A new study from Critical Reviews In Food Science And Nutrition has been circulating that suggests veganism (and vegetarianism) is associated with mental illness. While the authors briefly note alternative hypotheses, there is the idea that the dietary choice may lead to mental health problems or that mentally ill individuals may be inclined to become vegan that is focused on. There is not much mention about how the vegan perspective is often one that society is full of sadistic monsters who contribute to a ‘Vystopian’ system of mass murder for the mere pleasure of it or that the individual’s human peers are actively and excitedly contributing to climate change which will harm future generations of the less privileged people of the world. Even if you do not believe these things to be true, it is quite clear that many vegans do and that is something critically important to consider when assessing the mind of the vegan.
While I am open to the idea that there might be a nutritional explanation to the findings of the study, it has become an irritating fact that the researchers and the many news outlets have made almost no mention of the obvious fact that such an apocalyptical and dystopian perspective might be implicated in feeling chronically upset or disturbed. This oversimplifies the experience of mental health problems and veganism, adding fuel to the stigma on both fronts. This review will explore a few of the non-nutritional factors that may help explain the results of the study, including the stigma, prior mental health diagnoses, and the Vystopian perspective that circulates vegan culture.
The conclusion from the study‘s abstract:
Studies examining the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health varied substantially in methodologic rigor, validity of interpretation, and confidence in results. The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.
Why might this be? Let’s explore this.
Veganism is stigmatized.
How does one become vegan if society mostly shames this life choice? You would expect that there is a great amount of pressure for people to avoid becoming vegan. People laugh at vegans, insult vegans, and more. The shaming of vegans is a deterrent to becoming one. Many pre-vegans note that family control over food and choices is a major factor holding back their transition to veganism. Many report that they fear the reaction of their friends. These are pressures to conform to the surrounding meat-eating culture. Meat-eaters essentially culturally police people into being nonvegan.
Who are the ones most likely to become vegan? The ones who lack the pressure to conformity, of course. This includes people with antisocial tendencies, risk-takers who might be willing to break social norms like those with psychopathy, bipolar disorder or ADHD, and lastly, and most obviously, those without any family or friends to exert such conformity pressures. Without family or friends to pressure you into avoiding veganism, you’d likely more easily make the switch. Those who are unbound by the mainstream culture will be more likely to fall into minority subcultures than those who are bound by the mainstream culture. Those who are not policed to continue to conform to the culture surrounding them are more likely to become nonconformist, i.e. vegan.
Empathy and trauma are associated.
What kind of person doesn’t have a family to police them and why do they lack a family? Perhaps the person was kicked out of their family circle. Perhaps they left by choice due to abusive problems. Some people may have been kicked out for their antisocial behavior. Some people may have antisocial families who the individual escaped from. There is evidence that trauma in childhood leads to increased empathy in adulthood. There is also research suggesting that vegans and vegetarians show elevated empathy for humans compared to omnivores, according to brain scans. This was even more pronounced when the participants’ reactions were tested with negative valence animal footage. This suggests that trauma may incline people to become vegan by enhancing empathy. It is those who understand suffering who care. Likewise, it is only those who have seen the color red who can understand it.
Depression has sometimes been thought of as a problem of increased empathy. In a report from Cambridge University on Empathy In Mental Illness:
Following the theme of distress, Lynn O’Connor and colleagues explore how empathy may become turned on the self and lead to depression. Their starting point is that depression may be considered as a disorder of ‘concern for others’ where abnormally elevated levels of empathy could lead to excess self-blame and guilt for pain felt by others. Depression is increasingly prevalent worldwide, affecting 12% of women and 7% of men, with similar rates in children. Depression rates may be underestimated, however, in groups where the illness has an atypical presentation, e.g. in children (angry and defiant behavior) and the elderly. To some extent, as recognition of these manifestations increases, reported rates of depression may also.
One important facet of recognition is to identify vulnerability markers for depression. Here, empathy may play a part. For instance, O’Conner and colleagues cite work that reveals a correlation between empathy for distress in others and depression. They propose a model that links empathic concern to interpersonal guilt and both altruism and depression. Here, the concept of ‘survivor guilt’, following that felt by those who lost loved ones in the Nazi concentration camps and who became depressed, is extended to those with depression who feel guilt about their own fortune or happiness being at the expense of others, which may lead to submissive, self-destructive or altruistic behavior. In turn, altruism may have some survival advantage in mate selection by giving the signal that the altruist has surplus resources in order to exercise this behavior (and may therefore be a desirable mate). O’Conner and colleagues also attempt to disentangle the relationship between ‘sub-scales’ of empathy and survivor guilt and neuroticism. In doing so, they raise the possibility that empathic responses to others that aids social cohesion may also indirectly contribute to the current ‘epidemic’ of depression. On a positive note, empathy-induced guilt may act as an internal warning to let the person know that they need to help someone else, and hence may aid moral judgements.
It seems that depression may actually increase empathy, in a similar way that trauma might. One could even view trauma as an experience of having depressive, anxiety and pain induced onto you and that painful experiences, whether depression or traumatic, lead to people being able to relate to others who experience similar issues. It may simply be that knowing what it is like naturally leads to the ability to relate, thus bringing out people’s compassion. It is as if one sees red for the first time and can finally understand people’s thoughts on the color. Either way, empathy might lead to depression and vice versa, both can be true and this isn’t contradictory. The vegan may feel the burden of all the horrors that arise from farming animals. In essence, their concern for the animals may be upsetting them.
Social isolation is linked to psychotic symptoms.
What about those who lack friends? This has been associated to schizophrenia, where the lack of friends correlates strongly to the symptoms. Loneliness even correlates to schizophrenia on a genetic level, along with trauma sensitivity. Reducing loneliness reduces paranoia while inducing loneliness increases paranoia. The severity of symptoms in schizophrenia correlates with a lack of friends. Frequent interactions with friends was found to be crucial to recovery in schizophrenia. Solitary confinement is capable of reproducing all of the symptoms of schizophrenia, suggesting isolation and traumatizing experience may be critically underlying the disorder. Being ‘against’ people brings out their paranoia, which makes sense as paranoia is often anxiety that people are against you. There is a social defeat hypothesis of schizophrenia that suggests social rejection may be a key risk factor for psychotic problems. Check out Delusion or Memetic Mutation to read up on that perspective.
The stigma on veganism may enhance loneliness, social rejection, and likely even paranoia.
On the contrary, the original study on veganism and mental health outcomes actually explored a study in which the subjects are part of a culture where veganism is socially accepted and normalized:
Four studies examined mood and stress perceptions (Beezhold et al. 2015; Beezhold and Johnston 2012; Beezhold, Johnston, and Daigle 2010; Wirnitzer et al. 2018). Wirnitzer et al. examined stress perceptions in a sample of 245 European endurance runners (57% female) and found no differences between groups (Wirnitzer et al. 2018). Conversely, Beezhold, Johnston, and Daigle (2010) examined mood states in Seventh Day Adventists (i.e., a religious group that espouses vegetarianism; n = 138) and found that meat-abstention was linked to more favorable mood states (Beezhold, Johnston, and Daigle 2010). In 2015, in a highly selected sample in which vegetarians and vegans were substantially over-represented (i.e., 283 vegans vs. 228 meat-consumers), Beezhold et al. found that those who abstained from meat reported better mood and lower stress than meat-consumers (Beezhold et al. 2015).
This supports the idea that social rejection may play a role in the development of mental health problems for vegans.
People often lose many of their friends after becoming vegan. This can even lead into traumatic experiences, fighting, and bullying. There is even a sense that the world is against you. It is true that veganism is persecuted. People who decide to go vegan are ostracized from much of society. They must be careful where they eat, they will have trouble eating with nonvegans, they will fight with nonvegan family and so on. When one is persecuted it is undoubtedly upsetting so it’s no surprise that those who are persecuted would have mental health problems.
Consider this take on the topic of persecutory paranoia from Delusion:
Those who believe in unpopular opinions (flat earth theory, veganism) and transgenders both experience persecution which could drive someone down a life path of greatly increased risk of being abused, bullied, rejected, unpopular, and ultimately traumatized and stressed more than their ‘normal’ peers. This path of stress may lead to isolation and a lifestyle that is considerably similar to the conditions that produce schizophrenic symptoms, such as solitary confinement. This is important to point out because those labeled schizophrenic are usually said to have delusions of persecution.
There is a useful analogy that can be made with the deer. Deer are a prey species and they are often stereotyped as fearful, cautious creatures. It makes sense for a deer to be paranoid of predation because of the survivalist conditions they live in. The deer must be ready to react to predators at the first sign of notice. The conditions of life for the deer is very much like trauma. They observe their friends and family die at the hands of monsters throughout their life.
Schizophrenics are a prey species.
The schizophrenic is paranoid of being poisoned or abused often times. We often view the schizophrenic as irrationally afraid or paranoid. Even presenting the idea that prey species are schizophrenic to my friends, they remarked that it is reasonable for the deer but not the human. This is not a fair assessment. If we are to conclude that the schizophrenic is irrational, then the deer is definitely ‘irrational’ as well, in that if I approach the deer with no intent to harm or murder it, the deer will still be afraid of me, it is inaccurate. The deer has delusions that I am a monster. There is no evidence that I am a monster for the deer, much like the schizophrenic may lack evidence that I am a threat. If one is bullied or abused frequently, it is not irrational to predict a recurrence of such problems.
Could exploring unpopular ideas drive one mad?
Fortunately, there is no research linking veganism to schizophrenia yet and this isn’t really a common association people make much at all. Although people do assume vegans are crazy for being vegan or based on their behavioral stereotypes.
Veganism is dark. This has been dubbed Vystopia.
The ideology behind veganism usually involves the narrative that your fellow humans are irreversibly taking the lives of a bunch of animals by engaging in a humane holocaust for the whimsical fun of taste pleasure. Not only this, but they are polluting the world with methane that will harm our collective children via climate disaster. Those who contribute to both of these for simple fun seem unnecessarily cruel, scary, Sadistic even. That said, the reality for meat-eaters may not be that they are driven to be cold and uncaring, this is not how they would generally see themselves. Because of this, the perspective of the meat-eater will disregard the implications of the vegan’s perspective because they overlook it or assume that perspectives don’t impact one’s state of mind.
The vegan narrative is nearly an apocalyptic one and this is sure to have negative mental health consequences. My own experience of veganism is that it feels eerily similar to this ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This might come to a shock to outsiders, because the pandemic seems to more clearly impact us. To note, I am not yet personally impacted by the coronavirus yet, this day may come, but right now the pandemic vibe is not one that personally impacts me. Instead, it is more like with veganism, where I am watching many suffer and human recklessness is skyrocketing. The weird end-of-the-world vibe that comes from this pandemic is almost identical to the feeling one can get after going vegan and observing everyone live a YOLO lifestyle, trashing animals, the Earth, their children’s futures. Even if you disagree with these perspectives, it would be outright delusional to think that having them doesn’t factor into one’s wellbeing. These are clearly upsetting perspectives, which also applies to the perspective one takes on the pandemic we are facing. Those who think its no big deal will be more mentally healthy than those who think it is the downfall of human society.
A close friend of mine started advocating for and producing cloth masks for healthcare workers during the early days of the pandemic. Her experiences were markedly relatable to the kinds of social issues I’ve encountered when I first entered the world of veganism, so much that we even bonded over them. The mask-production project she was engaged in reminded me of activism. Her friends and family grew concerned that she was losing her grip on reality and was drifting away from real-life tasks. The people in her life stigmatized her for trying to save people’s lives essentially. She detailed how she was shocked that people reacted this way and didn’t share her way of thinking. My friend felt angry, sad, and surprised by people’s reaction, meanwhile many people continued to go outside for petty reasons as people are dying because no one was taking the pandemic seriously. She ended up ruminating on these problems with her therapist for weeks. She felt gaslit by the people around her, checking her sanity frequently, wondering if she really did lose it.
The way that those around her expressed concern for her mental health, as if she was losing her mind is a similar kind of issue that is occurring with this study on the mental health of vegans. Imagine if the people rationalized that my friend was just experiencing PMS, which many easily recognize as a very insensitive way to dismiss valid feelings. The study on the mental health of vegans pathologizes veganism and ignores the valid and upsetting problems that the vegans experience. In my own transition to veganism, I’ve been convinced that I was losing my mind after feeling gaslit by those around me. Even the way people looked at me felt so dehumanizing at times. People would argue so insensitively and occasionally I felt they were right and that I have turned entirely delusional. There is a sense that everyone is against you and judging you for your decision. Even when you cannot confirm that they are judging you, there is a worry and paranoia that it will come up at some point. In the long run, I have become resilient against the fallacies circling these kind of social conflicts.
Watching the world burn down while everyone casually partakes either as a bystander or an active participant, or worse, even shaming you for trying to save lives is the very essence behind the anguish of Vystopia.
If you want to see my dark perspective on life and that sadistic world, read Sadism.
Here are a few short passages from that essay:
When we first think of sadism, what comes to mind is something like a person smiling in glee while gently paper-cutting someone’s eyes or slowly dripping boiling habanero infused vinegar onto the exposed body of another. The extraction of pleasure from pain is very overt in these cases but what about less transparent cases?
What if we used a human mouse wheel that requires painful amounts of effort and used it to power a toaster for the consumption of luxury extra-status pop tarts? Is this sadistic? The connection between pleasure and suffering becomes increasingly invisible but it is still there. The suffering is a necessary factor of the total product. We may convince ourselves that we only want the pop tart, that the mouse-wheel-powering mechanisms are an unfortunate but necessary side effect of one’s true desire. We abstract away from the dismal reality in order to generate a conceptual euphemism. Does merely expressing a lack of affinity for the suffering in this case absolve one from ethical responsibility?
. . .
An overlooked utility of money is that it allows you to thin this perception of connectedness in the processes that result from our sadistic exploitation. By using money, it creates another layer of ambiguity to this whole process of gaining exploitative consumerist rewards. This kind of distancing seems to be a core problem with society after the invention of mass production. Even those working in corporations become increasingly valueless and disposable, disregarded by the collective.
. . .
If I had some kind of sadism fetish, could I increase the ethics of my desires by adding layers of ambiguity to the situation? For example, say I want to experience the excitement of somebody bleeding. If I build a contraption that wields the knife for me, and it requires quarters to operate, then is this more ethical than if I directly applied the blade to the victim? What if I paid someone to enter the quarter for me? The answer seems clearly no. What if I enjoy putting the quarter into the knife contraption rather than the harm towards the victim? Is it more ethical to enjoy the quarter aspect than to enjoy the harm aspect? These two aspects are intertwined and in reality we enjoy the final outcome of the product enough to engage with the process.
When we desire the outcome of some process such as dairy, chocolate, or technology, we must realize that if we choose to engage these desires, we are seeking the entire process of events leading up to the product, unless we reject the product on these bases. We do want slaves to work for our chocolate because we want the outcome of the slave process: the chocolate. We may say “I like chocolate” but the reality is that this is not what we are getting. We are getting “chocolate made by slaves” and we are thoroughly enjoying it. We gain pleasure from chocolate made by slaves. It is sadistic. We are willing to let child slavery occur because chocolate matters more to us and it’s easy to be a passive bystander, especially when there is no one here to shame us. This seems to mean that we value our social reputation but not the lives or feelings of others.
And what will you do with this perspective? Will you attempt to rationalize it away? To justify it? Maybe you will spend sleepless nights haunted by the demons of your petty euphoria. Or become stressed, depressed, or even shamelessly unaffected. I dearly hope its the former two because it brings me such pleasure to spread this horrible meme, this seed of an idea that you will begin to see in every facet of your life, in every passing moment of sensational thrill, that you are vile, that you are a sadistic monster living among a culture of apathetic YOLOers who continuously dismiss the suffering they cause to others in an endless addiction, no better than a heroin addict who steals money from their dying cancer-ridden mother in order to get high.
What if I blamed your outrage over this idea on your deficient food choices? That would completely gloss over the possibility that your outrage is valid.
In my own experience, I have become quite adept at refusing to pay attention to the darkness in life. Perhaps I am even desensitized to it. When studies like this come out, some of the upsetting feelings on the topic come back because it is so blatantly obvious that the perspective of the researchers is inconsiderate of mine. Worse, the methodology of these kind of studies are impaired by the researchers biases to dismiss or ignore that many vegans are driven by a perspective or ideology that is basically inherently painful.
That said, I do understand that those who have not seen the color red will not easily understand what red is like. I did not understand the vegan stigma until I recklessly entered my social realm as a new vegan, as if I wouldn’t be irrationally stigmatized. I trusted the people around me to treat me normal as usual, since I’ve never been stigmatized by them like that. Eventually my friends grew comfortable with my veganism and I learned a lot about the nature of social rejection, tribalism, fear of the other, narcissism, theory of mind, and more, all from a very real and subjective experience with these concepts. Lastly, those who have not tasted Vystopia may not know the feeling either.
Special thanks to the two patrons, Abhishaike Mahajan and Charles Wright! Abhi is also the artist who created the cover image for Most Relevant. Please support him on instagram, he is an amazing artist! I’d also like to thank Annie Vu, Chris Byrd, and Kettner Griswold for making these projects and the podcast possible.
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