Effective altruism’s odd attitude to mental health

[epistemic status: shower thought]

I’m starting to wonder if there’s an odd tension within EA thinking about mental health. Members of the EA community seem increasingly aware that mental health can have a really big impact on our welfare and productivity and that we should pay more attention to it—see e.g. this great post on imposter syndrome last week or that apparently the most popular 80k podcast is about the difficulties of working with poor mental health. However, when we put on our cause prioritisation hats, we seem to forget about the existence and importance of psychological suffering. If we want to help others, it’s clearly got to be bednets, cash transfers, deworming, etc. It appears not to cross (many) people’s minds that mental health might be a plausible global priority.

[Content warning: anecdata] What brought this out to me was a chat I had with someone who breezed up to me at the careers fair at EAG London the other day. They were talking to me about how they wanted to run a project providing more mental health support for EAs because it was such a big problem. I was encouraging but explained I wasn’t that looped into mental health for EAs because I think focus more broadly on improving global wellbeing.

I then told them about my work at the Happier Lives Institute comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers to treating depression and how we’d found the latter was about 10x better (original analysis, updated analysis). They suddenly switched to sceptical mode, saying they didn’t believe you could really measure people’s mental health or feelings and that, even if you could, targeting poverty must still be better.

After a couple of minutes of this, I suddenly clocked how weirdly disconnected the first and second parts of the conversation were. I asked them how they could be so sceptical of mental health as a global priority when they had literally just been talking to me about it as a very serious issue for EAs. They looked puzzled—the tension seemed never to have occurred to them—and, to their credit, they replied “oh, yeah, hmm, that is weird”.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on this nameless person, but I was struck by how vividly it revealed something I’ve observed more generally but not quite been able to put my finger on. It seems like many EAs have recognised mental health is a serious problem for people like them—community members are generally young, highly educated individuals from the global north - but not yet had the further thought that it is also a serious problem for others.

Clearly, it’s not the case that being depressed, anxious, traumatised, and so on are magically not bad if you’re also poor and marginalised. At the very least, the line of thinking should be “oh, wow, mental health can be bad for people like me. I guess it could be a really serious issue for anyone. Let’s see how it compares to our current priorities.

I’m not claiming that everyone has one thought too few; I’m just reporting that, in my experience, this disconnect seems oddly common.