Why We Should Care About Mental Illness

At Skepticon, JT Eberhard gave a talk about mental illness. I had to catch my plane just before JT went up to speak but from the audience reaction seen in the video and the Twitter feed I was following in the airport, it was pretty apparent the talk resonated with a *lot* of people who never heard a topic so intensely personal on stage before — much less at a conference like this one.

We talk a lot about expanding the scope of our movement — to start talking about things beyond strictly atheism/religion or pseudoscience, and this is a fantastic example of someone doing that effectively.

There’s a reason they saved JT till the end. No one could ever follow him.

(via WWJTD)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Deiloh

    Thank you.

  • GentleGiant

    Wow, that’s a great speech. As someone who’s among the “crazy ones” it really struck home. I’ve shared it and hope a lot more people watch it.

  • http://twitter.com/adam_casto Adam Casto

    Great speech, though I really disagree with his claim about SSRIs making people kill themselves as being a “myth”. He is correct in that the usual way this happens is by restoring motivation before relieving depression, thus giving someone the energy to carry it out – which is part of the SSRIs actually doing their job. However he’s forgetting the dangers of paradoxical reactions and wrong diagnosis. SSRIs are great at treating what SSRIs are meant to treat. That doesn’t mean they are totally harmless though. It comes down to finding the right doctor and communicating with them properly throughout treatment.

    • http://www.facebook.com/geekysteven Steven Olsen

      He covered that in the talk.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Except that it IS a myth. SSRIs do not “cause” suicide. Nothing can “make” someone kill themselves — it is a choice made by the individual.

      • http://twitter.com/adam_casto Adam Casto

        If you seriously think it is as simple as “a choice made by the individual” then you obviously haven’t experienced such a situation. 

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

          You’re talking to someone who has, in fact, struggled with the decision to end my life. I chose to keep living.

          • http://twitter.com/adam_casto Adam Casto

            Good for you. But in many cases it is not a choice. Have you ever dealt with someone in the midst of a real psychotic break? Most often they aren’t able to reason at all and act completely on impulse.

            • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

              Yeah, my ex, and it wasn’t fun.

      • JeseC

        As someone who has come very close to killing myself as a direct result of medication, I would dispute that.  Some medications can trigger severe reactions to the point of acting almost completely against the person’s nature.  

        • GentleGiant

          Which is why it’s very, very important that you consult a competent psychiatrist, not just any little town doctor who’ll prescribe you anything to get you out of the office.

          Note: I’m not saying that all small town doctors are like that, nor that there aren’t incompetent (to some degree) psychiatrists.

          • JeseC

            Even that doesn’t always work though.  I apparently just have an anomaly in how my body processes certain drugs that causes extremely unpredictable reactions.  Some people just don’t respond well to medication.

            • GentleGiant

              I totally agree, that’s why I said a competent psychiatrist, someone who’ll recognize what and if drugs might help the patient. Drugs aren’t for everyone (I’ve had some adverse reactions to various drugs too) and some people can benefit immensely from therapy.

      • Tom

        One’s choices are constrained by one’s situation.  Change someone’s environment and you change what courses of action, or inaction, are available for them to choose from.  Change their environment to exclude all options but suicide, and you’ve made them do it.  And their environment includes the chemical balance inside their head.

    • Pseudonym

      No medical intervention is totally harmless. Nor is having a mental disorder. As he pointed out in the speech, there are ways to mitigate the problem: if you’re a friend of  someone who has started taking SSRIs, that’s when you most need to be their friend.

      (Unless you’re religious, of course. You can’t be a good friend and religious, because compassion is not a tenet of any major world religion.)

      • http://twitter.com/adam_casto Adam Casto

        He was referring to the situation created by the treatment of the depression, not the SSRI itself. Paradoxical effects or even a manic state triggered by treating bipolar disorder as major depression is more than most friends would be able to handle. That is why communication with a physician is of utmost importance.  

        • Pseudonym

          Sorry for being unclear. I did get what he said, but I was mostly responding to the objection that SSRIs are not “harmless”.

  • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com/ Tim Martin

    Great talk, Mr. Eberhard!

  • http://therovingrockhound.myopenid.com/ Roving Rockhound

    It was coming out as an atheist and skeptic that gave me the guts to do something about my own mental illness. The openness of the community and the willingness of people like JT to talk about their own struggles lowered the stigma just enough to let me take the first step of asking for help. The constant support of my awesome shrink and the few friends that I’ve been slowly telling has made me stick to it.

    The best day of my life was one day this fall. About a month after starting therapy I was sitting in the yard petting the dog, the leaves were bright yellow, the sky an incredible blue, and there was a warm breeze twirling leaves around. I suddenly realized that I was, at that very moment, truly happy, and the enormity of how sick I had been hit me like a ton of bricks. The dog was very confused when I started crying, but she was good and put up with it for a while.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=643510358 Alicia Hansen

    Thank you for sharing. Such an honest share that is rarely heard. Fellow “crazy” here that fights the battle to take meds daily because I know I need them but I hate that I need them.  

  • Karen Loe

    BRILLIANT speech, JT!
    My husband and I missed Skepticon this year and were disappointed to do so.
    I applaud you for your “coming out”.  Not only because of the bravery, but for starting something long overdue.
    Honestly and acceptance about mental illness.
    Anxiety and depression are two things no one would choose, why feel the stigma?
    So, I thank you, JT for your insistence on honesty, integrity, and for taking the risk!

  • Karen Loe

    Becoming a better person, one step at a time.

  • BS

    So JT had/has mental problems.  There are plenty of healthy professors out there.

    Who needs to take lessons from a defective atheist?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      1) Mental illness does not equal defective, and if you listened to the speech you might have picked up on that.

      2) Who better to deliver a speech on something so personal than someone who’s dealt with it firsthand? No random professor could’ve given that speech or created that much of an impact.

      3) You’re a dick.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

        Exactly!

        Thank you for posting this, Hemant.

    • GentleGiant

      Hello BS (how deliciously appropriate…),
      I know you’re probably a troll, but I’ll feed you anyway.
      It’s clear that you:
      1) Haven’t watched the video.
      2) Have no knowledge about mental health and illness issues.
      3) That you think it somehow makes people “defective” – I guess you think people who have diabetes or cancer are “defective” too?

      I suffer from mental illness, yet I don’t consider myself defective in the least. There are some things that I have a more difficult time doing than most other people, but I guess the same can be said of most of us.
      I also have an IQ hovering around the genius area (part over, part just under), professionally tested by psychologists with, among others, WAIS-III tests.
      I could probably run around you in intellectual circles on many topics, yet you have deemed me (or others like me) the “defective” one?

  • JeseC

    As a general comment, it’s very helpful to have someone within the community speak about this.  I’ve had many issues with the skeptic community’s equating religion with mental illness.  In many cases I have felt that saying “I have a mental illness” automatically discounts everything else I say – no matter how much else I achieve.  Especially given the emphasis on rationality within the skeptic community, having a mental illness can put you into the category of irrational people before you even open your mouth.  It’s a very frustrating and scary thing, especially if the community around you does not want to recognize it as real.

  • JeseC

    While I agree with his comments on SSRI’s, I do wish there had been more acknowledgement that they don’t always work.  I’m one of the people that does not seem to benefit from them, and has in fact had a suicidal reaction to one (I was nowhere near suicidal before starting it).  It’s not a universal reaction, but it does happen, especially in young adults (I was 18 at the time).  I’ve faced too many people that treat not being on medication as a justification for not taking you seriously or assume that it means you’re not trying to manage your health.

    Actually, that just needs to be a general message about medicine.  People’s bodies are different, and what works for one person may not work for another.  If someone’s talked to a doctor and figured out what’s best for them, don’t try to tell them what the ought to be doing.

  • Ben Parsonage

    Watching this video nearly had me in tears. My wife suffers from depression, to the point where she was seriously considering suicide, and it took me nearly a year to convince her to go to a doctor and get help. Thanks to medication, she can now deal with her condition, and her problems are greatly alleviated. So please, if you know someone with a mental disorder, don’t just blow it off as something people can just will themselves out of. Maybe some people can, but most can’t. It is a medical problem, just as much as the flu or cancer. They need help, and they probably need someone else to force them to get it. Be a good friend/spouse/person and help them to get the medical assistance they need, whether it be medication or therapy, or both. Don’t just tell them to suck it up, or try and reason them out of it. It won’t work.

  • guest

    I agree that homeopathy is not something that works on mental illness, however there are more ‘natural’ treatments, although they do not have the impact of SSRI and antipsychotics. Therapeutic brushing for sensory integration disorders, certain forms of exercise (swimming, horseback riding), handwork, and a relaxed environment, good food, enough sleep, and good counseling can have an effect.

    The placebo effect is real and measurable.  It has been used by healers to good effect. It just is what it is, its why drug companies need to give people sugar pills. Those sugar pills cause some people to have improvement, temporary as it may be, its fascinating! It needs to be studied as a tool for healing.

    I think turning to drugs for a mild depression, or ignoring a therapeutic environment are possibly mistakes. I don’t know why our society doesn’t pay enough attention to these treatments. These drugs do have an effect. Antipsychotics cause permanent tardive diskinesia, and I’m sorry to disagree (although I mostly agree with and greatly admire the speaker) but SSRI’s do have a net negative physical effect, and may cause certain individuals to take their lives.  It depends on the person and their disorder. Children may be particularly in danger of this.  To discount the data like this is reckless. All drugs put the body in an ultimately unnatural state over long periods of time (insulin can never reproduce a healthy endocrine system). Its better than the current alternative, but for so many people, these drugs over time are not good for their bodies. The severely mentally ill die on average 10 years sooner than their cohort. Some of that is the net effect of these drugs.

    Its not all or nothing, just like religion. And for many, these drugs are necessary. I’m just writing that there are better undiscovered ways of treating mental illness out there….Treatments that work with earh individual body rather than an arbitrary and unbalanced amount of neurochemically stimulating agents that do not work with an individuals delicately balanced system.

    Some people in society do have a fucking clue, and we’re interested in alternative treatments. I’m a scientist, and I can be skeptical of  aspects of that human game, as well as that as well as religion. We need to question the psychologists and psychiatrists more.  Drug companies do make quite a fortune these days, and money does corrupt most people to some extent.

    The spirit of homeopathy is something that draws people to it.  They want some control over the impersonal and uncaring trend in medicine these days. And old herbal remedies may have a real effect on illness. Don’t paint over it with a wide black brush and label it witchcraft.

    Skeptically, and alternatively yours,

  • Guest

    My comment of not all or nothing….I meant that the religious often take an all or nothing approach. And people often do, it seems to be our specie’s fallback when we are under stress.

    I’m not religious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000558072621 Garden Pheenix

    Thank you for posting this Hemant. I would never have seen it otherwise. And thank you to JT for doing this talk. Even thought it’s a different aspect of mental illness, I identified. And just so much love and hugs for having the strength to get up and speak on this. <3

  • Greg

    As a fellow… heh… crazy, that speech had me crying at times, and I actually had to pause the video halfway through. But I am so glad that the speech was made and I’m also glad I watched it.

    My particular ‘craziness’ isn’t the same as JT’s, but so much that was said I could identify with. The comment, for example, about not wanting to die, but wanting it to stop: I actually finished his sentence.

    Unfortunately, medication isn’t guaranteed to work – I’ve been diagnosed with drug resistant depression (I’ve lost count of the amount of things I was tried on) – but it really does help an awfully large amount of people. I have to say, though, what I see as the vital part of his speech isn’t necessarily regarding the SSRIs, but rather the attempt to destigmatise mental illness.

    Because here’s the thing: drugs aren’t the only way that mental illnesses can be tackled. There are very many different psychotherapy treatments that have tangible success with different types of mental illnesses. And scepticism is badly needed here, too, because there are some ‘therapies’ out there which have no credible research supporting them, and all the hallmarks of scams.

    I, like him, went a long time (most of my life) refusing to accept that I was depressed, and that somehow I could force my way through it if I was only ‘good’ enough. The thought process is that if you are suffering from a mental illness then you are a failure, weak, or broken in some way that can’t be fixed. I still struggle with it now. And the more prevalent this view of mental illness in society, the less people will be treated, and the more people will die.

    Had I been willing to see medical practitioners before I (metaphorically) fell to pieces and had no choice in the matter, I would quite possibly be in a far better position than I currently am. But with the stigma as regarding mental illness, there was no way I could ever have been willing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Anorexia… psssh

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      You tell us the facts and evidence you find dubious and then we’ll take your comment seriously.

      Maybe it’s also possible that this is just a tough subject to talk about regardless of the facts.

      • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

        There was nothing in particular I found dubious. Just that the constant crying was indicative of there being a lot of emotion involved. Being fueled by emotion tends to fuzzy up the truth.

        But then again, JT cries a lot. So it might just be a sign that he’s a pussy =P

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Natalie-A-Sera/743004321 Natalie A. Sera

    As a person with Major Depressive Disorder since I was in the 5th grade, this talk has much I can relate to, and I applaud JT for telling his story. One quibble though. He singled out diabetes as something that people experience no stigma for, and the fact is exactly the opposite. Diabetics, and especially Type 2′s, are constantly blamed for their disease, and told that if they would just get off the couch and stop eating Twinkies all day, their disease would go away. Well, diabetes is just like mental illness — you can control it, but you can’t WILL it or exercise it away. So maybe the point of the talk should be broadened to include ALL the diseases that hyper-health-conscious America would like to blame on the victims.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    “No one could ever follow him.

    Agreed.  His talk was so moving and very important.

  • https://www.planetoftheherbs.com/wholesale-herbal-incense buy legal incense

    Yes we have look for mental illness and as of my experience I found that herbal remedies are very helpful in this and other than Yoga is also a best option for keeping our mental health proper as yoga has proven to solve many of the mental problems.


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