Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Exercise in Missing the Point

So I just wrote a post in support of JT in his awareness raising efforts in regards to mental illness. Well, today CFI on Campus posted a rebuttal by Gina Colaianni. I wouldn't really call it a rebuttal, as the term implies that her piece was a response to JT's talk and the points he made in that talk. Rather, the piece is more akin to an odd amalgamation of opinions this woman has that are only vaguely related to the talk JT gave. Another blogger already beat me to responding to this, but I just had to sink my teeth into this one.

To start off, she gives us a little background on herself and her own battles with eating disorders over the years, and her studies as a psychology undergrad to give her some form of status as an expert to us. Then, she goes right into la-la-land:

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.

Now, I posted JT's video; which needs to be watched before reading the CFI piece. Nowhere did he ever say or imply that the skeptical/atheist movements should abandon arguing against supernatural claims. I have no idea where she pulled this assertion from, but it certainly wasn't from JT's Skepticon IV talk. That JT asserts this should be a topic the skeptical community adopts does not mean it is done so to replace the other various topics the community addresses. If anything, it falls perfectly under the "Medical" branch of interests that includes vaccines, faith healing, and homeopathy. There is an incredibly wide range of causes pursued by the skeptical community, and JT suggested that mental illness be included.

Additionally, and this may be nit-picking but I feel the need to address it, JT isn't trying to have the skeptical community make people take mental illness more seriously; he's trying to get us to dispel the myths around it, to normalize it and help remove the stigmas that surround it that so often prevent people from seeking the help they need. Those are two very different goals, and the difference between them needs to be recognized.

In making her next point, she seems to have blacked out during the talk at some point:

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.

Ok, two things here. First, anorexia, in all of it's forms, is not a mood disorder. It is a behavioral disorder. Get your terminology right if you are going self-identify as some kind of authority on this. Second, JT mentioned his therapist and seeking therapy multiple times. He explicitly stated that it took multiple things; a therapist, a support network, and medication, to get him to the point that he could function. It is ridiculous to say that he said SSRIs are the only path to health, since he didn't.

Next up:

One issue I have with this whole thing is the fact that he specifically chose the issue of mental illness. I believe that he chose this because he himself suffers from a mood disorder; it’s what’s on his mind. Maybe he has been shunned in the past by people who didn’t understand that a mood disorder can’t be fixed by simply willing it to be so. I don’t think it’s okay just to pick a topic simply because you believe it should be focused on.

Really? Are you fucking serious? So why not jump on Hemant for talking about math education, since he's a math teacher? Or Jamila Bey for addressing the hurtles faced specifically by black communities? Or PZ for tackling creationism? He is a biologist after all. Or how about Amanda Marcott, the professional feminist? Speakers tend to talk about what they know. That's why they get invited to speak. JT has been very open about his struggles with anorexia, and he has a fairly public profile, so he has a bit of a unique perspective on the issue that he can share.
What about other issues? What about focusing on uncovering social issues in undeveloped countries? What about focusing on other medical illnesses? I don’t think it’s okay to take on the issue of mental illness simply because someone fairly well-known in the skeptic community believes that the issue should be taken on.

"But what about the genocide in Darfur?!" This is a red herring and unnecessary. Moving on.

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?

Him asking people to be willing to help their loved ones who desperately need it as a plea for compassion. Even if helping is just being educated about mental illness and being aware of the myths that surround it. He's basically asking people to not give in to prejudice and to be compassionate, loving human beings. Deal with it.
What about the fact that some people don’t want help? Sometimes no amount of intervention or pleading and begging can “fix” someone suffering from mental illness. I remember back in high school when some friends of mine chose to try to help me through my struggles with depression and bulimia. I didn’t want their help. An eating disorder is usually a VERY private thing

Those statements right there are why people die. Because they don't want help. Because they think they can do it on their own. Or because they are too ashamed. Or any number of other reasons to keep their problems hidden away. JT spoke at length about how his ritual of weighing himself became precious to him, even though it was killing him. If there is one thing my family and life in general has taught me over the years, it is this: What we want and what we need are often two different things. And what we need is often the more difficult or painful to do.

For years I hid my self-mutliation from my family. Admitting what I had done, for how long, why, and that I had seriously considered ending my life on more than occasion to my family was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But it had to be done. They needed to know how close to the edge I was so that they could become a part of my support network.

JT regularly posts his workouts, his weight, the amount of calories he has to consume, etc. He claims that talking about this stuff helps him in his recovery; could it in fact be that receiving comments about these things actually helps to perpetuate his disorder?

Ok, here's a major bit of hypocrisy that drove me up the wall the first couple times I read this post. See, earlier in her post, she says:

I don’t think it’s okay for people who are not trained in the treatment of mood disorders to take on this issue just because 25% of the US population (according to JT) suffers from a mood disorder.

Actually, that is according to NIMH. And for someone who says that the addressing of disorders should be left to the experts, you seem to making quite a few speculations on how JT is sabotaging his own recovery.

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. He claims that people should be able to see the facts and the evidence (or lack thereof) and immediately accept the fact that there is probably no God. Why? Because religion does bad things to people.
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.

Not quite. Religious belief is voluntary, based on the acceptance of supernatural claims made by others. Mental disorders are not rooted in irrational beliefs; irrational beliefs are often the sign of a mental disorder. They are a symptom, not the cause. Mental disorders are rooted in physiological and chemical issues in the brain that can be measured.
Mental illnesses are extremely complex. They are not like other skeptic issues (such as UFO’s or ghosts) where someone can just go and learn about the claim and be able to accurately de-bunk it.

This is just downright wrong. As I showed in my last post, one can do a simple little bit of research and find all sorts of great information debunking myths about mental illness. Those studies I linked to about mental health and propensity for violence? I found those by typing "mental illness and violence" into google. There are myths and downright lies out in the public sphere about people with mental disorders. There are societal stigmas that make seeking treatment difficult, if not nearly impossible for many people. By having skeptics interested in health and medicine work to debunk those myths, the stigmas have a greater chance of fading and those who suffer from these disorders can openly seek the help they need.

I don't just take issue with this because JT is a personal friend. I take issue because this is a cause I greatly support and I think the points made in the piece are not valid. Also, the ad hominem attacks on JT, calling him a hypocrit and speculating on his health are simply unnecessary and come across as petty; particularly when you try to establish some kind of authority on mental health, then show through your arguments that you are not such an authority and have no place speculating on the efficacy of JT's blogging on his coping with his illness (especially when previously stating that such behavior should be left to the experts).

Dissent is fine and dandy, and it promotes growth and the fine-tuning of arguments. However, Gina's piece seems to be more of a projection of her own thoughts and opinions on mental health, and fairly removed from anything JT had to say on the matter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

He's nuts!: Society's Link Between Mental Illness and Violence

My dear friend JT Eberhard has unleashed a call to the secular bloggosphere: blog about mental illness. If you have one (or several), write about your experiences. If you don't, write about loved ones that do. Dispel myths about mental illness. Far too many go without the help they need because of society's stigmas against mental illness.

JT makes several very important points in his talk; ignorance of mental disorders breeds fear, there is an arbitrary distinction between physical ailments and mental ones, and a combination of these two overarching issues causes people with mental illnesses to be averse to treatment and the possibility of leading a close-to-normal life.

First, a little about myself. At 10, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had been showing symptoms as early as 7. At 14, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (again, showed symptoms as young as 7 years old). At 17, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of abuse received in my early teens. I have been in and out of therapy since my initial diagnosis. For years I chose to go without medication for my illnesses. The reasoning was at the time, there were not very many (read: none) medications available for young teens that did not come with heavy suicide risk. However, with the diagnosis of my fibromyalgia lead to my being treated with SNRIs, also a treatment for my myriad of mental illnesses. Now I am in the process of managing my illnesses with medication and habitual management.

Being the bearer of several mental disorders has made me an adamant supporter of mental health. I passionately advocate for people to get the treatment they need. It also means I fight to dispel myths about such disorders as often as possible.

Recently, I fell into an argument with one of my professors concerning violence and mental illness. He staunchly supported preventing people with a history of mental illness from owning any kind of weapon (namely firearms). His reasoning being that anyone who cannot accurately perceive reality should not be allowed to be armed.

His position is not an uncommon one. We see it all the time; we hear it in the vernacular. "That terrorist was crazy!" is not an uncommon phrase. When reporting violent crimes (especially high-profile ones), the news media often first looks for a history of mental illness to explain away an individual's (or group's) actions. They grasp at anything they can; depression, anxiety, autism, PTSD, schizophrenia, and so on. (See how my three disorders are on that list?)

At first glance, this is not an unreasonable conclusion for society to reach. After all, how could a normal person do something so heinous? That person simply must be crazy. It's an easy conclusion to come to. And it is very much wrong. Study after study shows that even severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia do not increase a person's propensity for violence toward others. The main predictors of violent behavior are a history of violence and drug/alcohol use. Those predictors remain true whether the individual is neurotypical or not.

There seems to be this idea that these violent people must somehow not understand the consequences of their actions; that if they truly understood that they were killing innocent people, they wouldn't do these awful things. Except they do. They know full-well the consequences of their actions. Seung Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter) had practiced shooting his victims in a lockdown situation. He knew the school would go into lockdown. He knew where the students would be, and what their physical positions would be. He planned accordingly. His history of selective muteness had absolutely nothing to do with very calculated attack on the school. Anyone who says that anxiety over speaking around others leads to shooting sprees needs to seriously reexamine their critical thinking skills.

People with mental illness are much more prone to violence toward themselves, not others. Self-harm, mutilation, and suicide are the most common forms. For 6 years I mutilated my legs, stomach and arms as a way of trying to (unsuccessfully) deal with my mental anguish. But the fights I got into at school were ones where the other person struck first. I just happened to be fairly big and strong for my age ;). But in all seriousness, a person's ability to harm themselves does not translate to an ability to harm others.

But negativity to those with mental illness pervades our culture. We freely use "crazy," "nuts," "psycho" and other slang for the mentally ill to refer to violent individuals. They are inherently negative terms. JT and others are trying to reclaim them, using them as terms of endearment. I too am trying to lighten (and enlighten) the attitudes around such terms. I lovingly refer to when I take small pile of pills in the morning as "happy pill time" or "old people pill time." By normalizing mental illness, by dispelling the dangerous myths around it, we can give those suffering from them the opportunity to openly seek treatment before it's too late.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Link Dump

Currently swamped with work and school-work, so here's just some links for y'all to check out:

A video of a young woman with a form of palsy being severely and repeatedly beaten by her father is circulating the internet. MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING; THE VIDEO IS OVER 7 MINUTES AND VERY GRAPHIC.

Why establishing "rules" for women to follow in order to keep from being assaulted is ridiculous and asinine. It only serves to establish a feeling of guilt that can be damaging for a lifetime.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is at last being extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. While I do believe the circus around his extradition is politically motivated, I do think that he should face his alleged crimes.

Victim of abuse? There's an app for that. No, really, there is. Vice President Joe Biden has a long history of supporting women, women's issues and domestic issues, so it is nice to see him backing this project.

As the daughter of two vets,
 this makes my heart ache. That we don't treat our vets with more respect bothers me greatly; that we forget women are vets too just pisses me off.

A high school in San Diego just crowned its first lesbian couple as King and Queen of homecoming court!

There's been quite a bit of kerfuffle on the internet about Mississippi's personhood amendment, but major news outlets still aren't covering it much. Which is a shame, because it is a big deal and a major chip into women's reproductive rights.