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Mental Health Treatment Anecdotes Are Not Evidence

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.

coin_flipA 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.

woman_w_beaker

[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.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

This entry was posted in Bipolar Treatment, Depression, Desire For Remission, Impact of Bipolar, Myths, Understanding Mental Illness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Mental Health Treatment Anecdotes Are Not Evidence

  1. Hey Natasha,

    I definitely see your point. My mother thinks that if I would only take Prozac, like she does, then I would be healed and judges me for not trying it. There is a fine line between sharing information and touting a treatment that works for you as the new gospel.

    I feel the need to give a quick shout out for the community, though. There have been so many times when someone who shared their story/current treatment has led me to find something new to try for my own treatment resistant illness. Sometimes I find relief, sometimes not; but I am usually no worse for trying.

    Thank-you for another thought provoking post!

    ~sm

  2. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Shannon,

    Yes, that’s a good example.

    I’m not saying that sharing your story is bad (obviously) just that it doesn’t directly relate to another person.

    A commentor here once told another commentor to get off her current meds and get on another one due to the commentors experience on the drug. This is the situation I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s not acceptable. It’s too easy to talk people into something wildly innapropriate because they don’t know any better and “they heard it on the internet”.

    - Natasha

  3. N-

    Oh dear! That is pretty shocking. Honestly, I have so little web/net experience. I bet you have seen it ALL. yikes!

    Here’s to thinking for one’s self!

    ~sm

  4. Angela says:

    natasha, i’ve tried to make that point more times than i’ve changed my hair color (which is to say, A LOT) and it usually leads to me being told i’m a pessimist or “too negative.” i think a true pessimist would have given up long ago–i’m just REALISTIC.

  5. Richard J says:

    O.k then we can put carrot slices over our eyes for vision, then place cucumber slices over that for wrinkles, afterwards continue placing produce all over our bodys for any other ailments then we would not have to eat at all. Kidding Yes it is will always take a combination to create stability. Thanks Natasha

  6. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Angela,

    Yup, I’ve been told that too. But I agree, it’s realism. It’s not my fault people have trouble with reality. I recommend the above thought experiment. But for carrot juice you have to flip the coin 1 million times.

    - Natasha

  7. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Richard,

    Well, vegetables _are_ supposed to be good for you. And carrot juice tastes OK when you mix it with apple and ginger, I just don’t think it’ll cure anything.

    And wearing a salad? That is _so_ last season.

    - Natasha

  8. Richard J. says:

    Well I am abit behind as seasons go. Well o.k. way behind, wait well, yes ahead 2 seasons when my mind is racey. Carrot & oj is good too. That would be trick wait till my thoughts are going by like movie credits then count the coin a million times, see how long that would take . By that time one would need a whole differant juice to counter act over doing the first juice or as you just wrote, it would be last season. ha ha heh Heh.

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