Mental Illness and the Skeptical Community

JT Eberhard gave a speech at Skepticon IV title “Why The Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself With Mental Illness” that is simply amazing. I’m sitting here trying to think of how to adequately convey just how incredible and moving it is and I just can’t do it. I highly encourage everyone to watch it below! (1)

JT made an analogy that I hadn’t thought of before that is perfect: diabetes. Diabetes is a condition that usually isn’t caused by environmental factors (but it can be) just like mental illness, and it certainly isn’t the person’s fault. It also isn’t something that can be “cured,” but it can be managed. However, people tend to view those with diabetes very differently than those with a mental illness. Society, on average, tends to view someone with a mental illness as someone who is weak and needs to just “get over it.” They don’t realize that it’s not something that can be overcome with willpower, and I have a hypothesis why.

Most religious people believe that everyone has a “soul.” I put the term in quotes because there are many definitions for what constitutes a soul, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will use the following: a soul is the essence of a person that is divorced from their physical self. It exists before a person is born, and continues to exist after a person dies. Basically the Christian definition of a soul.

This definition is important because Christians believe that a person’s soul is created by God (and therefore perfect at the time of creation), and eventually goes to heaven or hell depending on their decisions while alive (the whole free-will concept, which is an interesting discussion in and of itself). This view that the soul is separate from the body inexorably leads to the conclusion that the soul is unaffected by the body, and indeed by anything physical. In conjunction, Christians view a person’s personality, morality, etc is tied directly to their soul, i.e. if a person behaves badly, then it is because their soul is rotten.

I think it is rather obvious that, given this view, Christians have such a negative view towards mental illness. If behavior is determined by the soul, and the soul is not physical, then problems with brain chemistry therefore must not have any effect on behavior (or not exist, or some other sort of mental contortion). Thus, mental illness is the victim’s fault.

Simply put, this view of mental illness is just outrages. It makes me angry just thinking about it. But we can also do something about it. When people like JT talk about the issues they face, it encourages more people to talk about their own issues. As with atheism, gay rights, etc, talking about one’s own issues puts a human face on those issues. For those like me that are fortunate enough to not suffer from any mental disorders, it’s important that we support those in our lives that do suffer from a mental disorder. As JT said in his talk, this is a cause worth fighting for, and is a cause that we in the skeptic community are well suited for.

(1) Eberhard, J.T. “Why The Skeptic Community Must Concern Itself With Mental Illness.” WWJTD. 25th November, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2011/11/25/why-the-skeptic-community-must-convern-itself-with-mental-illness/

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