I read skeptical writing for over a decade. During that time, I should have been educated about the social issues surrounding mental health and disability. It should have been common knowledge in the skeptical community. It is outrageous that it was not.
I say this as a person who does not have any mental health issues, or disabilities of any kind. And I am still rather uneducated about mental disabilities (so please correct me on anything). To the extent that I know anything, I primarily learned about it through my participation in social justice activism, and through my boyfriend, who has a mental disability.
I list three major reasons why I think mental health should have been a major skeptical topic:
1. It already aligns with skeptical interests. Skeptics love to talk about psychology and psychological biases. They love detail-oriented coverage of scientific topics. However, whenever skeptics did talk about psychological biases, the emphasis would always be on “normal” psychology. There is some rationale for this, as it teaches skeptics humility. But it also takes normal psychology as the default. We did not discuss the fact that neurological diversity is ordinary in itself, and could affect many skeptics.
2. Skeptics already talk about mental disabilities, but in problematic ways. Every time skeptics criticize something, there are some who will speculate or insinuate that the target of their criticism is mentally ill. The general level of knowledge is so low that most people have no basis to make such speculation. But even when the speculation is accurate, it is still taking the wrong approach to mental illness. People with mental illness are not to be mocked or pitied. They are people like you or me. (Not being especially well-educated, I am not confident in my ability to outline the correct approach.) I am sure that skeptical attitudes towards mental disabilities have chased people out of the skeptical movement.
3. Drugs are a significant topic in skepticism, as well as a significant topic for people with mental disabilities. My boyfriend’s disability is an invisible one, and usually the way people learn about it is from the drugs he takes on a regular basis. Those drugs have saved his life. And yet, I’ve heard people respond to them with generic anti-drug sentiments (e.g. “I don’t think people should be taking drugs like that”). I’ve heard of employer discriminating against people for taking drugs on a regular basis (even though this is illegal).
Anti-drug sentiments can be motivated by alternative medicine, which is a pretty significant skeptical topic! In fact, skeptics will often give token mention to how anti-drug sentiments hurt people who need life-saving drugs. But why didn’t we give voice to the people who were directly affected (whether the drugs saved their lives, or simply improved them)? Skeptics are always looking for a way to humanize their subject matter, and yet they totally missed this opportunity. Probably because most of the people with mental disabilities were chased out by skeptical dehumanization. For shame.