Do we have free will when it comes to mental illness?

Connor Wood

Business decision

I got a tremendous outpouring of positive feedback for my essay last week on my own family’s struggles with depression. Thank you to everyone who read it and commented. Of course, no essay is perfect – many readers criticized the emphasis I put on choice, or free will, in that article. Depression isn’t a matter of choice, these critics argued. Nobody chooses to be depressed. Telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t help anything. These commenters’ challenges give voice to some of today’s most important questions: what is mental illness? What’s mental well-being? Do we have any agency in it? The answer to that last question is yes – we have agency if we exercise it. [Read more...]

Mental illness: it’s not just in our brains.

Connor Wood

Wild depression

160 years ago, runaway slaves in the American South were often diagnosed with “drapetomania” – a supposed mental illness that drove them to run away from their masters. Cures and preventative measures for drapetomania included whipping and cutting off big toes, making it impossible to run. It didn’t occur to the doctors that running away from slavery was perfectly natural. It was a lot more convenient to call it mental illness, because this took the “problem” away from the horror of slavery and placed it neatly within the individual brains of slaves. Now, with Robin Williams’s suicide last week, mental illness is again at forefront in public consciousness. But make no mistake: our ideas about mental illness still need reexamining. [Read more...]

What happens when inequality grows? Ecstatic religion flowers.

Connor Wood

Laying on of Hands

Source: US Government. This image has no copyright restrictions.

I have a new article up today at On Faith, on the intriguing possibility that, as the economic grows more and more steeply stratified, we might start seeing a flowering of ecstatic religious movements. Examples of ecstatic religions are Haitian Vodou, Christian Pentecostalism, or Brazilian Candomblé. Such religions feature intense physical participation, music, and – often – spirits or the Holy Spirit entering people’s bodies from the outside. My argument is based on decades-old research by social scientists such as Erika Bourguignon and I.M. Lewis, who have pointed out that ecstatic, music-driven religions and spirit possession movements are often found in rigidly hierarchical cultures, where many people are stuck permanently in the lower ranks of society – cultures such as the one the United States is becoming. [Read more...]

Medicine and religion – Part II

Connor Wood

Physician_prayerIn December 2011, the Journal of Behavioral Medicine dedicated an entire issue to studies focusing on religion, spirituality, and health. Many of these papers attempt to correct shortcomings in the previous religion-health literature, including a lack of good theoretical grounding and lack of longitudinal, or long-duration, research methodologies. This is Part II of a two-part article summarizing and reviewing the studies from this issue. [Read more...]

Medicine and religion, Part I

Connor Wood

Recently, researchers have gotten serious about studying the effects of religion on health. For decades, there were abundant studies that seemed to link church attendance with better health and lower mortality, but investigators weren’t sure what those connections might mean. Was religious activity actually causing better health among adherents, or were there other factors in play? As part of current efforts to address questions like these, the Journal of Behavioral Medicine recently devoted an entire issue to exploring the concrete relationship between religion and measures of physical and mental well-being.

[Read more...]


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