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Dec 05 2011

Missing the Point on Mental Illness

Gina Colaianni wrote a reply to JT Eberhard’s speech at Skepticon IV about mental illness and spectacularly missed the point. Reading it is simply baffling to me because she seems to have heard things that I certainly didn’t hear in the speech. Like this:

The overall theme I gathered from Eberhard’s speech was that the atheist/skeptic community needs to move on from disproving religious claims and instead needs to help teach to the world that mental illness is not something to dismiss or take lightly. This statement quite shocked me because JT is one of the most die-hard people I know when it comes to disproving religion and holding people accountable for their beliefs in a deity. To me, he seems to hold no sympathy for believers. So the fact that he would all of a sudden claim that we should move on from the issue of religion was rather startling.

The only thing startling is that she thinks he said anything even remotely like that. She doesn’t quote him saying it because, of course, he didn’t say it. And who would think that he would? He still writes about issues other than mental illness and still criticizes religious claims and his blog is on a network full of such work. He said that the skeptical community should take on mental illness issues and stand up for sound science over popular myths; he did not say, or even imply, that it should do this in lieu of disproving religious claims.

First, I’ll take on his claim that medication is THE treatment for people with mood disorders. I’m the first to admit that I take SSRI’s as part of my treatment for depression. However, I disagree with JT’s statements that seem to say that SSRI’s are all that are needed for treatment. He said nothing about the importance of therapy. Issues like these are not easily fixed with medication. It takes the combination of drugs and therapy in order to even begin to combat this stuff.

This is, again, an entirely inaccurate rendering of what he said. At no point did JT even imply that therapy wasn’t an important and useful part of treatment for mental disorders. He focused on medication because that is a key issue on which there are a great many myths. His point was that a mental illness is no different from any other kind of illness, it has a physiological or physiochemical cause that can be treated on that basis. And one of the main reasons why people don’t recognize that is because they are still stuck in religious dualism, the notion that our “souls” or “spirits” or “minds” are entirely distinct from our physical bodies. But they’re not. Our mental states are intrinsically tied to our purely natural bodies, particularly to the balance of chemicals in the brain. That is precisely why the skeptical community should be taking on these issues, because our materialist mindset is necessary for understanding the nature of mental illness and for treating it effectively. But that certainly does not mean, nor did he ever imply, that therapy was either bad or unnecessary.

I strongly disagree with JT telling the audience that they MUST be there for their family and friends who are suffering from mental illness. You can’t make anyone take on anything. What if they don’t want to take on this issue? Just as some skeptics choose to focus on religion while other skeptics choose to focus on alternative medicine or other forms of skepticism, people have the right to decide whether or not to focus on a specific issue. Someone who is forced to do something against their will or desire may actually cause more harm than good.

Does she really think JT is going to force someone to “be there for their friends” with mental illness? How could he do that, even hypothetically? His point was simply that one should be there for their friends and family, should treat those with mental illness with compassion and understanding and not run away thinking that they’re just broken. Who on earth could disagree with that?

Another issue I have is the fact that JT readily believes that it’s okay for people to suffer from mental illness, while it is not okay for people to believe in and follow a religion.

No, he doesn’t believe that it’s “okay” for people to suffer from mental illness. He thinks people with mental illness should get help and that the people around them should help them as much as they can. For the fourth time in a single article, she has attacked a cartoonish straw man of what he said rather than what he actually said. It’s really quite bizarre.

Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts? Why not apply the same type of logic to this claim? Just present enough evidence to someone that their thoughts do not accurately represent actual reality, and they should immediately accept the fact that they are a good person and should be happy. Mental illness does bad things to the people suffering from them. Seems fair to expect people suffering mental illness to just disprove its validity, right?

And it gets even more bizarre. I have no idea what that first sentence means. None at all. What could it even mean to say that mental disorders are “founded on” something? Does that mean caused by? They’re not caused by unproven beliefs and thoughts, they’re caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. The views most people have of mental illness is founded on unproven beliefs and that is exactly why JT is right that skeptics need to educate people on the reality of mental illness.

I am just baffled by how she could listen to the same speech I did and read all of those things into it that were not there. This isn’t just a caricature of JT’s arguments, it’s often an attack on the precise opposite of what he said. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a point be missed so spectacularly.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Aquaria

    She’s probably a therapist.

    Or as I call them, professional sadists.

  2. 2
    cholten99

    > Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on
    > un-provable beliefs and thoughts?

    Well, to anyone who has or knows someone with a mental illness (and regardless of what she says that’s pretty much everyone) it’s pointless reading anything else after she said that.

  3. 3
    Deen

    Because nobody can walk and chew bubble-gum at the same time.

  4. 4
    rjmx

    Gina sounds like someone who hasn’t yet come to terms with her own mental illness (depression, as she says). Probably thinks, deep down, that she isn’t really ill at all.
    I know. I’ve been there.

  5. 5
    crowepps

    This comes across to me as someone who is very comfortable applying skepticism to religion and the prejudices of those foolish religious people over there, but who is distressed by the idea that skepticism might be brought to bear on a subject where she might have to examine her own opinions to see if they are based on stereotypes and deep rooted prejudices. I feel for her. Mocking other people is much more fun than dealing with ones own blindspots and irrationalities, that’s why so many religious people do so.

  6. 6
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts? Why not apply the same type of logic to this claim? Just present enough evidence to someone that their thoughts do not accurately represent actual reality, and they should immediately accept the fact that they are a good person and should be happy. Mental illness does bad things to the people suffering from them. Seems fair to expect people suffering mental illness to just disprove its validity, right?

    It seems to me that from this paragraph alone one could diagnose the mental disorder of not being able to think clearly.

  7. 7
    TCC

    I think the “mental disorders are founded on unprovable beliefs and thoughts” comment is meant to imply that mental disorders are often accompanied by denials of reality, which (according to her) should be resolvable by simply showing the person how their beliefs and thoughts do not comport with reality. Only a terminally naive (or ignorant) person would think that this is a reasonable solution in itself. (Hell, it’s not really even a reasonable solution for religion – how many people will simply refuse to believe you if you show them evidence that contradicts what they believe?)

  8. 8
    thedudediogenes

    Wow…I just went over to that site. Apparently the author is a psychology major! WTF?!!

  9. 9
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Wow. She needs help.

  10. 10
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Wow…I just went over to that site. Apparently the author is a psychology major! WTF?!!

    Being a psychology major doesn’t make her an actual psychologist. Especially if it’s an undergraduate degree. A lot of people just major in psychology because they’ve heard it’s pretty easy but it’s marginally more respectable than, say, Communications.*

    *There may well be a real art/science to this particular major but the degree to which it’s tarnished by most of the people who choose it as an undergraduate major is justly legendary.

  11. 11
    Noadi

    Another issue I have is the fact that JT readily believes that it’s okay for people to suffer from mental illness, while it is not okay for people to believe in and follow a religion.

    What the hell does this even mean? It’s like saying that JT thinks it’s okay for people to have cancer but not believe in religion. If course it’s not okay for people to mental illness but it’s also not something that can be reasoned out of. It’s just a fact. Some people have mental illness and some people have cancer and they should all have access to appropriate medical care for it and not told it’s all their fault for being sick.

  12. 12
    Eamon Knight

    Well, what about the fact that mental disorders are founded on un-provable beliefs and thoughts?….

    Trying (somewhat desperately) to make some sense out of that, I come up with:

    1) Delusional psychoses are, by definition, all about false beliefs — due to faulty processing of sensory data and/or faulty cognition. But organic failures of perception and cognition cannot be fixed by rational argument for the simple reason that it is the rational faculty itself that is impaired. The tragic example of psychosis demonstrates that we are, in the end, what our brains allow us to be.

    2) Depression includes a tendency to falsely accentuate the negative aspects of oneself and one’s environment and diminish the positives. Allowing for considerable individual variation, it tends to respond to a combination of drugs to re-balance key neurotransmitters, and talk therapy that does indeed try to “disprove” the patient’s false negative beliefs. So she’s got like, half a point on that one.

    But it goes pretty much to hell from there.

  13. 13
    franklinbacon

    I have been guilty of making the logical fallacy this person is making. It is a very narrow view of a concept…an assumption that all discourse is following the same line of thinking as others one has heard in the past. It becomes particularly pernicious when we are inwardly combative against a person or group and read our negative thoughts into the presentation, thinking the speaker is saying things they are not, but not realizing that without reading their mind we must rely on bare words and try not to infer.

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