The Thinking Atheist and Mental Illness

Earlier today I listened to The Thinking Atheist’s latest podcast, which was on mental illness. It was a wonderful podcast, as usual, and brought up some points that I feel are worth discussing. JT Eberhard, Michaelyn Eberhard, Jeremiah Beene, and Dr. Darrel Ray were the guest speakers on the show.

I think one of the most important points made on the podcast was that mental illness isn’t rational. Someone with a mental illness can’t simply rationalize their way out of it. Trust me, I’ve tried. They talked about how sometimes skeptics can be too hard on people with mental illness because of their preference for all things rational. They don’t understand that it’s not possible for a mentally ill person to rationalize their way through it. I’ve said before: it’s not possible for people to be rational all of the time, but many people think it is possible and they hold people that they view as irrational to be beneath them. This is a problem because you don’t see your own biases, but it’s also a problem because you risk doing great psychological damage to another person. Yes, mental illness isn’t rational, but that doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t hold rationality in high regard and doesn’t fight hard to be as rational as possible. I have to be more aware of my irrationalities than most people because I have a mental illness. I can’t afford to ignore them.

For those of you out there who have never experienced mental illness, I feel that the above point can’t be expressed enough. Mental illness isn’t rational, so don’t tell someone with a mental illness to just rationalize their way out of it. It’s like telling someone to dig their way to China with a tea spoon. It won’t happen. If you know someone who needs help, walk them through it. Sometimes that’s the only way things will get dealt with. And don’t judge anyone to harshly because of their irrationality where their mental illness is concerned. It’s not their fault. They didn’t ask to be mentally ill, and they have enough to deal with already.

I think JT Eberhard said it best: “It may be nothing to you, but it’s life or death to us.” Too many people with mental illness commit suicide. Too many do themselves physical harm. It’s easy enough to brush off their words when you know it’s irrational, but, at the end of the day, you aren’t the one who may go home and kill themself. The podcasters mentioned that people don’t kill themselves when they’re at their lowest. They don’t have the motivation. It’s when they are coming up that they kill themselves. When they seem to be getting better. This is a sad fact of mental illness.

I’ve never been in a position where killing myself seemed worth it, but I do know about the highs and the lows. It’s very true: when I’m at my lowest, I can’t do anything. I freeze because everything just seems too intense. I don’t feel capable of accomplishing anything, so I can’t even try. It’s not that I don’t want to try, it’s that I can’t. My brain won’t let me. But when I’m coming up, when I can act, but everything still feels too hard, That’s when I could see myself self-harming (were it ever to get that bad). This is very common with many different mental illnesses.

Here is the link to the podcast if anyone is interested:

16 responses to “The Thinking Atheist and Mental Illness

  • Good Posts on Mental Health/Illness | The Lefthander's Path

    […]  The Thinking Atheist & Mental Illness by Hessianwithteeth  Yes! Just because someone suffers from mental illness does not mean they don’t value reason, logic and critical thinking. In fact they may know all too well how important those things are because of their mental illness! […]


  • missmisanthrope

    It’s interesting that you position
    mental illness as something in
    need of defending, I too have an intimate knowledge of the subject, but i still feel that the greater problem
    In today’s society that it is overindulged and much too broadly diagnosed. Noone can argue that mental illness is not subject to rationalization, i had no idea anyone tried even. Brain chemistry, neurological pathways, hormones, they are indisputable overlords of all that we are, but if anything, i feel they are blamed for every mood swing and thinking ailment under the sun. And that’s annoying. The world of today is not what the human is built for, we havent quite caught up to it physiologically, it is fast, stressful, pressured, its products in our under-evolved bodies are in fact sadness, anxiety, depressive thoughts, moodswing etc., and those are just what they are products of our environment, yet every sad housewife is diagnosed with mental illness, as is every anxious teenager or lazy brained kid with dyslexia . Not everything is dyslexia, panic disorder or depression, some and many symptoms common To these disorders are in fact just things to fight off and work Through. There was a time somewhat recently, in the last century, when mental Illness needed defending, but i’d say the pendulum has swung far and over to the other side, it’s time for doctors to examine harder, and for at least half of the current “mentally ill” population to take claim of their feelings and buck up. The pill popping is an epidemic. Sorry. Not a popular position. But please understand when it comes to true mental illness I certainly share your sentiments.


  • aeflinn

    The thing that gets me about this, is that the way to be rational, about depression specifically, is to recognize that there are some very real chemical things happening in the brain that make logical reasoning and actions very difficult to do. My husband and I are both atheists who try to be as rational as we can. We have also both dealt with depression. By getting properly medicated for his ADD, most of his depressive symptoms have gone away. I don’t medicate, SSRIs don’t work well for me. Instead he helps me work through my moods by talking, honoring the emotion and deeply questioning why I feel it. These awareness exercises help a lot. He also helps me to stay active and eat if I’m having a particularly bad day. So, rationalizing isn’t bad per say, I’d argue that if you’re telling someone with depression to just “snap out of it, it’s irrational that you feel this way!”, that you’re just doing it wrong.


  • Mohammad Magout

    What strikes me personally is not how I judge other people having problems with their psychological health when I feel good and productive. It is how I judge myself. When I get out of a very low phase, I look back at myself and think: why was I like this? Why I didn’t do this or that? Why I didn’t rationalize my way out of it? It is not difficult and it is pretty obvious how I could escape that phase…. etc. I really feel I’m sometimes very harsh on myself!


    • hessianwithteeth

      I think it’s really easy to be over-critical of ourselves. We expect more from ourselves than anyone else does. I think tha is one of the biggest reasons people don’t get help: they think it means they failed to do something that they should have been able to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  • lifehelps

    Hello. I worked as a therapist for 26 years and have spent my own fair share of time in the client’s position. I have two comments:
    *We now know that mental illness is largely biochemical, just as diabetes or thyroid disease is; in fact, both of my examples can be causes of depression. Unfortunately, most of our western world seems to worship logic and rationality. We are so much more than cognition!
    *Tom, I believe it was you that asked how to help someone with a mental illness. First, remember that they are people. Treat them with compassion and respect. next, unless they are decompensated to the point that they can’t think or make safe choices, talk, listen, let them choose for themselves. Obviously, if they are in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, call 911. I’ve heard people say that those with a mental illness have to be treated with kid gloves. Not necessarily. They have strengths, just like anyone else. Okay, I sound like a therapist!
    Thanks for keeping this topic in the public eye.


  • Dawn

    I have two major frustrations with the way most people view mental illness. First, we have become a culture that buys into the myth that there is a pill for everything. They think those who suffer from mental illnesses are fine (i.e., perfectly normal) as long as they are “on their meds” — although there are many illnesses, like personality disorders, that cannot be medicated. Ignorance kills.

    My second frustration is the way people point to mental illnesses to explain aberrant behaviors like mass murders (e.g., Newtown, MA and Virginia Tech). I can certainly understand the inclination to think you have find some way to “explain” it when people do horrific things. Those things would be much more horrific if you have to deal with the notion that somebody “normal” did that. But when people create boxes for mental illnesses in order to explain sociopathic behaviors, then they want to put everybody in the world who suffers from that particular disorder into the same box.

    Some of my children suffer from some pretty serious mental illnesses, everything from schizophrenia to autism to bipolar disorder to ADHD. None of them is violent. All of them are good people who have never gotten into trouble with the law. Their struggles are terrible and terrifying to watch; one has been hospitalized three times to prevent him from killing himself and another has been self-harming for almost a decade. I do myu best to support them but my fears for them can be nothing compared to the neurophysiological demons they face.

    Thank you for this post.


    • caelesti

      Many people do seem to think all you need is a drug- and while a medication can help some people, therapy, self-care and support is also needed. It doesn’t help that some insurance companies won’t cover therapy but will cover drugs.
      Completely agreed with you about the media distortions surrounding those various shootings.

      By the way, I highly recommend the book “Saving Normal” by Allen Frances He is a psychiatrist who helped write the DSM-5 and realizes many of the problems in it- he points out that many people are getting labeled and treated for milder problems that may not be necessary (or even harmful) while people with serious mental illness are often not getting help (not where the money is) He also has many suggestions for reining in Big Pharma.

      Liked by 1 person

  • gertiesjourney

    As an advocate for those who struggle with mental illness, Thank you for blogging about this. It means a great deal. Mental illness is an illness like diabetes. Thanks!!!


  • orangelolita

    Raising awareness of mental illness is the right thing to do. Great post.


  • Tom Kenobi

    To my knowledge, no one I know has a mental illness. However, I know it has had a little run in my wife’s family. In response to this, “If you know someone who needs help, walk them through it.”, I would like to know how would someone do that? What does that look like?


    • hessianwithteeth

      In the podcast, JT mentioned that he never would have gotten help for his eating disorder on his own. He said that he only got help because a friend of his called and booked him an appointment with a therapist. Sometimes it’s necessary to go so far as dragging the person to therapy. Basically, do what you would do if someone was refusing to leave a burning building (to the degree, not the same exact actions, that is).

      Liked by 1 person

  • Tudor Rickards

    Important insights. Thanks.
    I’ve been wrestling with rationality much of my working life. It is far too worshipped as a kind of super-normality. So economic man is essentially rational. Self interest is rational. Altruism irrational. Creativity irrational.

    All best wishes for our irrationalities.


  • studentgonzo

    “People don’t kill themselves when they’re at their lowest. They don’t have the motivation.”

    Haunting. And very timely, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. I didn’t know that your mental issues were so serious. I hope the highs keep up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hessianwithteeth

      I’m better off than most. Like I’ve said, I don’t need drugs. I’ve gone through therapy when I needed to, but mostly I can deal with it just fine. This coming September actually ends the hardest year in my life so far. With any luck, we won’t have another tough year for a while 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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