There’s a good sign this is genetic, which is also true in my family. And the hypotheses behind it are interesting:

Some have theorized that there may be that the same out-of-control grooming mechanism in the brain underlies them all. My own theory is that there may be some type of dysfunction of a brain mechanism that regulates levels of stimulation within the central nervous system, and that these behaviors represent an attempt to control these internal stimulation levels externally. People seem to pull, pick, or bite when they are either overstimulated (due to stress or excitement) or understimulated (due to boredom or inactivity). Many similar behaviors can be observed in animals who are kept in confined or unstimulating environments, or who live in stressful conditions.

The latter theory is supported by the fact that anti-depressants often successfully treat dermatillomania, though little research has been done on it yet. But if anyone ever wants a genetic sample, they know were to find me.

So, that’s that. I’ve always been wary of putting something out there that people can use as ammunition to show how crazy I am (or atheists are, or feminists are, or evolutionists are, or…). But it’s worth putting it out there to make all the other “crazy” people realize they’re not alone.

And come on. If someone wanted to call me crazy, they already have plenty of wacky things I’ve said or done.

I get weird emails from Sigmund Freud

At least, that’s what it seems like. From formspring.me:

Is it possible for me to measure the testosterone level in your blood?

Uh, it is indeed possible. Now, is it probable that I’ll let some random person collect blood samples from me? Not exactly.

Would you allow us to compare your testosterone level in your blood with other women periodically? I’d like to find out how much testosterone explains the affinity to math and science.

Maybe if you were an actual laboratory doing a study for a university.

Would you admit that you have Electra Complex?

No, because Freudian analysis is bullshit.

Can I talk to your subconscious? I’d like to talk about sexual symbols in one of your paintings in the Deviantart.

I’m intrigued, but my subconscious is currently too weirded out to agree, sorry.

Can I talk to your subconscious about your semi-hidden forbidden desire for Snape-like people (cold, calculating, precise, sarcastic, and bitter) in your life?

My subconscious is amused that you think its desire for Snape is semi-hidden. And that it actually translates to the type of people I hang out with or date.

Hmm, I think I rather have questions from the dude with a bear romance problems

Myers-Briggs tests

From formspring.me: Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs? What do you think about it?

I have taken the Myers-Briggs – an “official” version too, not just some random version on the internet. As a freshman at Purdue I was selected as part of President Jischke’s Leadership class, a weekly meeting of 30 students from the incoming freshman class who were apparently being primed to be the leaders of the future. Little did they know they were grooming an atheist leader, mwahaha.

Ahem.

But one of the first things we did in the class was take the Myers-Briggs, and then have someone come explain what everything meant and how we could learn to work together better from that. I consistently come out as an INTJ – Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment. I think the whole description fits me to a T, but I won’t bore you with what you can read on Wikipedia. But just to illustrate my point:

INTJs are analytical. Like INTPs, they are most comfortable working alone and tend to be less sociable than other types. Nevertheless, INTJs are prepared to lead if no one else seems up to the task, or if they see a major weakness in the current leadership. They tend to be pragmatic, logical, and creative. They have a low tolerance for spin or rampant emotionalism. They are not generally susceptible to catchphrases and do not recognize authority based on tradition, rank, or title.

I was going to bold everything that blatantly applied to me, but then I realized I would be bolding the whole quote. Of course, maybe I just like being called a “Mastermind” and being one of the rarest personality types.

While it seems fun, there has been a lot of criticism about the validity and scientific nature of the test. It’s likely it’s relying on the Forer effect, where “individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.” This is the same reason why astrology seems so convincing.

But this isn’t my area of expertise – is anyone out the more knowledgeable about the Myers-Briggs test?

Poppycock or not, what result do you get? There’s a decent test here if you want to find out. Do you think it describes you well, or do all the descriptions fit you in some way? I wonder if atheists and skeptics would be more likely to fit in certain categories. Maybe INTJ isn’t that rare amongst skeptics.

This is post 5 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.