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The Myth of "The Myth of Mental Illness"

Some time ago I attended a dinner function where the speaker was advertised as coming to talk about philosophy and the mind. I spent some enjoyable times studying this sort of stuff at university, so I looked forward to an entertaining evening.

The presentation started out with a mention of how René Descartes had proposed the still-unsolved problem of the interaction between a material body and an immaterial mind. The speaker then went on to solve the duality problem by simply declaring that there is no such thing as a mind, an interesting, although rather naïve, philosophical position. The next statement led into uncharted waters by declaring that as there is no such thing as a mind there can be no such thing as mental illness. Well, it was an uncharted area for anyone who hadn't met Scientology before.

He appeared to be using the syllogism:

  • Mental illness requires a mind
  • There is no such thing as a mind
  • Therefore there can be no such thing as mental illness.

This is a logical fallacy called Modus Tollens, specifically a subset of fallacies which come under the heading "Denying the Antecedent". If you start with an axiom that there is no such thing as mental illness then the non-existence of the mind becomes a convenient piece of evidence supporting your position.

I may well have been the only person in the audience who had had anything to do with Scientology and I have also have some vicarious knowledge of the mental health system, so the red flags started popping up for me shortly afterwards.

Some of these warning signs were stories such as the one about the millions of children being prescribed Ritalin, but the turning point for me was when the speaker mentioned that anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was one of his dearest friends. (Szasz worked with the Scientologists to create the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a blatant anti-psychiatry Scientology front organisation.) He then went on with more CCHR nonsense such as the claim that ADHD was invented in 1987 simply to create a need for Ritalin. (Methylphenidate was patented in 1954, so inquiring minds want to know why it was invented 33 years before what it was supposed to treat. That is assuming that "inquiring minds" exist, of course). We were eventually told that schizophrenia is just people hearing themselves think like everybody else does and that anorexia nervosa is just girls having conscious hunger strikes to get their own way and annoy their parents. By the end of the night we were hearing scary stories about government plans to drug all schoolchildren

CCHR would not be such a problem if the Scientology links were made obvious, because this might make other people think twice about dealing with them. On the other hand, it might not worry some people who deal with them. Alternative medicine supporters gleefully accept the CCHR's attacks on drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac because this supports their shared ideology that there is no such thing as mental illness. (It is no coincidence that altworld's most "dangerous" chemicals are Ritalin, Prozac, fluoride, aspartame and mercury.)

I know people who have suffered from depression and other mental illnesses. There are some people I don't know any more because they committed suicide. I have friends whose son was crippled when his schizophrenia led him to leap from a window. I have seen the skeleton-like frames of young girls with feeding tubes up their noses and twenty-four-hour supervision in a locked hospital ward who, according to the anti-psychiatrists, are just killing themselves to make a point to their parents. I have watched as someone had charcoal forced into their stomach to soak up poison, and I know several families who have had to keep all knives and razor blades locked away to prevent their children cutting themselves. That anyone would deny that these are problems and campaign against effective treatments for these illnesses is almost beyond belief.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), the dinner was not the sort of place where I could hurl furniture and insults, and the question at the end which opened the crack to allow me to introduce an exposure of the Scientology connection was declared the last question before everyone went home. I am sure that most of the audience would have been unaware of the background to what they had been told, and I am equally sure that nobody openly promoting Scientology or its principles would have ever been invited to speak to this particular audience. A real psychiatrist in the audience later told me that she could not remember the last time she heard so many specious claims in such a short time.

The speaker was never invited back.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the July/August 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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