The internet is a fabulous place where everyone gets to share their story for all to see. The internet is a horrible place where everyone gets to share their story for all to see.
It is the best of times; it is the worst of times, and nowhere is this more evident than in the deluge of mental health information.
This Treatment Worked for Me, It Will Work for You
Not infrequently someone will tell me of a treatment that has worked for them, and that they think everyone should try. Sometimes this is a medication, sometimes it’s a faith and sometimes it’s a therapy or lifestyle change. People say something along the lines of, “it worked for me, it will work for you.”
Well, that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.
A Thought Experiment
If I pick up an average penny and you watch me flip it 100 times, and every time it comes up heads, what does that mean? Does it mean that particular penny will always land heads? Does it mean that all pennies land heads? Does it mean that whenever I, personally, throw a penny it will land heads?
In short, no, it means none of that. It means you witnessed an anomaly. Anomalies are common in statistics and can only be accounted for by increasing the number of data points. For example, if I threw the penny 10,000 times you are much more likely to find out the real odds
(FYI: The odds of throwing a penny 100 times and it always landing on the same side is 1/2^100. It’s a very remote chance, but not impossible.)
When The Remote Odds Have a Positive Result, People Mistake It for Evidence
While most people automatically realize that even if the above happened, it doesn’t mean a penny always land heads, when a successful treatment happens to a person with a mental illness, the person tends to generalize.
When I started drinking carrot juice, my depression went away. Therefore the carrot juice must have caused the remission. Therefore the carrot juice must cure depression. Therefore anyone depressed should drink carrot juice!
Again, ridiculous. Your getting better is no more evidence of a treatment than the coin flipping experiment is proof that a coin always lands the same side up.
[In case you were wondering, I pick on carrot juice because that’s what one nutbar prescribed for me and I ended up juicing carrots for weeks. It was one of the dumber treatments I have tried.]
If everyone would just take a course in statistics I don’t think this would occur so much. (Although to be fair, the suicide rate might go up from all the people having to take statistics courses.)
In short, just because something happened to you, or your cousin, or some famous person, it doesn’t mean it will happen to anyone else. And this goes for FDA-approved treatments too, not just wacky treatments like carrot juice.
Mental Illness is Too Complex for Anecdotes to Mean Anything
Mental illness and the human brain is infinitely complex. There are too many variables to account for and no one knows why some people react to treatment A while others react to treatment B. And trust me, if scientists with all sorts of fancy degrees and decades of research behind them don’t have a clue, your Aunt Betty isn’t likely to know either.
I appreciate people wanting to help others and share their stories so others may benefit. But remember, just because Seroquel, carrot juice, yoga, religion, DBT, or spending more time in a rose garden worked for you, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for anyone else.