Mental Illness and Why The Skeptic Community Should Give a Shit: JT Eberhard's Talk at Skepticon 4

Everyone and their great-aunt Martha has been talking about this video — as they should be. I don’t know if I have anything to add. All I can really say is: If you have not seen this talk, I passionately urge you to do so. JT Eberhard speaks, with intense honesty and courage and eloquence, about his experiences with mental illness. And he calls on the skeptical community to take on mental illness: to speak out about it, to dispel myths about it, and to champion an evidence-based, non-fear-based, non-superstition-based approach to it. See it.

Mental Illness and Why The Skeptic Community Should Give a Shit: JT Eberhard's Talk at Skepticon 4

34 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Why The Skeptic Community Should Give a Shit: JT Eberhard's Talk at Skepticon 4

  1. 1

    I found the video to be a sign of how poorly JTEberhard is doing with his illness. I am also mentally ill so this is not a slam at talking about mental illness but at how it was done and by whom. If your illness is not at least somewhat under control perhaps you are not the best person to be getting up and encouraging people to talk about this. His breakdown in front of an audience was apparently supposed to move people to have compassion for the mentally ill. But I was embarrassed by his poor performance and control. Not all of us are so unstable. I’ve worked very hard for literally decades to be a stable and content person. Would you have been as impressed if someone unknown to the community had gotten up there and boohooed like that? How about a schizophrenic person whose illess is not controlled any better than JT’s, giving a talk? Sorry but Mr. Eberhard has no business being an advocate for mental illness until he gets a handle on his own.

  2. 2

    I don’t agree. He put a human face on it and I understand his emotions. There is a time and place for the aloof professional approach and also a place for the suffering patient to get his point across.

    I personally don’t share his kind of problems, but I have children who do due to genetics I brought into the family when I married. This genetic crap shoot is another reason I reject any all-powerful deity being in control. My kids didn’t deserve what they were dealt in the genetics lottery. It’s just dumb happenstance.

  3. 3

    mjones @ #1: Are you fucking kidding me?

    Do you seriously look at the work JT is doing with this issue, here in this talk and elsewhere — inspiring hundreds and indeed thousands of people to overcome shame and stigma about mental illness — and balance that against “oh noes, he cried in public,” and come to the conclusion that “he cried in public” clearly tips the balance against him? And do you seriously think that shedding a few tears during a talk somehow equals being unstable, having a breakdown, and not being in control of one’s illness? You think it doesn’t show, say, intense courage — i.e., a willingness to speak in public about intensely painful, difficult personal matters, in hopes that it will help others feel less isolated and encourage them to seek help?

    You have some profoundly fucked-up ideas: both about public crying, and about mental illness. There’s a lot more that I’d like to say to you, but my comment policy prevents me from doing so. So I will say just this: Your ideas are repugnant. Shame on you.

  4. 4

    mjones @ #1: Really?

    So being emotional when talking about an intensely painful emotional experience lessens the speaker’s credibility?

    It almost seems like you want to divide the world of the mentally ill into the “good crazies” (people like you who work really hard to keep your emotions in control) and “bad crazies” (who don’t keep their speeches tear-free and tidy). The best sort of mentally ill person is the kind that doesn’t seem to have been affected by it? This is the sort of BS that makes it so hard for people to admit they have mental illnesses in the first place.

    Would you apply that standard to sexual abuse survivors? Or any kind of survivor of illness, either physical or mental? “Sorry but (person) has no business being an advocate for (problem) until he gets a handle on his own (mental illness, survivor-ship, cancer recovery – fill in the blank).”

    Saying that someone who gets emotional speaking about emotional events shouldn’t be speaking for the cause is like saying that showing evidence of rational thought processes weakens a presentation of scientific findings. Does not compute.

  5. 5

    Mjones – that attitude is crap. Why shouldn’t someone who struggles be encouraging people to talk about it? Because he was passionate enough about something this important to tear up in public? That makes him unstable and makes his entire talk “boohooing?”
    Personally, JT is *exactly* the kind of person I want representing those of us who have mental illness. He was emotional and engaging while being well-reasoned.

  6. 6

    @Greta Christina Thanks for sharing this Greta. I can really relate. I recently came out as an Aspie (Aspergers Syndrome) and an atheist through my blog.

    My life has been an interesting process of transitioning toward an atheist mindset as I learned to cope with my Aspergers. Its one of the reasons why I am an antitheist. Its a long story (which I am slowly but surely blogging about) but to sum it up, as I learned to cope with Aspergers I had to toss aside faith at each step because it kept proving to be a deterrent.

    These two identities (aspie atheist) have become incredibly intertwined that its hard to talk about one without talking about the other.

    I really do believe that the atheist/skeptic/freethinker community could do a lot for those with mental illnesses. It did a lot for me. Thanks for sharing. Always a pleasure to read your blog 😀

  7. 7

    No ma’am my ideas are not crap. You just might be too close to JT to see what is going on. I know what I’m talking about from experience. When you are at the point that you cannot talk about your illness without falling apart you have a lot of work to do, perhaps change or add to your meds, group therapy or private therapy. If he had shed just a few tears as you say, I would have understood. I do know how emotional it can be.

    Also extrapolating what I said about this situation to imply I would say the same about rape survivors or others is bullshit dishonesty. You should be ashamed, not me.

    And no I don’t want someone who is not controlling their problems better to be representing the mentally ill for me or anyone else. I’d rather see JT get his shit together, then show everyone what can be accomplished.

    Greta, you have some fucked up ideas about mental illness too. You know jack shit about it.

  8. 8

    MJones – people with no mental illness break down in public all the time when they speak about important emotionally charged things in their lives. I think I understand your concern for JT (this was the first video of his I’ve seen), but from here it looked like he was responding emotionally – but positively and with hope! – to something traumatic like any human would (especially someone who is as extroverted as JT seems here). We’ve seen worse breakdowns with academy award acceptance speeches. Nothing about his presentation was irrational or over the top.

    Maybe you’re getting hung up on this idea that he’s “representing” the mentally ill and you just don’t see him as the kind of personality you’d want to hang out with. But really it takes a lot of “shit togetherness” to be able to talk this candidly and clearly in public. It’s a shame that your post was first because it’s going to generate a lot of heat, but in any case, congratulations on your decades of hard-fought stability.

  9. 9

    mjones @ #7: Yes, I’m close to JT. But I can also see the effect that this talk had at Skepticon, and the effect that the video is having. The overwhelming majority of people who saw the talk and who see the video find it inspiring and encouraging. People with mental illness are finding tremendous comfort and strength and hope in hearing these ideas spoken about so openly — by someone who is clearly suffering, and at the same time is clearly getting better and living a good life. People who don’t have mental illness are gaining more compassion and understanding of it. You are literally the only person I’ve seen who has become so fixated on this idea that crying in public is a sign of weakness or instability, and renders a person unfit to speak on behalf of an issue or a group.

    And you have no idea what my knowledge and experience of mental illness are: either in my own life, or with the people close to me. I can tell you that it is extensive. And I can tell you that this idea you’ve fixated on — this idea that crying in public is somehow the same as “falling apart,” “instability,” “uncontrolled,” “not controlling their problems,” etc. — is entirely detached from reality. As many others have pointed out in this thread: Lots of people who don’t suffer from mental illness sometimes cry in public.

    (Also, I’m not the one who said anything about rape survivors. Please read more carefully.)

    Your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.

  10. 10

    As someone who is atheist and also has the dubious distinction of having inherited a heaping helping of his parent’s mental illnesses, I can’t even begin to express how happy I am to see a fellow atheist speaking out about it in public. This is absolutely a beautiful thing. My heart and mind always go first and foremost for those who use their passions and feelings in a constructive way. It’s gotta be fucking hard to get up there and do that. I know, for me, when I take a moment to reflect on how much unnecessary interference I have to deal with, specifically depression, it makes me feel really emo. But that’s a good thing, it’s given me a lot of extra life experience, and opened me up to the power of my feelings. I’m a far kinder and more engaged person for having been through so much character building experience, and I think it’s quite hot of him to stand up and speak out. Thanks for sharing, Greta. Every bit helps, even if it doesn’t please everybody. There’s a place for cold dispassion just as much as there’s a place for weeping passion. They both have their strengths and people they will reach, and just like needing diplomats and firebrands alike in the atheist movement, the more angles of attack, the better.

  11. 11

    @mjones: I think Greta has pretty much dealt with your criticism enough, but there is one thing I would like to add that she cannot. I want to respond to this assertion: “Would you have been as impressed if someone unknown to the community had gotten up there and boohooed like that?”

    The thing is, I know of JT Eberhart by name, but I have never read or seen any of his work. I watched it because it was featured on a blog, ready to click it away if it was not interesting enough (I thought there was a high possibility of that considering the length). But I did not. I freaking loved that talk.

    I do not suffer from a mental illness myself (that I know of), but what JT talked about was still incredibly relatable. Yes, I did notice he broke into tears a few times too often and it was distracting and not fully professional. The talk might have even been a little bit better if he had contained himself more. But guess what… he is a human being who has gone through some very emotional ordeals and talking about it is not easy. Do you honestly believe, after listening to such an amazing talk, that you should be so critical of his story’s presentation?

    The message is one really worth spreading: it is NOT your fault if you are suffering from mental decease. Using medication does NOT mean you have a weak character. Take the drugs that science has proven to work, and it will get better.

  12. 12


    I know what I’m talking about from experience. When you are at the point that you cannot talk about your illness without falling apart you have a lot of work to do, perhaps change or add to your meds, group therapy or private therapy.

    I would rather someone who has a lot of work to do regarding their mental health stood up and talked about the intersection of skepticism and mental health than the resounding lack of anyone standing up and talking about it that had preceded this talk.

    Maybe other speakers, who have done all the work you speak of will be inspired by JT to follow up on this, now that the topic has been raised. Maybe he will inspire others into other actions to help create support for the mentally ill in the skeptic community. A lot of people have been moved by the talk, you should probably consider that fact, and consider that you might be the outlier here.

    And no I don’t want someone who is not controlling their problems better to be representing the mentally ill for me or anyone else. I’d rather see JT get his shit together, then show everyone what can be accomplished.

    We all want JT to be feel well and be managing his problems as best as he can. But he is a successful blogger who does public speaking and is considered to be basically a successful person already. He has shown what can be accomplished, in my view. I can but dream of being invited to speak at Skepticon, and giving a speech that seems to have touched so many and inspired such discussions.

    He has accomplished showing the world that even though he has suffered through dark times, he can still be productive, positive and grateful. He has accomplished sounding a rallying call for the skeptic community to tackle stigma and misinformation that results in deaths. He has opened the door and shown those without a voice that they aren’t as alone as they might have felt.

    You might regard these as minor accomplishments, and you might think that some Platonic Idea Mental Health speaker could have done a better job. The fact is, that said Ideal Speaker either does not exist, or was remaining silent for some reason.

    To reiterate: I’ll take a real, but arguably flawed talk that gets the skeptic community honestly discussing mental health issues over a non-existent but hypothetically better talk that never gets given every time.

  13. 13

    As an addendum: I find there something deplorable with someone who suggests that a mentally ill person to ‘get his shit together’. Is that really the way we want to be relating to the mentally ill? The attitude of ‘You aren’t good enough, pull yourself together’ is a terribly stigmatising one.

  14. JfC

    You are perpetuating mental health stigma if you focus more on the style of presentation than the content, and say the former discounts the latter. That is not engaging logically with what someone is saying because they appear ’emotional’ or ‘crazy’ to you. I’m in a place that I can speak with a detached manner about my mood disorders, and this video is actually the first time I’ve heard of this man (because I am not a movement atheist), but I find he explains the experience quite well and has good points to make.

  15. JfC

    I mean the idea that mental health activists don’t deserve to be heard unless they can act in a sufficiently neurotypical manner, regardless of what they’re actually saying is just retrograde thinking.

  16. 16

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I had no idea who JT is, but this speech is beyond impressive.
    What he did was incredibly brave and incredibly important. I’ve seen the reaction to mental illness the is speaking against many times, even had it myself.
    And at no point did his emotions interfere with the clarity or reasonableness of what he was saying.

  17. 18

    O for one am glad to see a speaker break into tears while discussing their mental illness. Too many of the examples we are given are of people who have ‘beaten’ their illness and managed Olympic gold medals, success in business, politics, the arts, or anything else. I am not in that group. I work hard to stay alive and out of the hospital, I blog and I keep house. That is my success. Constantly hearing about those who become ‘stars’ just feeds into my sense of worthlessness.

  18. 20

    @spriteless: me too (but it’s social anxiety in my case). The blanket coverage of JT’s talk in the skeptic blogosphere has been a major kick in the pants for me.

    And, I think the two of us alone entirely disprove mjones’ point that people need to “have their shit together” to be worth listening to. Please, let’s not advocate for the silencing of anyone’s voice, for the sake of giving the cause a “good” image. Lives are at stake here. That’s a far more urgent problem than any perceived image problem.

  19. 21

    Wow. That was amazing. I wish I could send that to myself before my own breakdown. I spent years taking herbal remedies because sometimes I was afraid to get out of bed. Even with close family members diagnosed with the same disorder I have, I didn’t get professional help. I just didn’t know the science, and getting treated means you’re crazy, right? It took a trip to the emergency room to get me into treatment and I still had a lot of very intelligent, rational friends who couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “tough it out”. This is such an important, life-changing message. I haven’t seen JT before, but I’m impressed, tears or no.

  20. 22

    @spriteless, @scramble, Please get treatment now, before you end up in the hospital, or worse. My sister got treated after I had a breakdown because she had some similar symptoms, though none critical, and treatment was much easier for her.

    It’s scary to do it at first, but there are “Not Afraid of Stuff” pills and “Not Sad All The Time” pills. It may take a little trial and error to find the right ones or the right combination of medication and therapy, but I GUARANTEE you, it is worth it.

  21. 23

    Absolutely – get treatment. I’m preparing to do the same myself – I’m fairly recently atheist, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of some theist bugbears. One in particular that is held deeply in my religious family is the belief that depression is a disorder of the soul and not of the brain, and antidepressants are considered a temptation from satan to keep us from prayer for healing. But even after having ceased believing in souls, it’s been much harder to lose the idea that “I will no longer be myself” if I take the drugs. I’ll be glad to see more frank discussion about it in the future.

  22. F

    Not directly related/off-topic: Skepticism and Mental Illness.

    So this spammer drops a link into a thread at Sandwalk:
    ( )

    Yes, help with skepticism (or reality) and mental illness needed. I’d slam this person for promoting really bad ideas, but he apparently suffers from a mental illness himself.

  23. 25

    It’s a shame that your post was first because it’s going to generate a lot of heat, but in any case, congratulations on your decades of hard-fought stability.

    I don’t know. Arguing belligerently that openly expressing negative emotions is a sign of mental collapse doesn’t seem that well adjusted to me….

  24. 26

    Yes, help with skepticism (or reality) and mental illness needed. I’d slam this person for promoting really bad ideas, but he apparently suffers from a mental illness himself.

    Um, what bearing does the latter have on the former, except perhaps in the case of a severe delusional disorder? (Like, hospitalization severe).

  25. F


    The only difference to me is that I wouldn’t argue against against a person with clinical-grade delusions the same way I would against the average quack. I’d tend to argue against his “cure” to anyone who might think it was a good idea to try it rather than seeking science-based medical help. IOW, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a douchebong for his ridiculous “cure”, whereas I have no issue with calling Christopher Maloney a douchebong quack. Because his illness is part of the problem. Same reason I would no longer have a jab at DM, because I cannot separate his batshit ramblings from his mental illness – they may be entirely a product of his illness. I won’t argue about flying saucers or religion with someone who has schizoaffective disorder, but I will argue the same with someone who simply has belief-disorder.

  26. F

    Bah. Shorter:

    Because I don’t know what dude’s mental illness is/was. I hadn’t found out what he supposedly cured himself of before the eyestrain got to be too much.

  27. 29

    Until mental illness is treated the same as physical illness in the USA with the same resources and care, there is not much that the atheist community can do. As you know, we are a tiny minority compared to the rest of the population. Why don’t you put it on the majority to solve this problem? They created it, they should solve it. Whatever happened to Tipper Gore and her crusade?

  28. 31

    Taking issue with “MJones”…first comment.
    JTs talk took courage, and I thought it was extremely effective in getting across the message he intended.

    His “break-downs” that were so off putting to MJones were of a nature I don’t think he understands. I brought this up to JT actually.
    As a survivor of a trauma, there are many issues I still deal with. Many of an emotional nature. The one that I find most difficult is thinking about what my loved ones endured throughout my ordeal. Those emotions are unlike any I’ve ever experienced before. Just the thought that there are actually humans on this earth who love you THAT MUCH is, for myself, very difficult to get close to…and yes, it brings out a very wet, teary, sometimes choking sob response. Plain and simple.
    During JTs talk…the only times I saw him “break-down” were when he was talking of one of “those humans”. The ones who loved him so much that they were willing to physically help him through what is, by far, his toughest obstacle in life yet. I believe that MJones misunderstood JT altogether by not connecting his tears with the subject matter that brought him to tears.

  29. 32

    Wow. What a video. I’m actually glad I could watch it in the privacy of my house, because I would have been completely unable to “keep my shit together” watching that in public. I’ve never met JT but absolutely salute him for his bravery here.
    Do you know how hard it is to tell complete strangers you have a mental illness? And it’s even worse to tell your friends, loved ones, coworkers. Once you tell, you’re never really looked at the same way again. Every angry outburst or bad mood is put under a microscope, as they wait for the next ‘episode’. It’s living with a big flashing neon sign over your head saying ‘unstable’. And anyone who’s willing to expose themselves to the entire population in the manner that JT did deserves kudos, not harrassment and catcalls.

    So, you keep on talking, JT. We need to hear it, loudly and often. And ignore the misguided who critize. They’re wrong. And those of us who battle a mental illness every damn day appreciate you taking the heat for us. I don’t know how you find the energy to do all you do.

  30. 33

    Hi, Natasha here. JT mentioned me in the talk (which was cute, he sent me a link on my phone to the exact point in the video where he mentions me, that flirt.) I am late in wandering into the forums, as always.

    Here are my two cents.

    Expecting the entire breadth of mental health activists and advocates to hold the same position on something like this, is unreasonable. Healthy debates within the group are good, but splintering is bad. We have a common goal, even if not a common approach.

    Think of it like feminism. There are different schools of thought, passionate views, heated arguments, and when they get out of control, it gets ugly. (Can someone say “sex positive controversy”?) We’ve had some decades of this going on already, so we all know it’s counterproductive to shoot the movement in the foot. Mental health advocacy is relatively new, though, so we haven’t all learned (yet) that there are different ways to do this, but a common goal. Moreover, we need (NEED) to remember that these aren’t just principles and rights we are rolling around for examination, but often personal traumas. It is, by nature, an emotional subject to most people involved, in ways that often directly tie-in to hospital stays, overall struggles with mortality, psychosis, and who knows what else?

    Now, I’m one of those assholes that had really successful treatment, so I’m good at being pragmatic and calm and dropping my personal journey at the door. I can talk about being suicidal like I’m discussing the weather, or make jokes, whatever works. And while people like me are important for bridging certain gaps, people like JT are also important. I don’t inspire much empathy, frankly, I’m just a good voice of reason and a practical tour guide. But empathy is such an important thing to bring to the table and to inspire in others, not to mention that people in different stages of recovery, who speak out, are vital to those who need to feel like they have company.

    (I want to point out, here, that this isn’t the only talk in the world about this. We can refer to other lectures and look over the debates there for some historical insight. DBSA, for example, has many forums and links to talks given at their events.)

    Some people may have a problem with his, shall we say, poise? Others may not. Some people may dislike the entire notion that he is connecting two controversial fields (mental health activism and atheist activism) with each other to begin with, simply because it’s hard to undo the associations people make when public figures make mixed tapes of issues. But here is the bottom line, as I see it: This is a lot like voting. If you don’t do it, don’t complain that your representatives suck. If you don’t like how JT is representing those with mental illness, find an advocate that represents your view and support them, or, gasp, get your own ass up there and try not to cry.

    And much like in politics, you’re an asshole if you seriously just watched a single video and constructed a whole opinion around it. Do some homework before getting on someone’s ass. Dur.

    But really, I welcome all views, as long as whoever is sharing, isn’t judging their peers in advocacy.

  31. 34

    Ugh, I’m late to the party, but if you think being unemotional at all times, even when discussing something hard, is a sign of mental health, get thee back to therapy and figure out why you think that with your therapist. They will help you get over your fear that sadness is weak or emasculating, if they’re any good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *