Guest Post: The Stigma of Mental Illness and Religiosity: A Dual Insult

Guest post by Katrina Halfaker


My life is defined, to some extent, by my mental disorders. To be chemically different is to be a lesser. It is to be stigmatized. We’re cast as violent, deranged, and irrational even though we are ten times more likely to be victims of abuse, often by those in positions of power, whether they be police officers, academic administrators, loved ones, or strangers on the street.


I’m an atheist with OCD, which is comorbid with other anxiety-based disorders, and I noticed clues of their onset as early as when I was ten, as did my family, though they never took me to a doctor. In the last year, I’ve dealt with mild pubic trichotillomania. Years before, I developed a binge-eating disorder (which led to childhood obesity). It went quiet for a while, but still, it occasionally asserts itself in relapses. Every single person in my immediate family has been or is currently affected by at least one major disorder (diagnosed and undiagnosed: SAD, borderline personality disorder, and depression). I was raised in a religious household and educated until teenage-hood in a low-key Creationist school. We never had a licensed school therapist or nurse, or any provisions outside of an occasional hearing and vision test – but we did have chapel every week.


So, yes: I know the difference between reinforced frameworks and chemical diversity.


Many of you, my fellow secularists, need to understand one very crucial aspect of this dilemma: you have made it personal when you call religion a mental illness. And you have transgressed in ways you believe you have not. And you are unwilling to acknowledge it.


It’s All in Your Head:

The false dichotomy between physical and mental illness

It used to be thought that different illnesses were the result of demons and evil spirits. In the bible for example there are instances of epilepsy that are treated as demonic possession. As physical explanations were found for different disorders, the supernatural explanations were abandoned in favor of scientific ones.When it comes to mental health disorders however, physical explanations are harder to grasp and find. Not because they don’t exist, but rather because a lot of brain related research is either not possible with our current technology, or must be undertaken with great care for ethical reasons.  As a result, our society has created a separation between physical illnesses and mental ones.

On some levels, this separation make sense. When we think of physical illness or disability, we think of some physically embodiment. Take Crohn’s for example: with the right equipment one can point to the inflammation and ulcers in my intestines as an explanation of why I am feeling the way I am feeling. With mental illness, however, a lot of times we are dealing with something a bit more intangible: emotions and thoughts.

This separation is a false one however, that actually creates a lot of misunderstanding and harm. Because we see mental illness as dealing with something intangible like emotion, there is a social perception that mental illness isn’t real. That it is “all in your head”.

The truth is that mental illness is as much a physical thing as any other illness or disability. The brain is as much a part of the body as a leg or intestines. Depression, anxiety, and other such conditions may manifest themselves in part as emotions and thoughts, but those are expressed symptoms of underlying conditions in the same way that pain is an expression of inflammation or injury.

Moreover, it ignores the fact that all perceptions are “in our head”. If you consider pain, for example, while our bodies processes the injury causing the pain at the point of injury, the actual experience that we call pain is processed in our brains. This doesn’t mean pain doesn’t exist. In fact, we know that pain not only exists, but it is necessary for our survival. We know this because of individuals with CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain), a condition where people cannot feel physical pain. People with CIP need to consistently measure their body temperature and be very careful because it is possible for them to injure themselves, like break a bone, without realizing it.

Every tactile experience, every visual one, every auditory one is processed “in our heads”. If you say that mental illness isn’t real because it is “in your head” you are essentially saying that every experience we have isn’t real. Our whole lives are lived in our heads.

There are physical symptoms of mental illness as well. Many people who have depression experience joint pain, as well as fatigue. Anxiety can cause your blood pressure to spike, can cause chest pains, nausea, acid reflux, and a whole host of other symptoms. There is absolutely a physical component, so treating it as if it is something separate ignores important aspects of mental illness.

Moreover, treating mental illness as separate from physical illness or disability, ignores the fact that physical disabilities and illnesses often occur in conjunction with certain mental illnesses. Specifically, many people with disabilities have more risk factors for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This can be the result of the imposed social isolation that many people with disabilities experience, or in some cases may be a result of their illness. For example, Crohn’s Disease, in addition to the pain and physical symptoms that can increase the risk of depression, the inflammation of the intestines can also lead to a lower absorption of Vitamin D which can result in depression.

Because physical and mental illness are treated as separate, those of us with disabilities are not given adequate access to mental health care. In an ideal world, every person with a chronic illness or disability would be given access to a mental health professional who would manage their mental health in conjunction with their physical health. The connection between the two would also make it easier to argue for social contact as an accessibility need.

The way the world is set up now, people with different types of disabilities experience social isolation as a matter of course. This can be as a result of symptoms, or often as a result of insufficient accessibility. Because mental health and physical health are seen as separate, the idea that disabled people are prevented from being able to socialize effectively due to barriers such as transportation or even just on-site accessibility, is not seen as a big deal. Government officials see closing down programs and businesses that encourage and enable disabled people to socialize as risk free. People feel the need to vandalize playparks that are set up to be accessible to disabled children.

The false dichotomy is actively harmful to all disabled people. It enables people to ignore the needs of the mentally and the physically ill. It is meant to divide and shame. It is meant to pit us in false competition with one another, in the hopes that it will distract us from the systemic ableism that is so ingrained in our society.


TW: Discussion of Depression and Suicidal Ideation, descriptions of self-harm.

Just getting diagnosed with ADHD was a struggle. I remember the doctor I was seeing at the time giving me a lecture about drug seeking behaviour. When I pointed out that there were easier ways to get drugs than trying to get an appointment with a psychiatrist she relented but asked me why I wanted to be diagnosed if I wasn’t in school anymore.

The cultural perception of ADHD is that it is just a matter of too much energy. You hear all sorts of people extolling the virtues of good old fashioned exercise, or warning people about the dangers of giving children drugs similar to amphetamines. No one takes the time to think about how medications work. This is evident when they start talking about Ritalin or Concerta being the sit down and shut up drug.

ADHD changes the way you think. Not what you think, but rather how you think. It falls into the category of brain conditions that are considered neurodivergent.  It also has a high rate of comorbidity with autism. It’s not just “undisciplined” or “lazy” kids who need more exercise, it causes structural changes in the brain and can even impact how you react to different medications.

Most people however still have a hard time believing that the condition even exists.


Bees Knees


Cartoon Bee

I am terrified of bees, and wasps, and anything I think might be a wasp. Don’t get me started on hornets. I don’t just mean that they make me nervous, when there is a yellow jacket around me my mind descends into mind-numbing, gibbering terror. If I’m lucky, I completely shut down and stay as still as I can while shaking like an incontinent Chihuahua on a priceless Persian rug.  If I’m at my breaking point however, I shriek and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction, and towards the nearest door I can hide behind.

The fear is completely irrational. There are a couple occasions where it was possible I was stung. It hurt, but it wasn’t overwhelming. It was enough that I was never sure whether or not I had been stung.

I have no idea how it started. My parents insist that it was me trying to be like my best friend, an older girl that I thought was absolutely amazing. She was afraid of bugs and so I was afraid of bugs. I don’t know if that’s true, it might be. I remember exactly the moment that I became uncomfortable around crickets, but my fear of bees just always seemed to be.

It gets in the way of my life. My fear of bees keeps me from spending time outdoors. If we go out to eat and there is a patio, I come up with excuses about why it is better to eat inside. The sun is setting and the mosquitoes will be out soon. It looks like it might rain. Or maybe it’s too hot, and I would rather eat where there is air conditioning. I can’t let people know just how much this affects my life. How I avoid going for a picnic, or reading in the park.

Most of my time outside with people, I work hard to appear calm. My eyes dart around, locating every winged creature around me. If I spot a wasp, I watch it so I know exactly when it passes by me. I tense so that I don’t jump or run. I can’t relax because if I do, I know that I can be taken by surprise and my secret will be out. My ability to modulate my response always follows the same pattern: a the start of summer, the bees are too new again for me to be able to stay calm. After a few weeks, I can function just barely. I can sit still under an umbrella and slowly talk myself out of completely breaking down. But by the end of the summer, I’ve used up all of my reserves and I just cannot handle it. I stay seated for maybe the first five, even ten minutes, but after that I have to get away. I have to put distance between myself and the object of my terror.

The tracker-jacks in the Hunger Games series are my nightmare.

It’s one of the reasons I love water. Bees cannot live under water, so when I am in a pool I can be safe. I can swim away, I can duck under. Spending time in a pool is one of the few ways I get to spend time outdoors.

It’s why I love fires, where the smoke keeps them away and anesthetizes any that might be in the area.

For years I was terrified of wearing perfume, or deodorants with floral scents, convinced that the smell would attract them to me. I used to love the feeling of grass on my bare feet, but now I am scared lest I step on a fallen bee.

I know my fear is irrational. There is no basis for my fear. I’m not allergic. I haven’t been badly stung. I’ve never been attacked by a swarm, or even lived somewhere where bees are especially dangerous.

My fear is why even though I love plants and flowers, I despair of ever having a proper garden.

I look for solutions, since a life completely indoors is not healthy. One such innovation I managed last year, was putting up (albeit badly) a screen around my balcony. Effectively keeping a barrier between me and my winged terrors. Even the fact that some wasps had built a nest by our living-room window was ok, because there was a screen between them and me.

This year, I need to find the money to do the same thing again. Maybe this way I can finally spend enough time in the sun to take me through till winter.

This is what is meant by a phobia. It’s not just being afraid of something. It is a fear that actually impacts your life is significantly negative ways. It can mean preventing healthy social interaction, or being unable to perform healthy behaviour because of your fear. Coming in contact with your fear is not just a startle and a moment of fear. It is a traumatic event. I’ve hurt myself trying to get away, because the fear provokes a survival response. In my brain, that encounter provokes the same response as being attacked.

It’s not something I can just “get over”. It’s not something I can rationalize away. I know that bees are important to the environment. I heartily support community beekeeping programs, even as the thought makes my stomach plummet to my feet.

This is why it infuriates me when people think it is funny to call something a phobia. Or worse, when people think it is funny to respond to someone sharing a fear by scaring them. Like people who post spider pictures, when someone says they are afraid of spiders.

It is not a laughing matter. My heart stops and then races. I can’t breathe. I am like a deer in the headlights. I want to curl up in a ball and cry. I shake. My crohn’s acts up later. I become so cold. It takes me a while to recover.

I am working to get better. I have already improved, and in the meantime I find ways to reintroduce myself to the outdoors. With luck, I can install a better screen this year and spend more time on my balcony. And now you know.

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The Facebook Channel

I owe a lot of my social life to Facebook.  I joined at a close friend’s suggestion back when it was still, back when it was university-only and I could refer to people’s profile images as their “Facebook photos” because it hadn’t yet become the largest image-hosting service on the planet.  It rapidly became a low-effort way for me to stay apprised of my friends’ activities and life events, a way to occasionally meet new people, and a way to rapidly get basic info about people I’d just met elsewhere and figure out whether I wanted to deal with them any further.  Facebook was a big part of how I came out as an atheist, among other instances of shedding secrecy, and it continues to be part of how I explore and define myself.  I have an extended network of like-minded fellows largely because Facebook let me become far better informed about people than AOL Instant Messenger or face-to-face contact ever would.
This widening of my horizons is made possible by the way social networks like Facebook combine a personal statement, a connection diagram, and a 24-hour cocktail party.  Only in this cocktail party, it’s not just okay but intentional and expected that everyone is constantly eavesdropping on everyone else to degrees that would get people thrown out of regular parties.  Communication no longer has to be direct, immediate, and personal, and anything that takes the need for synchronicity out of talking to people meets with my swift approval.  I do not have the time, energy, or inclination to stay on top of all of the people whose life events interest me or vice versa, except by a channel like this.
So it baffles me that the otherwise consistently wonderful Wait But Why has arranged for people talking about their own life events, in and of itself, to occupy all seven entries in a list of “Seven Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook.”  This person, in no uncertain terms, finds other people sharing good or bad news about their own affairs to be a personal affront, a way by which people extract pleasure from others without offering them anything in return.
I am blown away by the sheer narcissism of this concept.

Apparently, the writer of Wait But Why cannot imagine reasons why people would want to share good news from their personal affairs besides wanting to induce jealousy in their friends and family.  The idea that one’s friends and family might have a preexisting interest in one’s activities (by virtue of caring about one as a person) seems to not exist in WBW’s universe.  As WBW sees it, the only possible motives for talking about one’s activities are all prurient trolling for undeserved attention.  Apparently, everyone Tim Urban knows is the villain from a 1980s teen movie.  This would perhaps explain why Tim Urban cannot deal with Facebook like a reasonable person.
Out here in reality, people experience happiness when people they care about have good news, whether that good news is finally earning their Ph.D. or coming home from a well-spent vacation.  People have suggestions and comments and snarky rejoinders for when that one out-of-touch contact of theirs finally discovers something they’ve known is wonderful for a while.  People derive pleasure and make new friends by sharing things they’ve enjoyed and finding that other people enjoy them too.  People learn about and better themselves by sharing philosophical thoughts and seeing what other people have to say about them…or who says nothing at all in response.  Facebook and similar social networks make all of that and more possible by demolishing the exhausting, time-consuming smallness of the social world and replacing it with something boundless in time and space.
And into that vastness, Tim Urban of Wait But Why casts only annoyance that other people are ever happy about anything, because he is constitutively incapable of sharing in others’ joy and regards all expressions thereof as cruel taunts.  Where other people find a means of communicating and staying in touch with multitudes of human connections, Tim Urban sees only a television channel that “selfishly” refuses to keep him in particular continuously entertained.  His world is apparently a deeply awful place.
Also?  Referring to someone’s complaint about being sexually harassed in public as a “humblebrag”?  Classy.

Stereotype Threat

It’s a testament to how massively atheism has penetrated our culture’s imagination that the body of anti-atheist memes has grown as large as it has.  Whether ancient slur against specific non-Christians or new insinuation from a “modern” thinker, atheists face an assortment of stereotypes and libels that form the core of why 50% of the United States finds us “threatening.”  And that’s WITH hardly anyone thinking we actually eat babies.

But if there’s one invective that raises my atheist scientist hackles until I might be mistaken for some sort of heathen Australian dragon, it’s the idea that evolution is responsible for “societal decline.”


Do Not Go Gently

I wrote this shortly after my grandmother died in February 2008.  There aren’t enough examples of non-religious grief on the Internet, so I thought I would post it again.  Some recent events make this kind of thing seem appropriate; more on that in future posts.  (The version below is edited for style.)