Sharing Their Demons on the Web

Eight women representing prominent mental diagnoses in the nineteenth century.
Eight women representing prominent mental diagnoses in the nineteenth century.

Health Professionals Fear Web Sites That Support Theories on Mind Control (New York Times ). The internet may have fundamentally changed the experience of those who believe they are stalked or persecuted. Sites filled with stories from people calling themselves victims of “mind control” or “gang stalking” offer support and validation, in contrast to the isolation and pejoration with which they were treated in the pre-internet era. Many mental health professionals are alarmed that such sites encourage delusional thinking. The growth of such a community of sufferers with shared beliefs presents a fundamental challenge to the definition of delusions, as beliefs that are at odds with those shared by one’s culture or subculture.

The interest of law enforcement and government agencies in covert surveillance, mind-control and chemical interrogation techniques (cf. MK-ULTRA)is enough evidence to encourage such beliefs, and their dismissal by health professionals and others is seen as evidence of a cover-up of the truth.

However, others who see the isolation and quiet torment in which people with psychotic disorders live feel that the growth of a supportive community could be a good thing. In my own work with patients who believe they are subject to mind control or gang stalking, I do not find confronting and contradicting their beliefs is effective. In fact, I am sensitive to the ways in which it perpetuates the violence and persecution that has been done to them by other powerful individuals in their lives. Treatment, the aim of which after all is to relieve suffering, cannot be done in an intellectually dishonest way in which one acts out a charade of sharing the patient’s beliefs. But treatment must be experienced as a safe place in which to have one’s thoughts, whether agreed with or not. Contrary to the opinion of one psychiatrist interviewed for this article, who says that but for these internet sites reinforcing the thinking, it would fade away because never validated, the essence of delusional thinking is that it is logically self-validating. The sufferer has constructed an airtight explanation for disturbing experiences and perceptions they have, an explanation which is not falsifiable. Its assertions are self-fulfilling. That is the logic and, if you will, the beauty of delusional thinking. In my experiences, such thinking is not malleable and precisely does not fade away. To attempt to confront it is to invalidate the person in front of you, doing profound existential violence to an already quite vulnerable person. This is the essence of what I have always taught my students as a core approach to a psychotic individual.

This has been known for a long time in psychological circles, and it is merely the self-anointed but misguided role of mental health providers as arbiters of thought and vanquishers of mental illness that prevents our acceptance of immutable delusional thinking. My uncle, the psychologist Milton Rokeach, wrote in his 1964 book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti of an experiment in which he brought together three psychiatric patients each of whom believed he was Christ… sort of meeting irresistible force with immovable object. He hoped that the coexistence of logically incompatible beliefs would correct the delusions. He later wrote that he regretted the experiment, because as it turned out all that it had done had been to vastly amplify the distress and confusion of the three subjects.

In addition to my uncle, several of my mentors and teachers were influential in grappling with how to situate themselves properly with respect to the challenging beliefs of their patients, if they were neither to fraudulently say they agreed nor to contradict by brute force. R.D. Laing took a radical stance of refusing to make distinctions between ‘patients’ and ‘treaters’ as arbiters of the truth. This is an incredibly useful position to take, although I think Laing went too far in that the relationship is inherently asymmetrical; the patient is the one who comes to us with suffering, seeking guidance and succor. Leston Havens devoted himself to the technical craft of finding language and therapeutic stance that would allow the therapist to situate him- or herself as an ally, rather than an opponent, of people so difficult to ally with. John Mack’s work with alien abductees exemplified finding a way to be helpful with a subset of those sufferers whose beliefs are so at odds with prevailing notions.

It has been an area of my own fascination, teaching and research to watch how the lay public’s knowledge and beliefs about mental health issues are spread in the popular media, word of mouth and, more recently, the internet. These means of communication are not a cause of mental illness, but clearly important variables in shaping it. I wonder, WWLD (what would Laing do?) with the internet?