Can you become ill by studying illness?
September 15, 2008 8:29 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to develop mental illnesses by studying psychology? I've heard occourances of this through various sources over the years, but i'm looking for definitive proof (i.e. reports, studies)
posted by psyward to Health & Fitness (18 answers total)
I would doubt that studying psychology (or anything for that matter) could drive one mad.

What is almost beyond dispute is the tendency for psychology undergrads to decide that everybody they meet (themselves frequently included) fits some psychological diagnosis.
posted by Netzapper at 8:50 PM on September 15, 2008

I'd imagine that mental-health professionals are just like their counterparts in other health fields - med school is infamous for being a hypochondria factory. But for actually becoming mentally ill? Other than the fact that intense study often leads to problems (stress, anxiety, depression, etc.) absolutely not. Psychology (or psychiatry) students aren't going to be any more in-danger of developing mental illnesses than Physics or Architecture students.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:53 PM on September 15, 2008


1) You're probably going to have to be more specific. Mental Illness is a pretty broad category, and it's quite possible that various sub-categories have this property, whereas others don't. For example, I've got the understanding that the profession with the highest suicide rate is doctor, which may include psychiatrists, I dunno.

2) I can't find any literature on it, although admittedly google search that include mental+illness+psychology aren't the best. Can't find a breakdown of mental health problems by profession, except the non-rigorous suicide mentioned above.

3) This would strike me as ...odd, at least when compared to people studying as hard any other subject. Studying religion academically does not make you more religious (exceptions abound, naturally), for example. I might even expect it to go the other way, as the studying will probably remove any stigma you might have, making you more likely to seek help, which is the #1 way to reduce mental illness.
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:57 PM on September 15, 2008

Studying religion academically does not make you more religious (exceptions abound, naturally), for example.

I agree with Lemurrhea's points overall, but I think a better comparison would be a medical student studying the black plague and contracting it as a result. As someone who suffers from a mental illness, I'm fairly certain that disorders like mine are more linked to brain chemistry than intellectual exploration.

I'd be curious to find out if there is any of the definitive proof that the OP is looking for; I've always been of the opinion that people suffering from mental illness are interested in and familiar with psychology as a profession, and thus more likely to become psychologists. In other words, the link is there, but the cause and effect relationship isn't. IMHO.
posted by smilingtiger at 9:35 PM on September 15, 2008

I think the major self selects for crazy people looking to self treat themselves, at least based upon my own limited experience with people I know who entered this field.
posted by caddis at 10:10 PM on September 15, 2008

Probably depends on the illness. Placebo effect does some impressive stuff, especially for things like depression, and triggers for mental illness are often not well known. If you convince yourself that X behavior is a symptom! and you're going to develop Y behavior or disease because of it, that could definitely have an effect. The details will depend on all sorts of factors, including whether or not you were prone to that disease in the first place.

As far as Lemurrhea's comment about treatment: Remember, some people think "I seem to be a bit bipolar" and take that as a reason to exercise during their bouts of depression and exercise restraint during mania. Other people will take the same self-diagnosis as an excuse to indulge their mood swings.
posted by Lady Li at 10:13 PM on September 15, 2008

Smilingtiger: of course that's a better comparison. I'm just too stupid to come up with it myself. Colour me chagrined.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:23 PM on September 15, 2008

I don't see how studying something with no communicable effects could make you sick - it's not like a psychologist is working with radiation, or contagious patients, or anything. However, once you remove all the people who catch Medical Students' Disease, then I would imagine that someone with disordered thinking who's also a psychologist is probably more likely to be diagnosed than someone who isn't - not only are they trained to diagnose, but they probably have more close associates who are in the psychological professions than someone who isn't.
posted by bettafish at 10:57 PM on September 15, 2008

My roomate my last two years of college was a psychology major and she said that at least 50% of her classmates were batshitinsane upon arrival and she figured that was what attracted them to the study of mental illness in the first place. Might be something to it. Our other roomate who (also a psych major) was certainly missing a fex boxes from her attic.
posted by fshgrl at 11:14 PM on September 15, 2008

Oh, I forgot to mention, that on the note of my second sentence, Kay Jamison, one of the leading experts in the field of bipolar disorder, is herself bipolar.
posted by bettafish at 11:14 PM on September 15, 2008

While I tend to think it's not possible to go crazy as a result of studying psychology, R.D. Laing is said to have done just that, presumably on purpose. He believed that society and especially people's families made them go crazy, rather than biology. He also thought that going crazy was rather a good thing, spiritually. There have been several biographies written about him. He also has some books with sections that are utterly manic -- for example, The Politics of Experience. The implication from these sections is that he purposely went crazy.

Of course, it depends on how you define "crazy." Laing is a fascinating guy, but I think he just had a great deal of empathy for crazy people and idealized going crazy, thus he would just work himself up into a lather about it. I don't think he genuinely went crazy. Having had two family members and a close friend that were psychotic bi-polar, and whose medicine helps them immensely, I don't believe that it isn't biological.
posted by Nattie at 12:59 AM on September 16, 2008

What caddis and fshgrl said, combined with confirmation bias.

Having known a number of people working in the field, I agree that it attracts people who are on the edge, and therefore fascinated, and people who have actually suffered already and explicitly want to give back and help others (to the outsider who doesn't know their existing history they'll look like they're "developing while studying" too).

However, once you know this, it's hard not to see it. Maybe studying engineering sends engineering students mad, but people aren't primed to notice it.

Also, people who are entering the field tend to pathologize normal behaviour, slinging around the jargon and making snap diagnoses. So one student will label another as mad. That doesn't mean it's a correct label, but if you are a student and listening to your peers, it will seem as though the psych majors see madness everywhere in a way that, say, chemists don't.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:32 AM on September 16, 2008

There is a tendency to find similarities between the pathologies as they are portrayed and depicted in psychological literature and the matching aspects of oneself's mind. Therefore, while the student encounters pathologies, they often seem an outgrowth of something that's present in everyone. Pathology, in the field of psychology, is something still to get defined, often on the basis of the case itself (DSM is interesting but only provides classifications based on a set of symptoms, not on the individual way to actually function).

Some behaviour might seem strange but be the expression of someting quite normal (let's say, within the average population) while a perfectly normal behaviour can be the expression of a complete confusion. It can be quite simple when it comes to teenagers : some behave in a normally pathological way (some agressivity, some trangression...) while others are pathologically normal (self repressing, won't allow to express their feelings ...).

I don't think that the fact of being exposed to some theories can be a real threat to anyone's psyche. Real problems are much deeper. But, some trouble can be triggered by the exposition to something that the student didn't really want to know or see.

But then, how could there be statistics ? Psychology is the realm of the individual.
posted by nicolin at 3:26 AM on September 16, 2008

The "nocebo effect" - beloved of people who feel that they are being fried by radio waves - could also play a part. Basically if people believe that some aspect of their Psych course is making them mentally ill then it can indeed do so.

For me the part of my Psychology degree that most nearly drove me mad involved running statistical tests I struggled to understand on antediluvian computers against rapidly looming submission deadlines.
posted by rongorongo at 3:30 AM on September 16, 2008

I recognized different traits in myself as I learned more and more, but it didn't drive me insane. Did it? Are you there?

I bet Med Student Syndrome (or the equivalent in psychology students) happens.
posted by Silvertree at 5:03 AM on September 16, 2008

posted by OmieWise at 6:00 AM on September 16, 2008

Psychology is a broad science with a lot more to it than the study of maladaptive behavior or disorders of any kind. That being said, the study of abnormal psychology will not drive you insane any more than the study of pathology is going to make you ill.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:40 AM on September 16, 2008

I think the major self selects for crazy people looking to self treat themselves

Not a very nice way to say it ... :-(
posted by JimN2TAW at 10:05 AM on September 16, 2008

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