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.