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Is Veganism a Mental Disorder?

**This blog is by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD candidate in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (Bar-Ilan University)

 

In 1909, the neuroscientist Charles Loomis Dana coined the term “zoophilpsychosis” to describe a unique mental illness, distinct psychosis, which is characterized by heightened concern for animals. The discourse about the new disease quickly broke the boundaries of the academy, and a few months later that year, the New York Times headlined: “Passion for animals – really a disease”. The body of the article explained that people suffering from “zoophilpsychosis” are ill people and that their care for animals involves hardening their hearts to humans.

This was a period marked by considerable controversy over the common practice of vivisection. The new term assisted Dana and his colleagues who were practising vivisection in their labs to label their opponents as mentally ill.

Over the years, the horrendous Vivisection experiments became culturally obsolete in most of society and new regulations were created regarding animal experiments. As a result, the diagnosis which Dana offered to the opponents of the vivisection experiments was rejected. However, even today, similar attempts and research can be found to link a position that opposes the use of animals, such as Vegetarianism or Veganism, with various mental illnesses.

For example, in their 2001 study, Perry and his colleagues argued that Vegetarianism among adolescents might be a signal for preventive intervention suicidal behaviour, Baines and his colleagues concluded that vegetarian and vegan women are healthier in body but more vulnerable to depression and mood disorders and Michalak, Zhang and Jacobi in their 2012 article, argued that the percentage of people with depression and anxiety disorders was higher among vegetarians (and vegans) than meat-eaters. To name but a few.

Although the investigative methods of these researchers and their validity can be challenged, it is difficult to ignore the connection that these seek to point out. Furthermore, it is crucial to address them to avoid attempts to pathologize Vegetarianism and Veganism.

Pathologization is the attempt to define a particular condition – for example, Vegetarianism and Veganism – as a pathological condition, and people who choose these lifestyles as ill. Such efforts can be seen in the article by Michalak, Zhang and Jacobi Which offer different “pathological” explanations. For example, the thesis that a vegetarian/vegan diet causes omega-3 and vitamin B-12 deficiencies that affect brain processes and therefore “increases the chance for the onset of mental disorders.”

Alongside the creativity that can be found in these theses and explanations, most of them do not stand the test of reality. A balanced vegetarian and vegan diet does not lead to any deficiencies and is defined by the “Academic of nutrition and dietetics” as a diet suitable for everyone, of all ages – and more so, as having benefits in reducing the risk factors for the many common ailments that afflict western society. This begs the question – what might explain the link between Vegetarianism and Veganism and higher vulnerability to depression and anxiety? And is there an explanation that does not pathologize people who choose a lifestyle that avoids harming animals?

I believe that there is.

From my experience as a therapist specializing in working with vegans, I find that the same admirable traits that led them to choose this lifestyle are traits that may create a vulnerability to depression and anxiety in the complex world we live in. Qualities like a high sense of justice, critical point of view of the world and of themselves, social awareness, empathy, courage – are just a few.

This assumption is also supported by the findings of Dr Elaine Aron, author of “Highly Sensitive Person”. According to Dr Aron’s theory, as any attribute such as height, weight or musical talent is typically distributed in the population in a normal distribution, so, there is a normal distribution of the sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli. Aron categorizes about 15%-20% of the people as highly sensitive people and characterizes this group with a depth of thought, high emotional intelligence and creativity along with a higher vulnerability to depression and mood disorders due to the same sensitivity to the reality of a complex world of injustice and suffering.

The physiological explanation Aron gives is that the nervous system of a highly sensitive person is more sensitive to stimuli relative to the average. From this, it can be hypothesized that relatively minimal exposure to the suffering of animals in human industries, like a lecture or a video, will lead to a more powerful emotional response than others. With the combination of traits such as the courage to change and to make a change, to be different, to speak for someone else’s rights – one is likely to choose Veganism.

Adding to that –  in a world where animal use and abuse is ubiquitous,  this emotional exposure gradually becomes a chronic and mentally experience which almost no one understands. It is a very lonely experience of pain, sometimes accompanied by accusations from others at being “heavy”, judgmental, too sensitive or extremist, making this experience even more bothersome. I call this overall pain experience “vegan trauma.”

That is, unlike the picture Dana sought to paint in the early 20th century,  Vegetarianism and Veganism are not pathological or any form of mental disorders, they are not a cause for mental disorders nor characteristic of people with depression or mood disorders. They are moral choices. Moral and responsible choices of people with a healthy and sensitive heart, clear thought and the courage to change. They are leaders, courageous to be the first; healthy people in a world often disturbed and ill.

**This blog is by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD candidate in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (Bar-Ilan University)

Shiri Raz –
Expert in working with vegans and mixed couples (vegan and non-vegan)
Art therapist for children and adults M.A.
PhD candidate in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (Bar-Ilan University)
EFT therapist for individuals and couples

 

 

 

Is Veganism a Mental Disorder?


Beth Levine, LCSW-C

Beth Levine, LCSW-C, has a private practice based in Rockville, Maryland. She is Certified as a Therapist and Therapist Supervisor in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by The Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. She also has earned a Level I Certification in Internal Family Systems. Beth works with adults in individual and couple settings. She works with people struggling with anxiety, depression and relationship issues. She is honored to be part of her clients’ journey toward better health, happiness, and relationships. She is driven to make the world a better place on an individual, as well as a systemic level. Beth can be reached at BethLCounseling@aol.com and at her website.


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APA Reference
Levine, B. (2019). Is Veganism a Mental Disorder?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/veganism/2019/10/is-veganism-a-mental-disorder/

 

Last updated: 21 Oct 2019
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