An open letter to Kevin Hines about how propagating the biomedical model of mental illness causes harm by increasing stigma

Dear Kevin,

Subsequent to un-friending and blocking me on Facebook you made the following comment about me:

Problem is I know the guy, he should have had the common decency to just call me, instead of this daily social media kevin bashing.

We have exchanged some tweets and emails, but we have never met.  We’ve never had a conversation in person or on the phone, and I don’t have your phone number.  Your statement to your Facebook audience is so misleading it’s very close to being a lie, if it isn’t already.  Plus it also leaves out the fact that I have been attempting to engage in an actual conversation with you on this topic and others like it for months. I’m not suggesting you owe me anything brother, but the comments you are posting publicly on Facebook paint a patently misleading picture of how often and how long I have been sincerely attempting to have this conversation with you.

I asked you a reasonable question about a post of yours on Facebook, and you claimed that I was invalidating your personal experience with mental illness although I did no such thing.  My words speak for themselves brother.  As do yours Kevin.  Last night, you leveled an ad hominem attack at me on Twitter, and then deleted it after I called it out as such.  

To review the question I asked.

You wrote on Facebook:

Ben believes in the idea that we “live” with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.

I asked:

Would you have told this to people diagnosed with the “homosexuality” mental disorder prior to 1973?

Here is your answer to that question:

I’m sorry Francesco Bellafante but I “live” with this every single day. Period. I live well with it most days. I work hard to stay mentally well. Often, I miss the mark. But you are completely invalidating my and Ben Higgs and others personal experiences by sticking so closely to the ideals of the (late) Einstein. Not everything he said, wrote down, or was quoted to have invented is gospel. I’ve read quite a bit of his work. In that regard (and in no way am I comparing myself to him) Neither is anything I’ve said. It’s really open to interpretation based on the individual and their experiences. You have not lived my life. This is the second article you’ve written while debunking words I say. Interesting… 

The question stands unanswered.  Worth noting here again, you don’t owe me a half a second of your time, let alone an answer.  This is precisely why I have been so sincerely grateful and appreciative Every Single Time you have engaged with me.  Except the ad hominem attack last night, of course.

I sincerely believe an interesting, potentially illuminating and valuable conversation could result from my question.  My aim is to contrast the biomedical model of mental illness that you propagate with your language…

“Ben believes in the idea that we “live” with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.”

“I wasn’t on that bridge from an external issue”

“I was not on that bridge for reasons outside of me.”

“I found myself on the 25th of September in the year 2000 at nineteen years of age ready to cease my own existence because of my brain.”

“my brain was trying to kill me”

“brain pain”

“brain health”

“my brain was trying to kill me”

“malfunctioning brain”

…with the biopsychosocial model, and to point that out:

“Despite good intentions, evidence actually shows that anti-stigma campaigns emphasizing the biological nature of mental illness have not been effective, and have often made the problem worse.”

I was not just sharing my opinion or view with you here Kevin.  I was trying to make you aware that scientists have studied how talking about mental illness the way that you do, and they have found that it causes harm.  I sent you the article with evidence from studies supporting this claim.

 You can click on the image above to review the footnotes and the scientific journal articles that provide evidence supporting the article’s argument.

Returning again to what you wrote about me, and more importantly about yourself on Facebook.

Problem is I know the guy, he should have had the common decency to just call me, instead of this daily social media kevin bashing.

I am assuming that you would characterize this Twitter post as “kevin bashing.”

Your words patently propagate the biomedical model of mental illness.  Your words create a ripple effect that leads people to believe that mental illness is a brain disease.  I genuinely believe that doing so causes harm by increasing stigma and not decreasing it as the aforementioned article clearly explains.

I’m not bashing you Kevin.  I’m cogently explaining how and why the words you use to describe mental illness can cause harm in spite of your undeniably unimpeachable motives.  I attempted to engage you in a conversation to ask you to consider to slightly tweak how you speak, so that you decrease the chances of unintentionally causing harm.  Subsequent to that, I was compelled to create the provocative image above to summarize my view while simultaneously reaffirming my love of you/your work and the inspiration and hope you create in the world.  You are my brother in the suicide prevention movement whether you acknowledge that fact or not, and regardless of what you think, say or write about me.  Up to this point, you haven’t said or written a single word responding to my view or claim.  For the third time, I do not claim that you owe me a response. You have every right to ignore me.

To say that my criticism of the propagation of the biomedical model of mental illness is “kevin bashing” is a telltale sign of having an egocentric outlook on life brother.  Note the highlighted text in the image below.

Egocentrism is something I am all too familiar with… it almost killed me in fact. Here’s the opening of my talk.

On the morning of March 2nd 1998, less than five years after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Notre Dame, I found myself inside of a completely pitch black space when I realized I had stopped breathing.  As it was happening… I had no idea where I was.  I couldn’t see a thing.  And all I could hear was the terrified voice in my head… yelling at first… then screaming… before eventually wailing… as I desperately tried to breathe.  I had unintentionally fallen asleep inside of a running car that I had intentionally turned into a makeshift gas chamber.  Based on medical records I obtained a couple of years later, the near death experience I had occurred in an ambulance, en route to the hospital.  Nineteen years later, I have asked for this opportunity to speak with all of you because I want a shot at decreasing the chances of you and anyone you love or know from either dying because of or ever having a suicidal impulse.

Putting myself in a position where falling asleep would likely result in my death was a desperate act arising from a twenty-seven year old, sleep-deprived, addled mind in the midst of psychological and emotional turmoil.  For reasons I can only surmise, at 27 years old, I was compelled to view life through a childish, fearful, egocentric lens prior to nearly killing myself.  To clarify egocentric, I’m not talking about arrogance, narcissism or even self-preoccupation.  At the heart of my egocentrism was the failure to readily recognize that my view of reality, was a point of view at all.  Growing up I prided myself on being right.  I prided myself on objective, quantitative measures of just how right I was.  I was especially proud when I was deemed 100% right.  Egocentric people become attached to being right, and in matters of fact they often are.  I became so accustomed to being right, that I confused my view of reality with reality itself.  I almost killed myself, in part, because of this confusion, this conflation of what I thought was happening with what was actually happening.  This talk is also about getting over and beyond your “self.”  Fair warning, tonight I will be trying to slightly alter your conception of that voice in your head that you likely think of as you, in order to increase the peace within you and the world around us.  

You, Des, DeQuincy and Leah Harris have all provided inspiration for me at key times in my journey leading up to truly dedicating myself to our cause.  I’ll be forever grateful to you for helping to cause me to fully engage in this life-saving work.  Every single word that I have sent your way is unequivocally aimed at doing just that brother:  decreasing the number of lives lost to suicide.

I would love to have this conversation if you’re open to it.  If not, then I implore you again to seriously consider slightly tweaking how you talk about mental illness as you continue to inspire hope and healing in the people you undoubtedly help, to ensure that you don’t unintentionally add to mental illness stigma.

Love,
Francesco

 

Regarding my attempts to engage Kevin in this conversation…

Trying to CHANGE the WORLD by changing the words that Kevin Hines uses when talking about “mental illness”

Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor who is partially responsible for the fact that I write and speak about my suicidal crisis.  He’s a living inspiration.  That said, we don’t always necessarily see eye to eye on the subject of the most empowering way to talk about the suffering associated with “mental illness.”

Kevin published the following post this morning on Facebook from Australia. (emphasis mine):

Sat down with me ol’ pal, I today consider a brother… the incomparable, tattoo covered man himself, Ben Higgs he’s been through a lot, and has triumphed over great adversity. It’s an honor so share a cup of tea with him and talk all things #MentalHealth and #BrainWellbeing Ben believes in the idea that we “live” with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease. He spreads his message right across Oz and soon around the globe! Ben is a proud member of #TeamRippleWorld & #TeamRippleOz & will very soon have a featured episode in our forthcoming show… #HopeTheRippleEffect Australia a series about stories like Mr. Higgs From all walks of life in Oz. He’ll be headed to America soon with #TeamRippleWorld for the National Council for Behavioral Health 2017 conference, and we are excited!

I will let Kevin correct me if I am mistaken, but he also “believes in the idea that we ‘live’ with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.”

I replied with the following comment:

“Ben believes in the idea that we ‘live’ with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.” Would you have told this to people diagnosed with the “homosexuality” mental disorder prior to 1973?  i.e., “Jim, You need to face the fact that your desire to have sex with Steve is a symptom of your diseased brain. These feelings are symptoms of your true disease called homosexuality just like your angina is a symptom of your heart disease.”

My concern is that you imply that the cause of “mental illness” is necessarily a brain pathology despite the fact that the DSM itself notes that the causes of “mental disorders” are believed to be biological, psychological and social or environmental. Leaving aside the fact that the NIMH stopped DSM-oriented research into the causes of “mental illness” four years ago, it seems clear to me that your message of hope about the nature of human suffering includes a potentially disempowering idea: you’re destined to live with this problem your whole life because your brain doesn’t work right. Your exact message or one like it propagated prior to 1973 undoubtedly led some? many? to die by suicide. I think it’s important to consider that it still can. Surely someone’s fallacious beliefs can lead them to engage in disordered thinking & behavior.  No brain pathology is necessary.  A person can exhibit the signs of “mental illness” with a brain that is functioning perfectly.

Kevin responded as follows:

I’m sorry Francesco Bellafante but I “live” with this every single day. Period. I live well with it most days. I work hard to stay mentally well. Often, I miss the mark. But you are completely invalidating my and Ben Higgs and others personal experiences by sticking so closely to the ideals of the (late) Einstein. Not everything he said, wrote down, or was quoted to have invented is gospel. I’ve read quite a bit of his work. In that regard (and in no way am I comparing myself to him) Neither is anything I’ve said. It’s really open to interpretation based on the individual and their experiences. You have not lived my life. This is the second article you’ve written while debunking words I say. Interesting… Margaret HinesLauren Kate Breen and others..thoughts ?

And I responded in turn as follows:

“But you are completely invalidating my and Ben Higgs and others personal experiences by sticking so closely to the ideals of the (late) Einstein.”

With all due respect Kevin, I didn’t write a single word that invalidates your personal experience brother, rather I am challenging the implications and/or claims that you guys are making based on your experience. This is an important difference. Plus, my comments made no mention of and do not rely on anything that Albert Einstein said, nor on my own free will skepticism. Words matter, and so do facts. I would respectfully disagree that facts are up for interpretation. Your messaging consistently implies that “mental illness” necessarily results from brain pathology. This claim doesn’t stand up to empirical scrutiny. If that’s not a belief of yours, then my confusion is important information for you, because that’s the message that I get from your communication, and as I said in my prior post… I think this is a potentially disempowering message. I.e., If you have a “mental illness” you need to accept that you are destined to live with this problem your whole life… because your brain doesn’t work right.
Events happen, and then people think and say things about those events—let’s call those stories. No matter how true a story is, events that have occurred and the stories that people tell about those events, are never the same thing. They can’t be. One is an occurrence in reality as it’s happening. The other is an after the fact symbolic representation. We use language, we use stories to encapsulate and communicate meaning about reality as it seems to us. Every word is a story unto itself making sense of existence. Every diagnosis of every “mental disorder” relies on a translation of stories. A person tells a psychiatrist a story, and the psychiatrist maps that natural language story onto a “mental disorder” story from a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM. I failed to remember the basic event-story distinction I described a moment ago when I was told my “mental disorder” story about my past after nearly dying by suicide.

I confused my DSM diagnosis or “mental disorder story” with reality itself. I conflated a boilerplate story from a big book with a story about a series of events from my life. When you’re suffering, it’s comforting when a doctor, a trusted authority, gives you an officially-sanctioned medical reason for why you feel so horrible, and better yet, a remedy to help you. I made another critical mistake when I was diagnosed. I believed that my diagnosis mapped onto a specific brain pathology that was necessarily responsible for my problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. My psychiatrist didn’t know enough about the psychological and social or environmental factors in my life to seriously consider them before diagnosing and treating me. It is no surprise that I mistakenly blamed my brain for my problems, like millions of other “mental patients” do. I was so grateful that there was a pill that could repair the problem in my brain, and help me feel like myself again. “Diabetics take insulin to fix diabetes. I take Paxil to fix my brain, and to avoid feeling depressed!” I thought. Essentially, I was told and believed, that I was a mentally ill person who would have to cope with my mental illness for the rest of my life.

Nineteen years later, it’s evident that me believing that my suicidal behavior necessarily resulted from a “mental illness” was more beneficial to the psychiatrist who told me that than it was for me. I’m not claiming that this was the doctor’s fault or a sign of ill-intent on his part. He was trained to look for different “nails” to hit with different “hammers,” and I was a decidedly perfect fit for a hit from Paxil. He was just doing his job, and playing his role in a system whose approach to solving the problem of human suffering has evidently been corrupted by profit-maximizing motives. (See Whitaker’s and Cosgrove’s – Psychiatry Under the Influence.)

Unfortunately, like millions of other people diagnosed with a “mental illness” I came to see that diagnosis as a defining part of my identity for a period of time. I didn’t think that I had or was exhibiting the signs of a “mental illness” — rather I thought, “I am a mentally ill person.” A respected authority led me to believe that I had a brain disease, and I saw no reason to doubt him at the time. My belief led me to seriously entertain the fallacy that I was biologically destined to suffer from despair over and over again, unless of course I continued to ingest the Paxil tablets. I’m beyond grateful that someone was willing and able to inspire me to question my psychiatrist’s explanation for the cause of my suffering. White coat clad authority figures (and world famous advocates like you brother!!!) implying that brain pathology is necessarily to blame for the suffering behind “mental illnesses” increases the chances of people believing that they need to buy pharmaceutical remedies to be well.

I’m not arguing that “mental illness” doesn’t exist or that people should never consider taking a psych medication. I’m simply questioning if the medical paradigm of “mental illness” is the best way for us to address the problem of certain types of human suffering.

Einstein thought shame arose from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition

Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor whose efforts to try to help people struggling with self-destructive thoughts and behavior have inspired me.  He recently posted a video on Facebook about his #mysevenbucksmoment in response to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  In his video Kevin talks about the shame he felt after his suicide attempt.  As a fellow suicide attempt survivor, I’m familiar with how people who live through suicidal behavior feel guilt, embarrassment and shame as a result.  I was watching the final moments of the Obama presidency draw to a close after watching Kevin’s video, and I was inspired to share the following thoughts with him.

Regarding the shame you mentioned…

Albert Einstein (and many other thinkers) believed that emotions of shame and guilt arise from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition. Einstein said that a belief in free will results from a “delusion of consciousness.” There is a growing pile of evidence being amassed by scientists to back this claim up.

I’m compelled to suggest that Albert Einstein’s free will skepticism–his belief that a person is mistaken in thinking that he or she could have done other than he or she did–is an unheralded prescription for peace that this insightful genius left for the benefit of humanity.

I’m compelled to champion this idea within the suicide prevention community. We have GPS technology and many other modern marvels because of Einstein’s genius insights about reality. It’s time to consider leveraging Einstein’s apparent genius insight into the human condition too.

A world full of people who genuinely view free will as an illusion, and who are committed to maximizing well-being is a world without shame. It’s a world without egotistical pride. It’s a world without revenge–a world without hate of self or others. It’s a world full of people being compassionate, loving and grateful.

Recognizing that we may have already extracted as much utility from the likely fictional idea that human beings are autonomous agents consciously controlling their thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore their lives, is an important conversation that I don’t hear many people in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy having. I’m committed to changing that reality. Recognizing the likelihood that free will is an illusionary creation of humanity is a silver bullet capable of piercing the heart of the stigma surrounding “mental illness.”

It’s evident to me that Einstein would have said that believing in free will is a major risk factor for depression and becoming suicidal. The Buddha would agree as would Nietzsche. So too would neuroscientist Sam Harris and professors Bruce M. Hood, Thomas Metzinger and Thalia Wheatley.

It’s time to seriously consider Einstein’s conception of what it means to be a human being. This guy was clever enough to notice that humanity was grossly misperceiving the foundational building blocks of our reality–time and space. Is it so incredible to fathom that Einstein might have had profound insights into the illusory nature of the “self” and free will worthy of our attention and consideration?

Einstein’s conception of what a human being is and how reality works would suggest that we reconsider how we approach describing the problem of human suffering, including the suffering that leads people to die by suicide.

Looking forward to talking to you.

Best,
Francesco