On the rise of mental illness on college campuses


It’s not just at Middlebury. As Sailer notes in his review of Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind

A remarkable fraction of current articles in The New York Timesand The New Yorker include testimony that the author feels emotionally traumatized, which is stereotypically attributed to the malevolence of Donald Trump. But the evidence in The Coddling of the American Mind points to the second Obama administration as being the era when the national nervous breakdown began.

The authors cite alarming evidence of a recent increase in emotional problems. For example, the percentage of college students who said they suffered from a “psychological disorder” increased among males from 2.7 percent in 2012 to 6.1 percent by 2016 (a 126 percent increase). Over the same four years, the percentage of coeds who saw themselves as psychologically afflicted rose from 5.8 percent to 14.5 percent (150 percent growth).

Sailer blames the Obama administration, eg, the DOE releasing new definitions of “sexual harassment” that depend more on emotion than reason, but this is only playing kick the can, because why would the Obama DOE want to redefine sexual harassment in the first place? 

So I propose a slightly different origin for the current hysteria: 

If you incentivise lying, you get more lying. If you incentivise social signaling, you get more social signaling. The next thing you know, you get a social signaling spiral.

So people start lying because it gets them status points, but people are kind of bad at lying. Lying is cognitively taxing. The simplest way to make lying less taxing is to believe your own lies.

So the more people get involved in signaling spirals, the more they come to believe their own lies.

Meanwhile, everyone around them is engaged in the same signaling spiral, too. 

People get their view of “Reality” in part by checking it against what everyone else believes. If everyone in your village says the stream is to the east, even if you’ve gotten turned around and feel like it’s to the west, you’ll probably just follow everyone else and hope you get to water. If everyone around you is lying, there’s a good chance you’ll start to believe their lies.

(Let’s face it, most people are not that bright. Maybe a little bright. Not a lot. So they go along with society. Society says eat this, don’t eat that–they trust. Society is usually right about things like that, and the ones that aren’t die out. 

Trust is key. If you trust that someone has your back, you listen to them. You take advice from them. You might even try to make them proud. If you don’t trust someone, even if they’re right, you won’t listen to them. If you don’t trust them, you assume they want you dead and are trying to trick you. 

Since our system is now full of liars, trust is suffering.)

Eventually there’s just one sane person left in the room, wondering who’s gone insane: them, or everyone else.

In the case of the “mental health breakdown” on the left, it’s a combination of the left lying about its mental health and believing its own lies about things that are bothering it.

But what incentivised lying in the first place? 

Sailer dates the emergence of the insanity to 2012-13, but I remember the emergence of the current SJW-orthodoxy and its rabid consumption of what had formerly known as “liberalism” back in the Bush years, back around 2003. I was surprised at the time by the speed with which it went mainstream, spreading from “this thing my friends are arguing about” to “everyone on the internet knows this.” 


It’s Facebook. 

Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook”, featuring photos of Harvard students, in 2004. From there it spread to other prestigious schools, and opened fully to the public in 2006. Because of its real name policy, FB has always incentivized people toward holiness spirals, and it began with an infusion of people who already believed the SJW memeplex that was hot at Harvard in 2004. 

At this point, it’s not necessarily Facebook itself that’s spreading things, and it was never just facebook. There are plenty of other social media sites, like MySpace, Reddit, and Twitter, that have also spread ideas. 

The lethality of disease is partially dependent on how difficult it is to spread. If a disease needs you to walk several miles to carry it to its next host, then it can’t go killing you before you get there. By contrast, if the disease only needs you to explode on the spot, it doesn’t need to keep you alive long enough to get anywhere. Where population are dense, sanitation is non-existent, and fleas are rampant, you get frequent plague outbreaks because disease has a trivial time jumping from person to person. Where populations are low and spread out, with good sanitation and few vermin, disease has a much harder time spreading and will tend to evolve to coexist with humans for at least as long as it takes to find a new host. 

For example, chicken pox has been infecting humans for so long that it is adapted to our ancestral tribal size (which is pretty small,) so it has developed the ability to go dormant for 20 or 40 years until a whole new generation of uninfected people is born. 

AIDS kills people, but because its method of transmission (mostly sex) is not as easy as jumping fleas or contaminated water, it takes a long time. People who’ve caught bubonic plague generally die within a week or so; untreated AIDS patients last an average of 11 years. 

The internet has allowed memes that used to stay put in colleges to spread like wildfire to the rest of the population. (Similarly, talk radio allowed conservative memes to spread back in the 80s and 90s, and the adoption of the printing press in Europe probably triggered the witch hunts and Protestantism.) 

Anyway, this whole SJW-system got perfected on social media, and strangely, much of it is dependent on this performative mental illness. Eg, in “Don’t call people with uteruses ‘women’ because that’s triggering to trans people,” the mental illness claim is that the word “women” is “triggering” to someone and therefore ought to be avoided. The word “triggered” means “to trigger a panic attack,” as in someone with PTSD.

The use of “triggered” in most of these cases is absolutely false, but people claim it because it gets them their way. 

And if people are lying a bunch about having mental illness, and surrounded by nasty, toxic people who are also lying about mental illness, and if lying is cognitively taxing, then the end result is a lot of stressed out people with mental issues. 

Short argument for vending machines full of experimental drugs

So I was thinking the other day about medication and Marilyn Manson’s “I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me,” and it occurred to me that illegal drugs, generally speaking, are really good at what they do.

By contrast, take anti-depressants. Even the “really good” ones have abominable track records. Maybe a good drug works for 10, 20% of the population–but you don’t know which. Depressed people just have to keep trying different pills until they find one that works better than placebo.

Meanwhile, you’ll never hear someone say “Oh, yeah, crack just doesn’t do anything for me.” Crack works. Heroin works. Sure, they’ll fuck you up, but they work.

Illegal drugs are tried and tested in the almost-free black market of capitalism, where people do whatever they want with them–grind them up, snort them, inject them, put them up their buts–and stop taking them whenever they stop working. As a result, illegal drugs are optimized for being highly addictive, yes, but also for working really well. And through trial and error, people have figured out how much they need, how best to take it, and how often for the optimal effects.

In other words, simply letting lots of people mess around with drugs results in really effective drugs.

The downside to the black-free-market refinement of drugs is that lots of people die in the process.

Most people don’t want to be killed by an experimental anti-depressant, (is that ironic? That seems kind of ironic,) so it makes sense to have safeguards in place to make sure that their latest incarnations won’t send you into cardiac arrest, but many medications are intended for people whose lives are otherwise over. People with alzheimer’s, pancreatic cancer, glioblastoma, ALS, fatal familial insomnia, etc, are going to die. (Especially the ones with fatal familial insomnia. I mean, it’s got “fatal” in the name.) They have been handed death sentences and they know it, so their only possible hope is to speed up drug/treatment development as much as possible.

I am quite certain that something similar to what I am proposing already exists in some form. I am just proposing that we ramp it up: all patients with essentially incurable death sentences have access to whatever experimental drugs (or non-experimental drugs) they  want, with a few obvious caveats about price–but really, price tends to come down with increased demand, so just stock everything in vending machines and charge 75c a dose.

Of course, the end result might just be that alzheimer’s meds come to closely resemble heroin, but hey, at least sick people will feel better as they die.

Since this is a short post, let me append a quick description of fatal familial insomnia: 

Fatal insomnia is a rare disorder that results in trouble sleeping.[2] The problems sleeping typically start out gradually and worsen over time.[3] Other symptoms may include speech problems, coordination problems, and dementia.[4][5] It results in death within a few months to a few years.[2]

It is a prion disease of the brain.[2] It is usually caused by a mutation to the protein PrPC.[2] It has two forms: fatal familial insomnia (FFI), which is autosomal dominant and sporadic fatal insomnia (sFI) which is due to a noninherited mutation. Diagnosis is based on a sleep studyPET scan, and genetic testing.[1]

Fatal insomnia has no known cure and involves progressively worsening insomnia, which leads to hallucinations, delirium, confusional states like that of dementia, and eventually death.[6] The average survival time from onset of symptoms is 18 months.[6] The first recorded case was an Italian man, who died in Venice in 1765.[7]



Equally True, Equally False

Note: I am not entirely satisfied with the phrasing in this post and would be happy to hear alternate articulations.

I have noticed that many unproductive conversations involve two people arguing about a phenomenon at two different levels of analysis.

Trivial example: You tell your children to “hold still” for a photo. One of them, inevitably, responds that “it is impossible to hold still because they are above absolute zero.”

“I’m holding still,” and “I am not holding still (because I am above absolute zero),” are equally true statements in different contexts. In the context of a photograph, you are only supposed to be as still as you can be. This is understood from context; no one feels it necessary to explain that you don’t need to stop the rotation of the Earth (which carries us along at a fast clip,) the beating of your heart, or the vibration of your atoms every time a picture is desired.

In the context of grains of pollen suspended in “still” liquid, the unstoppable motion of individual atoms does need to be noted and explained, as Einstein did in 1905.

The claim that Brownian Motion prevents you from holding still for a photograph is wrong, but the claim that it prevents grains of pollen from holding still in liquid is correct. Likewise, the claim that you are holding still for a photo is correct–and the claim that the pollen is still because you are holding the water still is wrong.

The weather is hard to predict, but I can predict with great certainty that July in the northern hemisphere will be hot, and next January will be cold–and vice versa for the southern hemisphere. These are different levels.

I recently read a well-written essay that I can’t find now but would like to link to if someone has it on the difficulties of discussing pretty much anything with certain types of people.

The discussion went like this:

Ordinary person: The sky is blue.

Academic: Excuse me? Do you have a source for that claim?

Ordinary person: What? The sky is blue. Everyone knows that.

Academic: For starters, there’s no such thing as “the sky.” The solid blue dome that ancient people thought surrounded the Earth is just an illusion created by the scattering of light. If you went up there, you’d discover that there is no “sky” to bump into. You’d just keep going straight into space.

Ordinary person: You know perfectly well that the term “sky” just refers to that expanse of blue we see over us.

Academic: Do you even know about Rayleigh scattering? The “blue” color is just an illusion due to the scattering of light. At night, when there’s not enough light for Rayleigh scattering, the sky is black. Man, you need to get out more.

These two people are both correct, but they are arguing at different levels. In normal, everyday conversation, the sky is, indeed, blue. People understand you perfectly well if you say so, and people also don’t call the sky blue while stargazing or watching a beautiful sunset.

People who are studying the way air molecules scatter light, by contrast, need to talk about the color of the sky in more technical detail in order to do their jobs.

Thankfully, no one actually gets into fights over the color of the sky because most people (even small children) understand the social context of communication. The point of speech is not to Say True Things, but to be understood by another person. If the other person understands me, then my words have done their job. If the other person does not understand me, then I need to rephrase. If I insist on speaking about something at a different level from what the other person is talking about, then I am being an ass who contributes nothing of worth to the conversation. (Note that we consider a consistent pattern of such conversational dysfunction, without inability to correct it, a symptom of mental disability.)

This normally understood conversational feature breaks down under three circumstances:

1 Confusion. Sometimes when we learn something new, like “color is an illusion,” it takes us a while to reconcile the new and old pieces of information in our minds.

Science, and thus our ability to learn technical information about the world, is a very recent invention on the scale of human history. A hundred years ago, people didn’t know why the sky is blue; two hundred years ago, they didn’t know what stars are made of. They didn’t have technical answers; they only had he lower-level explanations.

So it is understandable that people, especially students, sometimes take a while to integrate new information into a coherent view of the world, and in the meanwhile respond at incorrect levels in conversation. (Nerds do this a lot.)

2 Cognitive dissonance. This is similar to confusion, but happens because people have some reason–usually political bias–for wanting a particular answer. People may be genuinely confused about colors, but no one experiences cognitive dissonance about it. People experience cognitive dissonance about questions like, “Are men and women the same?” or “Do gun restrictions save lives?”

It is much easier to invoke confused logic to support your points when you want a particular outcome for political reasons.

3 Deception. This is confusion on purpose.

There is an old story that when Denis Diderot was in Russia, visiting the court of Catherine the Great, he managed to annoy her majesty via his arguments in favor of atheism. Catherine called upon the great mathematician Leonard Euler to defend God. Euler proclaimed, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists,” and the great but mathematically uninclined philosopher left in confusion.

The story is probably not true, but it illustrates the principle: sufficiently complicated arguments can confuse non-experts even when they are totally irrelevant. (Related: SSC post on Eulering.) Switching levels on someone is a fast and easy way to confuse them, especially if you have studied the subject more than they have.

People do this when they want a particular outcome, usually political. For example, people who want to promote trans rights will recount an array of technical, medical intersex conditions in order to claim that the biological categories of “male” and “female” don’t exist. Of course, the biological categories of “male” and “female” do exist, as do people with rare genetic disorders; the one does not disprove the other, and neither tells you what to do about anything trans-related.

I feel like there needs to be some efficient (and recognized) way of saying, “Yes, this is true, but on a different level from the one I am addressing. At the level I am addressing, this is false.”