What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness


[Content note: mental illness, suicide, abuse]

Some atheists love to compare religion to mental illness, or directly call it one. I won’t link to examples; it’s pervasive and has probably happened on this network.

While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.

This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.

Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.

“Nobody in their right mind would ever choose to observe a religion.”

Calling religious people mentally ill suggests that they do what they do because they’re “crazy.” I get that religious beliefs and rituals may seem bizarre to atheists who have never had any desire to hold those beliefs or perform those rituals. Sometimes when I’m at religious Jewish functions I sort of look around myself and feel like a bit of an alien. This is so weird, I think. Why would anyone do this?

A major component of mental illness is that it is maladaptive. People with OCD sometimes can’t function because they can’t stop performing their rituals or thinking about their obsessions. People with depression sometimes can’t get out of bed, shower, talk to people, go to work for weeks or months at a time. People with schizophrenia sometimes lose all sense of the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Religion can be maladaptive when taken to extremes, but that’s a problem with the manifestation, not with the core component: believing in a god. In and of itself, believing in a god can actually be very adaptive. When people feel like they have no control over the universe, when they lose someone they love, when a grave injustice happens, it can be comforting to believe that there’s someone up there pulling the strings. It’s not comforting to me, personally, but to many people it is. That doesn’t make their beliefs accurate, but it does make them understandable. You don’t have to be “crazy” to want to believe in a religion.

“Your religious friends may seem happy and well-adjusted, but they’re actually sick just like you are.”

We often hear about people who are restricted, cut off, or even abused by their religion. These cases are tragic and deserve every bit of the attention that they get. But what about all the people living happily with religion?

Atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness seem to be saying that these people are just kidding themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but that happiness can’t be real because it’s the product of a mental illness. Or they think they’re happy, but they’re really not.

If this is what you believe about religious people, ask yourself why you think you know more about their mental state than they themselves do.

“I consider myself qualified to diagnose millions of people I’ve never met with a mental illness.”

Armchair diagnosis is a bad idea. It promotes the idea that mental illness is whatever we feel on a whim that it is, and that random internet commenters are qualified to determine whether or not someone has a mental illness despite never having even spoken to them, let alone spent time with them in person as a diagnosing psychologist would.

“Whether or not I think someone is mentally ill is more important than whether or not they think they’re mentally ill.”

And in addition to that, the fact that probably zero religious believers think that their religion qualifies as a mental illness is a good indication that you should stop saying that it is. Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.

“People who say their faith helped them deal with their mental illness are just kidding themselves.”

Can’t fix a mental illness with another mental illness, right?

This is a tricky area because I do think it’s very fair to question the presumption that religion helps people with mental illness in general. First of all, people (religious and not) with mental illnesses are often told that they need to pray or “have faith” or repent or whatever, because some religious people believe that mental illness is a sign of insufficient faith or a punishment from god or both. Second, some religious people find that religion actually makes their illness harder to cope with, whether because of these responses or other factors. Some people may even become more vulnerable to mental illness as a result of something their religion taught them, such as shame or a preoccupation with doing things a certain way.

However, there are also many people who say that religion helped them cope with their mental illness, whether it was the faith itself, a supportive religious community, or both. I do not feel comfortable claiming that these people are lying to themselves or to us.

I wish that people didn’t need faith to cope. I wish we had foolproof treatments for mental illness. I wish everyone had access to those treatments. I wish we never had to send patients home saying that we don’t know what else to do for them. I wish we knew exactly what–which genes, which environments, which neurotransmitter deficiencies–caused mental illness, so that nobody ever had to feel like it was either a random accident of chance (terrifying) or an act of god (slightly less terrifying, for some people).

But right now, we don’t have any of that. So it makes sense that some people would cope by telling themselves that it’s part of god’s plan and that they can’t possibly comprehend that plan.

I want people to be happy and alive. That’s my first priority. Once they’re happy and alive, I can think about trying to get them to think more rationally and scientifically. If thinking irrationally and nonscientifically is what keeps someone from suicide (or from a miserable life), I accept that.

And as far as the community aspect goes, having a strong support system can be both a protective factor against mental illness and also a mechanism that helps people cope or recover. Building humanist communities is extremely important for all kinds of reasons and this is one of them. We’re making progress, but humanist communities still don’t have the scope or resources of religious ones. There are also still plenty of atheists publicly decrying these projects and boasting about how they don’t need them and such things are useless and pseudo-religious and for the weak-minded. That’s harmful. If a religious person feels that their church or synagogue is the only source of support they have for their mental illness, they might not necessarily be wrong.

“Religious beliefs are inherently bad and harmful to the individual, just like the distorted thoughts associated with mental illness.”

Some people, such as Greta Christina, have made powerful, compassionate arguments for the idea that religious belief is universally, intrinsically harmful to society, separate from the harmful effects that organized religion can have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about these ideas, but I’m still much more comfortable with the opinion that religious belief does harm to other people and to society as a whole than that necessarily does harm to the individual who holds it.

Most religious people would probably say that their religion helps them be happy, charitable, kind, and strong. I may feel skeptical about this, but they know better than me.

On the contrary, the symptoms of mental illness are very, very clearly harmful in a way that is undeniable. While people with mental illnesses may sometimes deny that there is anything wrong, they are often clearly unhappy, and their denial is often caused by fear of the stigma of mental illness. (All the same, though, if someone tells me they are not mentally ill, I would never argue with them.)

“All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”

I hate to break it to you, but irrationality is probably part of the human condition. Everyone is, to some extent, subject to cognitive biases. Almost everyone at one point or another engages in superstitious, fantastical thinking. Clearing your mind of irrational beliefs that aren’t based on evidence is something that can only be accomplished intentionally, with effort. Even then, you will never be perfect. There’s a reason the popular rationality site Less Wrong is called Less Wrong, not Perfectly Right or Not At All Wrong.

So if being irrational is a sign of mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, atheists included. But more likely, (extreme) irrationality is only one component of mental illness. Others might include engaging in behaviors that are harmful to oneself, behaving in ways that are not considered normative in that particular cultural context (a problematic criterion, but a useful one when used in conjunction with others), being unhappy with one’s mental state, and not being able to function properly in one’s daily life.

“My desire to make a point is more important than what the psychological evidence says about religion and mental illness.”

To put it simply, the processes that lead people to be religious are not the same ones that lead them to be mentally ill. As I mentioned above, religious belief is a subset of the sort of irrational thinking to which all humans are prone. Humans look for patterns in the world and easily form superstitions on the basis of those patterns. Humans also generally enjoy the feeling of being part of a group or having a community, and religion is an easy way for a lot of people to experience that feeling. Many people who are religious were born into religious families and were taught that god exists and [insert religious tenets here] from birth, so it sticks.

On the more abusive end of things, people may stay in harmful religious sects or communities for similar reasons as they stay in abusive relationships. They are made to feel by their abusers that they will never be complete without the faith. They are taught that they will go to hell forever if they leave. They are made to feel worthless and powerless. They are told that people outside of the religious communities are bad people.

Being affected by abuse does not mean you’re mentally ill. It means that someone who knows how to take advantage of people took advantage of you. Furthermore, religion is but one of many props people can use to abuse and control each other.

On the contrary, mental illnesses have substantial genetic and biological components to them. Studies on identical twins, including ones reared apart, have demonstrated fairly high concordance rates for some disorders. While the chemical-imbalances-cause-depression theory has now been shown to be drastically oversimplified, mental illnesses clearly do have some sort of neural causes, triggers, and effects. Mental illnesses are often (but not always) triggered by major stressful life events; they can occur when an individual goes through hardship with which they are not psychologically equipped to cope.

Unlike religion, mental illnesses are not taught to people by other people; they tend to occur when genetic/biological susceptibility lines up with stressful environments or adverse life circumstances. Unlike religion, people do not try to remain mentally ill so that they do not lose their support systems or because they are afraid of what would happen if they stopped being mentally ill. They remain mentally ill until they receive proper treatment, or until the illness remits on its own. Unlike (non-abusive) religion, people do not have a choice whether to stay or leave. Those who suffer from eating disorders, substance abuse, or OCD may claim or genuinely feel that they have a choice, but they actually don’t, and that becomes evident as soon as they try to stop. Yet countless people voluntarily leave religion every day. That doesn’t sound like a mental illness to me.

“You chose to have your mental illness, just like people choose to be religious.” 

Some atheists who make this comparison believe that having religious beliefs is a choice (and abandoning them would also be a choice). If having the symptoms of a mental illness is a choice, what does this say about the rest of us?

“Mental illnesses (like religion) can be cured by making fun of people’s irrational beliefs and shaming them on the internet.”

Normally recovering from a mental illness requires therapy, medication, a strong social support system, or some combination of those. I rarely see atheists agitating for better mental healthcare services for religious people to help them deconvert. In fact, providing people with the resources they would actually need to leave religion (as opposed to simply telling them they’re wrong over and over again) is not a major focus of very many atheists. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the work done by groups like Recovering From Religion and the Clergy Project. But I also haven’t personally witnessed anyone associated with these groups claiming that religion is a mental illness.

“Religious people can’t be held responsible for their beliefs; they’re just victims of an illness.”

If you do agree that mental illness is not a choice, however, that implies that being religious is not a choice either. That implies that religious people do not have agency over any part of their religious belief or observance. Not only is this offensive to religious people, but it actually suggests that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for their beliefs. You wouldn’t blame a person with anxiety for feeling anxious, would you?

“I don’t care about mental illness unless it’s religion.”

Relatedly, better mental healthcare is not a major concern of many atheists (the ones who don’t have mental illnesses, that is). It really should be. Mental healthcare is stymied by both religion and pseudoscience, and advocating for more research, funding, and concern in this area is a project that I think would be of great relevance to the secular movement. But the only time I see most atheists bringing it up is when the “illness” is religion. What about the 25% of American adults who will suffer from an actual mental illness (or more than one) at some point in their lives?

“Mental illness is bad and shameful; that’s why I’m using it to disparage religion.”

Sometimes when I see the religion-mental illness comparison being made, it’s being done in a way that is clearly meant to ridicule and put down. Atheists frequently employ language that stigmatizes mental illness to refer to religious people, such as “crazy,” “insane,” “nutcase,” and so on. Even when you’re not using such clearly hurtful language, though, you can still be perpetuating stigma by saying that such-and-such Islamist “belongs in a mental institution” or that such-and-such fundamentalist Christian “needs to see a shrink.”

If you think religion is horrible and then you compare it to the condition I have, how am I meant to think you see me?

“You are a rhetorical prop for me to use to disparage religion.”

And that’s why I feel like people with mental illnesses are being used as convenient stand-ins when someone wants to diss religion. I feel like our suffering is just a tool for you to pull out of the antitheist toolbox when you need it. “Look how stupid religion is! It’s just like a mental illness!” you say. My depression is not at all like a religion. Unlike a religion, I didn’t choose it. Unlike a religion, it has never provided me with rituals and communities. Unlike a religion, it was not something taught to me by people, not something I could’ve avoided. Unlike a religion, it can’t go away no matter how many times you tell me I’m wrong. Unlike a religion, it has no positive effects, ever. Unlike a religion, my depression didn’t just make me empirically wrong about certain things; it broke my entire life into pieces and took away my ability to enjoy anything. Please stop using that awful legacy to score cheap points against religious believers.

“Attacking religion is more important to me than being inclusive and supportive of atheists with mental illness.”

I tell other atheists over and over again that this is hurtful, inaccurate, and completely pointless. And over and over again, despite the massive support I get in these comment threads from other atheists with mental illnesses, they insist on using this stigmatizing, alienating language. They ignore our knowledge of psychology and mental illness and continue to claim, against the evidence, that religion can be categorized as a form of mental illness. Rather than diving in and learning more about how mental illnesses are defined and which mental processes contribute to religiosity, they refuse to let go of this rhetorical tool.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that deep down many people think so poorly of people with mental illnesses that they know how effective it can be to compare anything you think is bad to a mental illness. It happens all the time.

But considering how many people I know in this community who are diagnosed with a mental illness, I would cautiously say that maybe you shouldn’t keep alienating us. I’m just one person, but I have serious qualms about working with an atheist leader or organization that holds the view that religion is a mental illness. I doubt I’m the only one.

Find a better argument. Find one that is accurate, first of all, and that stomps on as few already-marginalized people as possible.

~~~

Moderation note: I have finals this week and am unlikely to be around to answer every single question and argument I get. I will moderate strictly for comments that stigmatize mental illness, though. If this piece sets off lots of debates in the comment section, hopefully they can flow smoothly and somewhat productively without much input from me.

Comments

  1. Ali Nazifpour says

    I agree with everything that you say except two things, one is a bit logical and the second is a bit ethical:

    When you say religious people themselves “know” better if religion makes their life better. Except in rare cases (like converts) religious people have tried, examined, or even considered other options. They might be ignorant about many ways that religion makes them unhappy – I had a gay student who was very unhappy but he blamed his unhappiness on his homosexuality and NOT on his religion, and he claimed that religion keeps him from getting more unhappy by stopping him from fulfilling his desires, but that was what made him unhappy. Or, even if religion is not actively ruining their lives, they might be much happier if they let religion go, as they might be able to enjoy many things without the feeling of guilt and such. But they can’t claim “religion makes me happy” unless they at least study other religions and atheism with an open mind and consider them earnestly and then choosing religion – then they can claim that.

    Of course, I don’t necessarily think atheism makes things happy – many people might think life is meaningless without religion, but unlike you my main concern is not the subjective happiness of an individual. I believe honor and truth are much more important than happiness, as sometimes the truth is simply too harsh and bitter to see anything happy in it. Of course you might say this is how I define happiness, and then I don’t have any disagreement, I’m referring to the general perception of happiness.

    But I can say this with conviction: anything that comforts people is evil. People need to be riled up, angry, and always ready to make change to the world, if they are content with life as it is and the way the world is going, then they are part of the problem. In that way feeling “happy” is always a bad thing. I think the only happiness I think is honorable and ethically justified is the happiness a fallen soldier feels at his or her last moments; the happiness resulted from a life spent in seeking the truth and fighting for the greater good.

    And I completely understand that you might find my view inhuman and harsh – but I think ultimately that we are the burnt generations of humanity, as we live in the transitional era between the medieval times and the modern times that will come in the future, of a truly free and equal society. We are not destined to be happy the same way someone before the advent of medicine was not destined to be healthy, as we live in the time of war between traditional and modern values, and war never brings happiness for its soldiers. Happiness might be something that 400 or 500 years from now people can truly aspire to, but not right now.

    • SunlessNick says

      When you say religious people themselves “know” better if religion makes their life better. Except in rare cases (like converts) religious people have tried, examined, or even considered other options.

      I assume that the second instance of “religous people” should be preceded by a “few” – and if the so, the resulting statement is likely to be true. But it’s equally true that *you* haven’t studied the ins and outs of their lives, and you still have less claim to insight into them than they themselves do.

      We are not destined to be happy the same way someone before the advent of medicine was not destined to be healthy, as we live in the time of war between traditional and modern values, and war never brings happiness for its soldiers.

      So do I interpret this as saying that you consider yourself to in a war with religious belief, and that people like Miri (and me) are acceptable sacrifices in order to win it?

  2. says

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I guess I used to be amused by the comments saying religion is a mental illness, but never took them seriously. Over the past several years, I’ve learned more about mental illness, and that’s not appropriate to compare religion to mental illness. This post makes it very clear why it is wrong. Thanks.

  3. Schlumbumbi says

    Too much Zeitgeist for my taste.

    The sole fact that certain illnesses, like depression or OCD, have infested large parts of our populations, and have therefor become the center of attention for most of us, cannot simply wipe away all the other negative mental conditions, which we’ve gathered under the umbrella term “mental illness”.

    I’d say it’s outright toxic to claim that “mental illness” is somehow a black/white, 0/100 thing, because that notion does nothing but reinforce the “crazy people” stereotype. And to somehow insinuate that mental illness is a state, which you “finally arrive at” is equally damaging, because it allows people to ignore all the little harmful bits and pieces along the way, in favor of focusing on the “final” (in both ways) outcome.

    I understand that not every “mental illness” has to have the same kind of effects on different people. Some can be useful at some time, others probably can’t, and some are devastating most of the time.

    Why should there be some sort of “competition” about what constitutes a “real” mental illness? Why can we not treat every condition with the amount and type of consideration it actually requires ? And why should we stop calling certain conditions a “mental illness”, although we consider them to be just that ? Because they happen to have a positive effect on some people? Because other conditions give the impression of being more fatalistic ?

    If anything around the issue of “mental illness” is inherently bad, then it’s these arbitrary polarisations and gag orders we issue on ourselves, because we simply can’t, or don’t want to, let go of these stereotypes.

        • flip the second says

          The sole fact that certain illnesses, like depression or OCD, have infested large parts of our populations, and have therefor become the center of attention for most of us, cannot simply wipe away all the other negative mental conditions, which we’ve gathered under the umbrella term “mental illness”.

          And yet Schlumbumbi, your own comment reinforces the common trope that mental illness is nothing more than a fad, ‘infesting’ our lives like so many other ‘Big Pharma inventions’.

          The rest of your comment seems to be a strawman.

          • Schlumbumbi says

            Rubbish. Certain conditions are in the public focus because they don’t cause only minor problems, but because they can easily kill people. There’s no “fad” in this.

          • flip the second says

            @Schlumbumbi

            (Hope this posts in the right order… I’m new here and don’t know where in the reply timeline this will show up…)

            You utterly missed my point. Which was that your comment about reinforcing stereotypes uses language that is dismissive of mental illnesses itself – whether you meant it or not. Glass houses and all that.

            Certain conditions are in the public focus because they don’t cause only minor problems, but because they can easily kill people.

            Citation needed.

          • Schlumbumbi says

            (Nvm, the commenting system is not really up 2 date with today’s standards.)

            To your request: http://bit.ly/1jcnBcI

            The WHO documents on these matters are all worth a look.
            Among other things, you’ll find that depression is heavily linked to suicide in US/EUR and that average life expectancy is reduced drastically by depression (IIRC, a drop of 25y for western countries is mentioned in one of the docs, from 76 to 51y).

            So yes, that’s a fcking pandemia.

          • flip the second says

            Ok, what you typed was misleading and/or I misunderstood.

            Once again, you’re using language in a way that people do to dismiss or condemn mental illness. When you wrote

            Rubbish. Certain conditions are in the public focus because they don’t cause only minor problems, but because they can easily kill people. There’s no “fad” in this.

            You made it sound like you were concerned about violence towards other people (a common trope for those who wish to equate mental illness with increased levels of violence). I now see you simply meant to refer to suicide. Either you’re using words in order to be purposefully misleading, or I need to apologise. More than likely a fault on my part so: I’m sorry for misunderstanding.

            How about you come out and be more direct about your point of view towards the use of mental health as a way to denigrate religion?

            On a side note: linking to a google search is not the best way to refer to people to studies. Next time, please just link to the actual study, or link to Pubmed. It just makes it easier for both of us to find, read and discuss the same thing.

            PS. I note you have not actually responded to my initial point about reinforcing stereotypes.

  4. says

    Mainstream religious belief isn’t remotely like mental illness. Believing the things you’ve been taught by everyone from your parents to the rulers of your country? That’s not remotely similar to being delusional or mentally ill, it is just wrong and wrong for pretty good reasons.

    Part of what this is, is too many atheists defining themselves by their feelings of superiority and contempt for other people. Because their worldview is fundamentally hateful in that way, hurting mentally ill people to hurt religious believers almost counts as a bonus for them.

  5. Flip the second says

    Thank you so much for this post. I too am atheist, depressive and skeptic and this trope bugs me no end. You captured my feelings on this far more eloquently than I could ever express myself.

  6. Kris B says

    Mental illness- any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis.

    Psychosis- a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, that indicate impaired contact with reality.

    If you speak to an imaginary friend you are delusional; if your imaginary friend speaks back you’re hallucinating.
    Diagnosis: mental illness

    The lexis doesn’t need to be modified as there is no contraindication or ambiguity here.
    There are many different mental illnesses; believing in an imaginary being is but one of hundreds. It makes no difference how many people believe it or how good it makes you feel, it is a delusion.
    If an adult believed in Santa we would say she is delusional. I’d say if a child believes in Santa she is delusional and I’d be right.

    • Ali Nazifpour says

      The problem with that is religious people are not actually *talking* to imaginary friends. The talk is one sided – they do not hear any answers except through signs or dreams, they do not hallucinate, so it’s not like you said. An adult who believes in Santa is superstitious, not delusional.

      • says

        “An adult who believes in Santa is superstitious, not delusional.”

        Manifestly untrue. The belief in Santa Claus is not “Showing ignorance of the laws of nature and faith in magic or chance”, it is a “(psychology) an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary”. We know there is no Santa Claus, we have been to the North pole. We can demonstrate the story of Santa Claus in untrue, and if the person believes it anyway, they are, by definition, delusional.

        This exact same methodology can be used for the belief in every religion. There are testable claims in every religion, claims which have been falsified, yet people continue to believe them. That is delusion, and delusion is a mental disorder. Full Stop.

        You may with to pull out your DSM, as it exactly describes religion under the section of delusion then, with warrant, gives a special exemption to religious belief.

        Why the exemption? Likely because the people who write the book are religious or simply the political winds do not allow a rational includion of religion in the section.

        As I mentioned, there is absolutely zero reasoning behind the exemption of religion, as opposed to every other disorder fitting the exact same criteria, they simply say “except religious beliefs”. Look it up for yourself.

        The DSM, what dictates the criteria for the label “mental illness”, exactly describes religious belief under “delusional disorder”.

        One wonders how a delusion ceases to be a delusion once it gets labelled a religion.

        Do the beliefs change? No.
        Does the evidence change? No.

        It is, without qualification, an ad populum fallacy exemption. Since many people have a similar delusion, it magically becomes mentally healthy. Amazing!

        • says

          I’m not sure the person who is committing a pretty obvious appeal to authority logical fallacy should be casting the first logical fallacy stone.

          Also: the DSM? The DSM? Really? That’s what you’re going for?
          It’s not like that’s an incredibly controversial text that has been manifestly wrong numerous times in the past. It’s not like that’s a guidebook that many mental health professionals themselves refuse to use because of how inaccurate it is.

          It’s not like the National Institute of Mental Health just repudiated the DSM for it’s “lack of validity.” (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml)

          I mean, seriously, people, if you want to get into an argument about what constitutes a mental illness, maybe do some research on what the authorities are in the field, and whether they’re actually considered authorites . I don’t run into conversations about field hockey, grab the first book on field hockey I see, and pretend I know what I’m talking about.

          • says

            “I’m not sure the person who is committing a pretty obvious appeal to authority logical fallacy should be casting the first logical fallacy stone.”

            Where to begin.. not only is this statement a Tu quoque fallacy, the appeal to authority is only a fallacy when it appeals to irrelevant authority, not relevant authority. On top of all of this, you make no counter argument, which means you committed a fallacy fallacy to boot.

            As for the DSM, it’s mandatory study in every academic psychology degree program precisely because it is an authority. Your argument of ‘many’ (an appeal to numbers, didn’t i just link to that fallacy?) clinicians ignoring the DSM doesn’t negate it’s authority in the field or it’s correctness in this situation. I know of hundreds of doctors who are creationists and think the bible is literally true, that does not make it so.

            The fact the leading authorities in psychology are the ones who oversee the authoring of the DSM makes it precisely an authority in the subject of discussion. What you have neglected to bring forward is your authority to dismiss it as false regarding my assertions. Interesting, that neglect.

            Given all of that, I find it tough to read your response as anything other than “Nuh uh!” while placing your digits in your lobe holes.

          • Chenrezi says

            “As for the DSM, it’s mandatory study in every academic psychology degree program precisely because it is an authority.”

            Regardless of how authoritative it may or may not be, simply reading it does not make you an instant expert at diagnosing mental illness. If that were the case, there would be no need for psych degree programs in the first place.

          • SunlessNick says

            The fact the leading authorities in psychology are the ones who oversee the authoring of the DSM makes it precisely an authority in the subject of discussion.

            If you do see it as an authority, then why do you attach no authoritative value to it drawing a distinction between delusions and religious beliefs?

        • Chenrezi says

          “One wonders how a delusion ceases to be a delusion once it gets labelled a religion.”

          Actually pretty simple–there’s worlds of difference between believing something that you’ve taught was plausible since you were a young child, and believing something that is purely a creation of your brain not functioning properly.

          So if Joe goes to see a psychologist and professes a belief in God, the psychologist thinks, “Hmmm. While there may be evidence that this belief is untrue, it is likely that Joe believes this because he has been taught that it is true by people he trusts. And since this alternative explanation exists, I cannot say that it is a product of any sort of mental illness.”

          • says

            “Actually pretty simple–there’s worlds of difference between believing something that you’ve taught was plausible since you were a young child, and believing something that is purely a creation of your brain not functioning properly.”

            You’re absolutely correct, unfortunately that does not answer the question, as delusion can be both physical or mental. Just as depression does not require a physical cause to be diagnosed as such. You can suffer from depression without being the chemical component being present. Interestingly, most suicides from depression happen shortly after chemical treatment commences, as the physical impairment is alleviated, the mental component has more ambition to complete it’s task, suicide.

            Given all of that, you ‘answer’ answers nothing, it merely indicates there is more than one causal factor of be diagnosed with delusional disorder, both being the same mental illness showing the same synptoms.

            As for your first example, although I think I understand where you are trying to go, it isn’t even correct. Delusion is an aggressive defense of a demonstrably false belief or even a belief which is held so vehemently simply questioning it provokes an aggressive response. This is not the description of your first example of “Oh, it’s not true, I didn’t know as I was taught different”, it is a response of “You’re stupid for thinking I’m wrong, how dare you question my belief!?”. There is a big difference in the two, which is why one is simply ignorance and the other is classified as mental illness.

            “So if Joe goes to see a psychologist and professes a belief in God, the psychologist thinks, “Hmmm. While there may be evidence that this belief is untrue, it is likely that Joe believes this because he has been taught that it is true by people he trusts. And since this alternative explanation exists, I cannot say that it is a product of any sort of mental illness.””

            Again, you are correct, unless an aggressive protective response is displayed toward holding onto that belief when questioned on it. You also neglect the mountains of data and evidence which is shown in direct opposition to the fundamental beliefs required to partake in nearly every religion (and I only include ‘nearly’ in the case I don’t know about some esoteric, long forgotten religion no longer practiced today).

            If a person identifies as ‘Christian’ and believes any of the tenet which has opposing evidence, then defends their belief in spite of this opposing evidence, we’re talking delusional disorder, not “I want it to be true, and you can’t prove otherwise, so I’ll believe it’s true”, that’s irrational, not delusional. One could argue the two are closely mirrored in demonstrable harm, but they are technically distinct.

          • Chenrezi says

            You know that there’s another name for refusing to turn away from a belief when evidence goes against it, right? It’s called the confirmation bias, and it’s a general psychological principle common to all human beings. We cling to what we believe and seek out evidence that supports it, no matter how spurious, while rejecting evidence against it, no matter how solid, because being proven wrong is unpleasant and we want to avoid it.

            Irrational? Totally? But to repeat a point that has already been made several times, irrationality alone does not mental illness make.

          • says

            “Irrational? Totally? But to repeat a point that has already been made several times, irrationality alone does not mental illness make.”

            There seems to be some reading comprehension issues going on, so I’ll end with a “please read my posts more closely, so I don’t have to correct your reading mistakes as well as your false assertions.”

            I’m happy be shown to be wrong if everything I’ve been taught or read is wrong, but debating someone who isn’t able or willing to read the text as it is just isn’t worth the effort to debate on the subject.

            ““I want it to be true, and you can’t prove otherwise, so I’ll believe it’s true”, that’s irrational, not delusional. One could argue the two are closely mirrored in demonstrable harm, but they are technically distinct.”

            It couldn’t be spoken any more plain without treating you as impaired.

          • Chenrezi says

            Wait, so “I want it to be true, and you can’t prove otherwise, so I’ll believe it’s true” is irrational, but “I want it to be true, and ignore the evidence you have to the contrary in order to believe it” is delusional? I’m sorry, I was unaware of this important linguistic distinction. Where exactly are you getting this distinction from?

            Actually, you know what? Forget that challenge. I accept your premise. I hereby accept that ignoring evidence that contradicts your own beliefs is by definition, delusional.

            Delusions alone do not mental illness make.

            Oh hey look, my argument still stands with exactly two words changed. I’ve said it before elsewhere, and I will say it again: delusions are symptoms of specific mental illnesses, not mental illness in and of themselves.

      • Schlumbumbi says

        What do you make of the people who claim to actually “talk” to god, meaning that they get a direct answer from “him” ? And what do you make of people who faint in megachurch because they’ve been touched by the holy spirit ?

        If these are not severe delusions, and in part hallucinations, what are they ?

        • smrnda says

          I’ve seen these people as I decided to attend a large, pentecostal church for a month or so to see what was going on. These people are not receiving any sensory input that the rest of us aren’t, they’ve just been taught that among this mostly random input, there will be *signs from god* that will speak to them. Once they have that belief, they’re operating from a huge confirmation bias. The pastor prays and he thinks, randomly, of some banal misfortune like being out of work, something that anyone might do, but he then goes “I think… god is telling me that someone here lost their job.” The difference is that other people would understand that the words of the prayer can be associated with worries about some kind of problems, that losing your job is a problem, and that chances are, in a mega-church, you’ll find someone who fit. It kind of reminds me of how people into numerology can scour all their receipts and such and *find keys* to understanding the universe or something. Confirmation bias, plus a lack of understanding of confirmation bias.

          For the effects of being *touched* I suspect it’s rather like the placebo effect. I’ve seen people *get drunk* on non-alcoholic beer they were told had alcohol in it. So really most of what’s going on could be explained through normal biases that all people have, but that some people are more generally ignorant of how they work and thus more susceptible. If people back up your confirmation bias time and again instead of challenging it, you don’t see it as a bias.

    • says

      Oh man, using definitions from freedictionary.com to explain something as complex as psychosis and mental illness? You are SO INSIGHTFUL. Why didn’t I think of that? Hell, why didn’t we ALL think of that? We wouldn’t have wasted all that time, all that education, all those billions of dollars trying to understand exactly what causes mental illness and how to treat it! We could have just looked it up in a fucking dictionary!

      I don’t even know why anyone bothers to go to a doctor to get diagnosed! You can just look up “mental illness” in a dictionary, see if you fit the criteria in any vague way, and voila!

      I should try this out. If you believe in a just-world theory, you are delusional. Diagnosis: mental illness. If you are a racist, you are delusional. Diagnosis: mental illness. If you are an internet commenter who doesn’t understand that mental illnesses can’t be diagnosed using a dictionary definition, you are delusional. Diagnosis, mental illness.

      Hey, this is pretty swell! Why don’t we start applying this to other subjects? I don’t need a law degree – I can just look up the definition of torts on wikipedia! I’m sure that will be an entirely accurate summary of exactly what a “tort” is and how to litigate one! And don’t need to have any specialized expertise to fix cars – I can just look up “engine” on bing!

      Seriously, though, if you think the free dictionary is going to give you even a cursory explanation of what, exactly, psychosis is, you’ve got another think coming. Guess what? Even the experts don’t diagnose psychosis in three seconds. Because it’s a complex condition with all kinds of misleading symptoms, not something you can diagnose just by going “lol, you have an imaginary friend, you must be delusional.”

      Miri actually has a whole section in the post devoted to “armchair diagnosis,” which is what you did here: try to replicate in three seconds the work that can take expert clinicians weeks to do.

      So yeah, good try, buddy, but I’m not sure you’re up to snuff as an ableist troll. Try something more original next time, and we can reconsider.

      As a side note, hallucinations are not an inherent indication of mental illness. In fact, hallucinations are most often *not* caused by mental illness – they’re caused by things like migraines, vision problems (Charles Bonnet syndrome, for example), medication interactions… and much much more!

      The more you know.

      • says

        Interestingly, one of the indicators required to diagnose delusional disorder is aggressive response to being shown competing evidence.

        What’s very telling in all of your rambling is, you never once indicated what you define mental illness as. After all, in all of your condescension in how people get definitions for words, you never once share how you manage to know what the meaning of words are, if not by authoritative sources of word definitions, such as the dictionary or DSM (that pesky source required by all colleges of psychiatry [because it’s all nonsense, don’tchaknow, a conspiracy!]).

        Amaze us with your astute knowledge in the area of mental illness. After all, you seem to indicate you are the only person who knows the “true” definition of the terminology.

        This comment and the information it conveys made possible by the same dictionary every other English speaker uses to convey information, seeing as Disoriented has yet to publish the “truly” authoritative dictionary.

        In the future, if you wish to come off as someone who knows what you are talking about, try conveying the information instead of doing nothing more than making snide comments using sarcasm and dismissing all other methods of knowledge.

        So far, all you’ve done is say “your source is stupid. mine is the TRUE source”, all without expounding as to what this mystical true source is.

        I’ve heard this con before from the same delusional people in the topic, “I have proof of God, but you’re not ready to see it, so I won’t show you!”

        Yeah, yeah. You two can share the same bunk in the ward.

        • Chenrezi says

          “Amaze us with your astute knowledge in the area of mental illness. After all, you seem to indicate you are the only person who knows the “true” definition of the terminology.”

          Really? Because reading through the comment, I’m seeing precisely nothing that claims that C has personal knowledge of mental illness. As far as I’m able to tell, the thrust of the comment was 1) Kris is, so far as we know, neither a psychiatrist nor professionally trained in the diagnosis of mental illness, and 2) reading a dictionary is not an acceptable substitute for professional training when it comes to diagnosis.

          But hey, if believing that you actually study mental illness before diagnosing it makes us arrogant, I think I can live with that.

          • says

            You make the assumption I have not studied it and do not currently still study it. In fact, you make the assumption anyone who doesn’t agree with your assessment is ignorant in the subject matter.

            “1) Kris is, so far as we know, neither a psychiatrist nor professionally trained in the diagnosis of mental illness, and 2) reading a dictionary is not an acceptable substitute for professional training when it comes to diagnosis.”

            Those statements are mutually exclusive. ‘C’ cannot make an authoritative statement of 2 being the case while having 1 also be true. Which is the entire point of the post.

            Congrats, you missed the entire point of my post, but still replied to it anyhow.

          • Chenrezi says

            Fine, then. Do you study psychology and mental illness, then? If so, how much education have you had on the subject? Because right now, you’re basically accusing people left and right of assuming that they know more than anybody else, when you’re doing exactly the same thing. So if you’ve got a basis for that, then by all means, shut me up right now.

        • says

          Edward: “Interestingly, one of the indicators required to diagnose delusional disorder is aggressive response to being shown competing evidence.”

          Oh, wow, you just implied that I was delusional. I am so shocked. How could I ever have predicted that someone who clearly doesn’t care how mentally ill people feel about their illness being use to stigmatize other people would then start calling his critics crazy. Someone get me a fainting couch.

          Edward: “Amaze us with your astute knowledge in the area of mental illness. After all, you seem to indicate you are the only person who knows the “true” definition of the terminology.”

          Dear Edward: I’m sorry, your claim to my “indications” does not include a citation. Citation needed.

          Edward: “1) Kris is, so far as we know, neither a psychiatrist nor professionally trained in the diagnosis of mental illness, and 2) reading a dictionary is not an acceptable substitute for professional training when it comes to diagnosis.”

          Those statements are mutually exclusive. ‘C’ cannot make an authoritative statement of 2 being the case while having 1 also be true. Which is the entire point of the post.”

          No, those two statements are not mutually exclusive. If they are, you have yet to explain why.

          I’m impressed by your use of multisyllabic words, but the lack of citations and the obvious ableism… I think you need to focus in more on the subtleties of true asshole trolling. Maybe apply back in a month or so?

        • ebutler says

          Unless you are a mental health professional interviewing a patient face-to-face, you are not qualified to diagnose anybody with mental illness. The DSM is not a “cookbook”. From the APA:

          However, it is important to remember that these criteria are meant to be used as guidelines informed by clinical judgment and are not meant to be used in a cookbook fashion.

          I would stop your abuse of psychiatry.

  7. says

    Thank you for this post and for fighting the ableism that’s become embedded in Atheism.

    Especially the “They deserve to be locked in a mental institution!” part… no. I’ve been in one. Nobody ever deserves that. Ever.

    But yeah. Nothing like hearing that I (And so many others) are reviled and hated and subhuman because we’re mentally ill, by way of being told that we’re equal to the (reviled and hated) religious believers.

  8. Techni Myoko says

    By the definition you give, religion is a mental illness. It IS maladaptive in all its forms, not just the extreme cases

    Religion causes them to hate people they shouldnt (Gays) reject life saving science (vaccinations, blood transfusions) in favor of praying (thats as maladaptive as any OCD right there) reject science that conflicts with their holy books (evolution) and even force their books on people trying to teach science. It stops them from thinking for themselves. And that’s as maladaptive as you can get. 

    • shari says

      @ 9 Techni Myoko – I identify as Christian, support gay rights and voted against the defense of marriage act (never met a person of any orientation I’ve hated in any case ), vaccinate my kids, and pray as I need it, support science and evolutionary education (until it gets disproven by someone on non-religious grounds and that hasn’t happened yet) and support separation of church and state – especially in schools. Support feminism and social justice (disclosure – twice treated for depression, one episode before my brother died, one episode after.)

      It is insulting to minimize anyone with mental illness by comparing them to me and my high functioning and privileged life. I may be delusional by your standards, but I check my ethics by both humanists standards (why I read Miri, for instance) and by what I learn in my religious reading. I’d rather fall down trying to do good, than sit on my hands and do nothing. Miri’s post is spot on.

    • Chenrezi says

      “It IS maladaptive in all its forms, not just the extreme cases… Religion causes them to hate people they shouldnt (Gays) reject life saving science (vaccinations, blood transfusions) in favor of praying (thats as maladaptive as any OCD right there) reject science that conflicts with their holy books (evolution) and even force their books on people trying to teach science.”

      So what you just did was claim that all religion is maladaptive, then attempt to support this by listing a bunch of things that applies to some religious people but not all. I know plenty of religious people who are pro-gay rights, who go to the doctor instead of praying when they get sick, and and get ticked off when creationists try to force their views into schools. If you’re going to claim that religion is maladaptive regardless of its theology or philosophy, then actually use examples that apply to all religions regardless of theology or philosophy.

    • smrnda says

      I know some pagans who don’t show the typical biases of religious people and who seem to be genuinely led by their religious beliefs towards better than average opinions. Of course, I don’t believe that their religion is true, but I don’t see it being necessarily maladaptive.

  9. Techni Myoko says

    “All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”

    To extend on that, believing in something despite the available evidence to the contrary, is classified as a delusion.

    • Chenrezi says

      …and you’ve managed to completely miss the point of that section. Delusions in and of themselves aren’t mental illness, they’re just sometimes a symptom of a certain kind of mental illness, and it’s perfectly possible to be delusional without being mentally ill.

      • says

        Out of curiosity, how do you define mental illness and what authority are you citing to use that definition?

        I agree with you that delusions are not necessarily mental illness, but the second the meet the criteria for delusional disorder, they are. There need not be a chemical component to it for it to meet such criteria, either.

        It seems to be you think mental illness is only that which is caused by a chemical abnormality, and this is not the case, which is exactly why people can be diagnosed with disorders without being automatically pumped full of drugs. Many disorders are simply in the mind and have no chemical component. PTSD is one such illness. Drugs are relieve the symptoms but cannot prevent the cause, which is mental and can only be solved through psychotherapy and time.

        I’m sure the local comment stalker (who nicely fits the delusional disorder criteria, btw) will chime in.

        • Chenrezi says

          Okay, first, trying to insult people by insinuating that they meet the criteria for mental illness is seriously uncool. Please knock it off.

          Second, I have never said that mental illness is only caused by a chemical abnormality. I agree that simple chemical imbalances do not cover all mental disorders. As for my personal definition of mental illness? I don’t really have one, because a four-year neuroscience degree and a single adult psychopathology class are not enough to be an expert on a subject, so any opinion I have on the subject would necessarily be misinformed. I am not arguing that I have super special secret knowledge of psychology and mental illness that you don’t. I am arguing that neither of us have put in the years studying mental illness required to come to a good understanding of it–or at least as good of an understanding as possible, given that psychiatry itself doesn’t seem to know how mental disorders work half the time–and therefore, neither of us should be using mental illness casually as a rhetorical device. Or an insult.

          • Chenrezi says

            …I will append this, however. One criteria for mental illness that I picked up from my Adult Psychopathology class that’s stuck with me is that a mental illness must either 1) cause enough distress to the person experiencing it that they seek treatment or 2) significantly disrupt their ability to function in everyday life.

            Now you can argue that some people can be functional and reasonably happy while experiencing obvious mental illness symptoms, and I’d agree that that’s sometimes the case. But the reason that this criteria exists is that mental illness is actually rather nebulous, and there’s not always a clear distinction between it and normal quirks of the mind. Because let’s face it, the mind is a capricious beast, and there are very few times when it isn’t actively fucking with you to some degree or another.

        • says

          I’m sure the local comment stalker (who nicely fits the delusional disorder criteria, btw) will chime in.

          As I said, I don’t have time to get into the whole debate, but this is against my comment policy. If you can’t comment without refraining from insulting other commenters and diagnosing them with mental illnesses, please do not comment. Thanks.

  10. Jesse W (not logged in) says

    Yay! Another post from Miri — and an excellent one. I wish I had something more substantive to say, but I don’t, at least not right now, so let this merely be an expression of thanks.

    • SunlessNick says

      Frankly, the most thought-policing tactic that’s come up in this thread is the very one of associating thoughts you don’t like (be it religious beliefs, as in the subject of the post; or disagreement in debate, from an earlier commenter) with mental illness.

  11. Brett says

    I have compared mental illness to my previous religious experience before, and it seems to me to be something that isn’t really addressed here. It’s not the form that I keep seeing some less thoughtful/sensitive atheist use, which is usually based on a specific belief, but more on patterns of thought.

    As a fundamentalist/evangelical christian in a liberal part of the US, some of the things I believed (and were VERY normal in the community of believers) seem to be more extreme that the “crazy” examples people usually give.

    There are things that you are told, with specific wording, that you MUST believe. Slavery was right, genocide was right, rape was not right, but not exactly bad. Christians are rightly criticized for saying these things, but they don’t believe them. The scary part is that they have NO IDEA that they don’t believe them. They have to, so they think they do.

    I keep hearing “They think Atheists deserve hell”… they think EVERYONE deserves hell. It’s not quite like being depressed (I’ve experienced that too), but honestly thinking you deserve bad things feels similar, if weaker.

    Grieving is difficult, because you are showing a lack of faith if you even admit that someone is dead. I went to my grandfather’s funeral a few years ago, and it felt like I was the only one there who wasn’t just pretending he was still alive. The whole “gone to a better place” cliche is something that you are expected to take very seriously.

    Sorry for the rambling, but as someone who has experience both mental illness and religion, I just wanted to point out that some of us aren’t making the comparison lightly, even if most people are.

    • says

      Wow, I’m so sorry you had that experience.

      Two things here:

      1) Comparing one’s own religious experience to mental illness isn’t the same as saying that religion, in general, is mental illness. You deserve to use whatever language helps you make sense of your own experiences.

      2) It sounds like you’re saying that there are parallels between having a mental illness and undergoing that sort of religious experience, not that that religious experience is literally a mental illness. I think useful parallels can be drawn there without necessarily implying that believing what you were taught is a mental illness in and of itself.

  12. says

    I’ve had two psychotic breaks in life. The types of things I was doing and saying went above and beyond the harms of my religious beliefs early in life. I can scarcely think of religious examples that compare. I think almost all religious people are conscious of their beliefs. It’s more like a vice. Thus we can tell religious people to grow up and be responsible with their faith, but it wouldn’t make sense to say similar things to someone suffering from schizophrenia.

  13. smrnda says

    I can’t speak as a formerly religious person, but I can offer some information as I have schizo-affective disorder and I have had delusional episodes, along with visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. I also spent a few years studying the psychology of religious belief.

    It seems that you can account for religious belief through explanations like cognitive bias, and that religion isn’t some special case as people hold all kinds of false or likely false beliefs owing to he same biases.

    An area I did a bit of research in were people who believed in ghosts . I doubt any of the people in the studies we conducted ever had delusions. What they did have was a strong belief in ghosts and spirits, and so if they saw some blur that looked vaguely human in a picture, it was a visible ghost. Confirmation bias all the way – they were looking at pictures that would *not* persuade anyone who did not already believe, and the belief itself (“ghosts exist”) is kind of an unfalsifiable hypothesis. A few noises easily accounted for in a low quality audio recording *were probably voices from beyond the grave.*

    Or take something like speaking in tongues – I’ve actually talked to people who said they started faking it in churches where that was done to fit in, ended up believing it, and eventually quit somehow. I don’t think they became delusional, it seems more like social pressure, which plays a role in any belief formation.

    Back to delusions and hallucinations, they are things that at least I could never be reasoned out of. Nobody realized they were going on until my behavior became strange, and after I was stable I looked back and realized I’d been having an episode for more than a month – I was just able to function long enough to avoid detection. It was like waking up and looking back when you were dreaming – the dream makes sense, until you wake up, but once you wake up it clearly makes no sense. That was my experience, and I have no idea how similar that is to other people, but that seems completely different from what I hear from former religious believers. They seem to share the experience of a belief seeming reasonable as long as you’re in a subculture which regards it as normal, but where if you can break out of that it starts to seem weaker. Hallucinations and delusions will go on without any external encouragement.

    Something that people get wrong is assuming the brain is normally functioning as an effective reasoning machine. It’s prone to lots of biases, so some amount of faulty thinking is normal.

  14. says

    “Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.”

    I don’t understand this assertion (though I agree with the general point of not calling religion a mental illness). Aren’t there often cases where other people are more qualified to diagnose mental illness than the person involved? For example, nearly any outsider can identify a person who hears command hallucinations, talks to spirits, and thinks ze is being persecuted by aliens and the FBI as likely schizophrenic. But the person themselves may deny that. They may even say something like “Yes, I understand schizophrenia and I’m sure other people have it, but in my case I just really happen to be persecuted by aliens”.

    I admit non-psychotic mental illnesses are less clear-cut, but I *occasionally* see this in things like personality disorders or intermittent explosive disorder as well (“I don’t have overreactions to things! Other people are just always mean and unfair to me!” in a case where every single person who interacts with them agrees they have a problem)

    I think our culture has useful norms like “Don’t stigmatize someone by giving them an official diagnosis, or force them into treatment, without going through the extremely official commitment process” and “Don’t invent entirely new categories of mental illness on a whim, the DSM already does enough of that without your help” and “Illness is a complicated category and if you invoke it in a black and white way you’re probably missing something”

    And I think a statement like “Don’t try to diagnose other people with mental illnesses, they know their own brain better than you do” is sort of trying to grope at these norms and so is well-intentioned.

    But the statement as it stands sounds like bad epistemology.

    • says

      Hmm, you have a good point. I think I could’ve phrased that better and/or specified which types of mental illnesses I’m referring to.

      I’ll say that that section (as is this entire post) is addressed to people who are not mental health professionals, and if they are, they are not actually working with the person they are attempting to diagnose. Yes, a person with clinical training can have a diagnostic appointment with a person with schizophrenia and diagnose that person with schizophrenia even if the client disagrees with the diagnosis. But professionals have been trained to understand the signs of psychosis; random internet atheists have not.

      Also, what a professional typically does is observe and assess symptoms and give a label to those symptoms, not presume whether or not those symptoms are there to begin with. If all I tell you is that I’ve been feeling sad a lot and you tell me “Wow, you’re totally depressed, go get some medication,” that’s not the same as if a psychologist gives me a depression screener, asks me a bunch of targeted, carefully selected questions, and then says, “Based on what you’ve told me today, it sounds like you might have clinical depression. How do you feel about trying medication?”

      In the first instance, someone who doesn’t have much knowledge about what I’m feeling presumes to know. In the second, someone who has solicited that information from me and has the training to decode it fits my own claims about my feelings and thoughts into a category that seems appropriate. And they may still be wrong! But they’re more likely to be right, and have acted with more respect for my opinions and autonomy, than some random internet armchair psychologist.

      Thanks for your input!

      • flip the second says

        Is the issue with the comparison also due to the issue of mental illness being excessive, and therefore harmful? For instance, religion to the person and to those around them may not cause them concern; someone with depression but who is functioning fine and can manage their symptoms may not cause them concern; someone with depression but who is not coping is the point at which it becomes a mental illness?

        I’m sort of riffing off this PLOS blog post (via Gruntled & Hinged)

        Not even a student of psychology, so am curious to hear feedback on this idea.

      • says

        “I’ll say that that section (as is this entire post) is addressed to people who are not mental health professionals, and if they are, they are not actually working with the person they are attempting to diagnose.”

        But I’m trying to make a point specifically about non-professionals – that even a non-mental health professional can identify the paranoid hallucinating person in the example above as likely schizophrenic. Or, as ebutler points out below, if not schizophrenic as having a substance abuse psychosis or organic psychosis or schizophreniform disorder or something else. The idea that they’re mentally healthy probably wouldn’t occur to most of us.

        If a nonprofessional’s roommate started acting that way, I assume she would tell him that he really needs to see a psychiatrist. In fact, if the psychiatrist said he was perfectly healthy, I assume she would tell him to get a second opinion. All those things require having a model of who does or doesn’t have likely mental disorders (though hopefully that model should include not being too certain or doing anything drastic without professional confirmation).

        I realize I’m being super-annoyingly nitpicky on this point, but (in this case) I actually have a good reason. I feel like epistemologies of the type “Other people always know their own mental states better than you do, it is a priori terrible to claim you know more about a person than they do themselves” start a very slippery slope to full libertarianism. You end up with “Well, as far as I know smoking is bad, but that person chooses to smoke, so they probably have great reasons for it, and for the government to discourage smoking is paternalistic and coercive.”

        I’d rather just bite the bullet and say that sometimes outside observers can make better judgments about a person’s life than that person themselves can. Not always, and it should be the kind of assumption that requires a lot of evidence. But I worry that framing self-knowledge in a way that makes it legitimate to respond by getting offended (eg “How dare you claim to know more about my thought processes than I do myself!”) is dark side epistemology and potentially dangerous.

        • ebutler says

          I’d still use caution, though. For example, I was diagnosed with bipolar NOS by my 1st opinion which I recently got, but on my 2nd and 3rd opinions, which were much more thorough and unlike my 1st opinion actually took my history into account, they said I have autism spectrum disorder and gender dysphoria but no evidence of bipolar disorder; the autism is consistent with the diagnoses I have as a kid. There are 3 traits I have that look very bipolar-like on the surface, but because they are longstanding traits are actually not symptoms of bipolar disorder, and those are obsessiveness, tangential thinking, and hyper-verbosity. As the 2nd and 3rd opinion doctors pointed out, these longstanding traits are actually well-explained by the ASD, and problems with anger and depression actually result from an interaction between the ASD and gender dysphoria–basically, the anger and depression revolve around gender issues and my difficulty coping with these issues as a result of my ASD leads to dysfunction. I accept what these doctors say and I know I have a long treatment path ahead of me and those 3 traits I mentioned are not easily treatable for people with ASD. I’ve stopped the bipolar medication, with no observable change in behavior by my mental health professionals.

          I’ve still had laypeople tell me, though, that I must be bipolar because of those tendencies and that my doctors are all incompetent and that I’m not doing enough and all that crap. Of course, these people don’t realize that most people with ASD are disabled and I actually can hold down a job (past 4 years with the same company!) and maintain a residence. By that measure, I’m actually not doing that bad and I think they should just accept those tendencies mentioned above and try better to accommodate it–or even telling me directly what about me they have an issue with–instead of effing second guessing my mental health professionals who I’m actually quite happy with because of ignorance surrounding issues of ASD.

          Basically, this comes from the assumption that disorders like ASD can just be made to “go away.”

          A lot of this discussion reminds me of the butting in on treatment that many laypeople like to do with mental illnesses, but not so much with physical illnesses:

          http://www.robot-hugs.com/helpful-advice/

          • ebutler says

            And to clarify, all these people have told me this *online*, without ever having met me in real life. That just makes it worse in my opinion, because to properly diagnose any mental illness, you have to meet with the person in person, because otherwise you cannot properly guage their mental state.

        • says

          Maybe I’m the one who’s being super-annoyingly nitpicky, because it still doesn’t seem like we’re talking about quite the same thing.

          Namely: it’s one thing to observe someone behaving erratically and probably in ways that are dangerous to themselves and others and say, “This person probably needs mental healthcare,” even if the person disagrees with you. It’s another to observe someone who outwardly appears healthy, happy, and well-adjusted and say, “This person just doesn’t realize they’re sick. They need mental healthcare.”

          The former is what happens anytime a concerned friend or family member tells someone that they probably need to see a professional. I want that to continue happening, even though the concerned friends and family members are probably sometimes wrong, because that’s how many people end up getting the treatment they need. But the latter is what happens when nonpathological differences or lifestyle choices get medicalized, which is what happened with homosexuality, transsexuality, and other forms of “deviance,” and what atheists who consider religion a mental illness are trying to promote.

          In the former case, you’re not actually making any claims about what’s going on in that person’s mind. You can see for yourself that they’re unable to cope with life or even in danger. You don’t need to speculate about the mental processes involved to tell someone who’s threatening suicide that they need to go to the hospital.

          Likewise with the smoking example, the reasons a person has for smoking, which can indeed be complex, have no bearing on the fact that smoking is physically dangerous, leads to health problems, and costs insurance companies lots of money. While a libertarian could argue that anti-smoking initiatives are paternalistic, it’s also the case that smoking is a massive public health problem that is in the government’s best interest to try to solve. The thought processes of individual smokers, while important in that they can help us understand how to reduce smoking, are not germane to the larger question of “Should we try to reduce smoking?” Because our reason for reducing smoking isn’t because we think people have crappy reasons for smoking, but because we know smoking does a lot of harm both to individuals and to society in general (whether through secondhand smoke, money spent on lung cancer treatment, or whatever).

          I am also open to the possibility that nothing I’ve just said makes any sense, in which case I’ll consume more caffeine and try to explain it better. :)

    • ebutler says

      Actually, none of what you describe is “likely schizophrenic.” You would need to see how long the symptoms have lasted and look at whether there is a mood disorder present, etc., while also taking into account whether the person is doing drugs or has a general medical condition, because those would affect diagnosis as well. Only qualified medical professionals and mental health professionals may make that determination.

      As for the issue of insight in schizophrenia, I remember reading this interesting article from the Schizophrenia Bulletin published earlier this year:

      http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/06/24/schbul.sbt087.long

  15. SunlessNick says

    Thanks for this Miri. It’s great to have something that so succinctly demolishes this identification (and does it in multiple enough contexts to also refute the “but it’s accurate when *I* do it” dodge).

  16. donbarbera says

    As a sufferer of depression and a nonbeliever, I find many of your observations valid. Comparing religion to mental illness may not be the most appropriate metaphor although I understand the impulse to classify it as such. Perhaps, an acquired compulsion or habit might fit the bill , but even those might not be the most accurate comparisons. Nevertheless, your piece is helpful in that it may give pause to using casual or popular “catch phrases” to make a point. Thanks for the article. What good would a reply be without shameless self promotion. I wrote a book on depression entitled “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Depressed.” It is available at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

  17. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Urgh, been fighting it since ~2002, it sucks.

    My, albeit uneducated, 2 cents on the religion/mental illness comparison: I’d probably not class religion as a condition, but it’s is possibly a trigger. I can pretty much nail down the situations that caused where things to wrong with me – mainly stress related (internal and external, internal being the worse by far) – and, well, religion could be a circumstance.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist and blogger at the Religion News Service, asked me to comment on why atheists should stop calling religion a mental illness for a piece he published today. I ended up giving him a way longer comment than he necessarily wanted or needed (#bloggerproblems), so I thought I’d publish the full thing I sent him since it’s nevertheless a way more concise explanation of my views than my huge post on this was. […]