ActivismMental HealthReligion and SpiritualitySkepticism

Mental Illness and Skepticism

Mental illness is pervasive in the US and across the world today. In the US alone, nearly 50% of adults have a mental illness in their lifetime. Skepticism and atheism are ways of understanding our world, and we try to be responsible and compassionate human beings. As such, mental health is something that skeptics and atheists need to address. Just as we need to care for the physical health of other human beings, it’s important to give due consideration to the mental lives of other people. Throughout history, we have had a bifurcation between mind and body in many kinds of thought, and that bifurcation has set mental illness in its own kind of sphere. Skeptics and atheists have the position from which to argue that mental illness is a natural phenomenon that happens in a physical manner, and that we can study it in a way that is consistent with and continuous with physical health and our bodies.

Skepticism has had an interesting past with mental illness, however it is equipped to be one of the best advocates for better treatment and care for those with mental illness, as well as additional societal acceptance. There are currently many stigmas and a great deal of misinformation about mental illness, and the skeptic movement can help. I aim to outline some of the problems that sufferers of mental illness face today, before moving to address how and why the skeptic community is well-situated to address these problems.

Mental illness has gained a great deal of recognition and research in the recent past. With the advent of more advanced neuroscientific methods, we have understood more about the brain and begun to develop medications and stronger therapeutic techniques. However many people still view mental illness as an inherent defect, a lie, or “not a big deal”. Many people misunderstand things like depression, suggesting that the sufferer should “just try harder” or “smile”. Others even go so far as to say that mental illness is possession by the devil, or a misalignment of spirits or other kinds of woo. Exorcisms still get practiced today. There are all sorts of people who deny that mental illness is primarily an imbalance of brain chemicals (something accepted by most scientists). On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who want to throw all sorts of things into the mental illness category: homosexuality, atheism, anyone with a slight inability to concentrate. Doctors often throw medication at a mental illness and take no more time to understand the individual circumstances of the patient.

In addition, religion has also played a large role in creating a woo around mental illness. The bifurcation of mind and body or soul and body has a lot of people convinced that we can’t study the mind in a scientific manner: it is outside the realm of science. However especially with what we now know about neurobiology, it is clear that there is a physical component to the mind. I’m not making any claims about materialism or whether consciousness is an entirely physical phenomenon, however it is clear that if we make changes to brain chemistry, there are changes in emotions, thoughts and attitudes. This means that the mind is something we can and should study in order to better understand mental illness and help sufferers.

All of these circumstances make it clear that there is a great deal of misinformation and oftentimes a problematic attitude towards mental illness in the greater US (and likely other places as well, although as a writer in the US I can only speak for my own circumstances). So where does skepticism come in? In recent years, a few skeptics have talked about the importance of the skeptic movement recognizing mental illness as an issue they should address. All of these people have made good points, but more often than not I see only posts about the woo of physical remedies: homeopathy, the power of prayer, acupuncture. Not as often do we hear about how skepticism can help those struggling mentally. The skeptic movement has many resources to offer those with mental illnesses. First, it recognizes their illness as real, yet treatable. Second, it can offer the support of a community that will not shame, practice experimental, inappropriate or harmful “remedies” on them. Third, it can provide a group to advocate for continued research into mental illness. The skeptic movement can be a strong voice for testing and researching medications and other forms of treatment, as well as research into the classifications of and symptoms of various mental illness.

Skeptics are generally a group that advocates research, but I believe they can also be the group that recognizes that mental illness can be treated like physical illness in many ways, and that when it comes to our approach towards understanding it, we can treat it in a relatively objective manner. Many others want to cord mental health off from other things and ignore the scientific evidence surrounding it, but skeptics can help to bring it squarely into the realm of our lives and bodies, things that can be studied relatively objectively.

Skepticism can also be the voice that asks therapists and psychiatrists to be careful about prescribing medication. While skeptics generally trust Western, modern medicine, it’s also true that we expect our doctors to thoroughly test medications and make patients aware of potential side affects, as well as to try things other than simply anti-biotics or pills to solve a problem. Science has shown us that this may be a problematic attitude when it comes to physical health, and the same is true of mental health. Simply prescribing medications may not take into account all of the individual problems that a person is facing, and each individual reacts differently to medications. Skeptics are uniquely placed to question the trust that many psychiatrists place in medications.
There are some setbacks that the skeptic movement may have to overcome though.

Many skeptics feel skeptical of mental illness because it is emotional, personal and subjective in many ways. For those who have not experienced it, it comes on someone else’s testimony entirely, and may seem as if it’s overblown. But there is strong evidence of the existence, force and difficulties of mental illnesses and as a community that believes in reason and science, we should trust the research that has been done.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. May 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm —

    Another problem I have with a lot of the awful woo around mental illness, and illness in general is that it ascribes wayyy to much blame to the victim. Have cancer? It’s because you’ve been thinking the wrong thoughts! Have mental illness? It’s something you’ve done wrong, and if you think/heal yourself hard enough, it’ll be just fine! I loathe it, and it was one of the first things that made me think skeptically.
    The skeptic community respects the ill far more, by treating their concerns as real medical problems.

  2. May 31, 2012 at 8:23 pm —

    I would advise you to be more skeptical about the claims for a biological basis for mental illness, as they are in fact myths propped up by heavy doses of pharmaceutical company money. Read Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic”, which goes into some detail showing peer-reviewed studies debunking pharma company claims that mental illness is “primarily an imbalance of brain chemicals”. You might also appreciate the point of view of groups made up of people diagnosed as “mentally ill” and often abused by the systems set up to treat them, which are seeking to shift away from diagnosis-based treatment towards care that takes into account individual life histories and emphasizes social supports. My view is that putting people into boxes labeled “bipolar” or schizophrenic” and then looking for the best drugs for them, rather than looking at their whole lives and helping them figure out how to make real life changes, is in itself disrespectful. Not to mention the real problem of coercive and abusive treatment–see the MindFreedom website if you want to learn more about this issue and fight it.

    • June 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm —

      As someone who studies this very issue, with a focus on psychopathology, I fear you misunderstand the (at least in the US) approach to diagnosis, as well as current neurological research. The entirety of therapy focuses on making those life changes and behavioral changes that you’re talking about. That’s what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (one of the most common therapeutic focuses) does. It teaches better patterns of thinking and reacting. In fact, therapy itself can change the brain structure, and is a useful tool.
      Boxes such as those you describe are labels that describe present symptoms, and are not all-encompassing containers. As to coercive and abusive treatment, I’m confused as to what you are referring.

    • June 8, 2012 at 10:24 am —

      I have to ask: If it is not related to brain chemistry, what causes it? If it’s created by emotional trauma, do our brains not reflect the development of our emotions and memories? Are there not changes in our brain as we age that result from the environments we are in and experiences we have?

      As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I have found that medications that affect brain chemistry and medicines like anti-convulsants have the best results in treating my illness. I know the University of Michigan has done studies regarding bipolar brain chemistry, and the “it’s just a big pharma” argument sounds a lot like the arguments against vaccines, to me.

      While I’m fully in support of having an individualized medical program, the fact that lifestyle changes and individual treatment are effective does not disprove biological causes or influences, and does not completely remove the possibility of pharmaceutical benefits.

  3. June 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm —

    I also think that you should be careful about assuming that I am not part of the group of people labelled “mentally ill” as I do in fact have multiple diagnoses, have taken medication and am currently in therapy, so I think I have a pretty good handle on the insider perspective.
    I think you also misread my point, as part of what I was saying is that we SHOULDN’T simply throw drugs at mental illness since that does not follow from the science that studies mental illness, which shows (just like with physical health), that lifestyle changes are often more helpful, or need to be enacted in conjunction with drugs. I was simply saying that as skeptics, we can be a voice for asking what is the best way to treat mental diseases? How can we bring them into the sphere of concrete, treatable things instead of creating a woo around them that makes them either untouchable or the victim’s fault? That does not translate to “all drugs all the time”

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