Are veganism and vegetarianism symptomatic of eating disorders?
Over the last year, a large number of clients have told that medical professionals advise them that that their lifestyles and eating choices are tantamount to mental illness and should be categorised as eating disorders. Their choice to not eat any animal products or limit their consumption to non-flesh based content is viewed as extreme and a response to disturbances in their psychological wellbeing. As a psychologist, I wish to address these concerns both to the clients and medical professionals.
Firstly, it is important to understand what vegetarianism and veganism is. Vegetarianism is the practice of not eating flesh-based products of animals i.e. Meat, fish or chicken, although some people still call themselves vegetarian but eat fish. Choices are often made on the basis of beliefs about health or cruelty in farming practices or meat production. The former belief is based on the understanding that a person is healthier if they do not eat meat, fish or chicken although they choose to eat animal bi-products like milk or eggs. The latter belief is related to cruelty issues surrounding the treatment of animals in animal agriculture. These two belief sets do not necessarily go together for the vegetarian; a person may restrict their consumption of animal products in the pursuit of improved health whilst not having particular concern for the welfare of animals involved.
Veganism on the other hand is a philosophy that it is unacceptable to use or exploit animals in any way. Decisions to follow a vegan diet may not be philosophically driven but adopted on the basis of improved health. Strictly this is not vegan but like the philosophy led vegan, the person does not consume any animal products. The true definition of vegan is based on ethics; that it is inherently wrong to use or exploit animals i.e. Eat, wear, be entertained by or use any pharmaceutical products that have been tested on animals etc. The ethical vegan is someone who has been impacted by veganism in such a way that they are either intellectually outraged or have experienced intense pain at the realisation of how animals are treated in industrial production. It is these individuals who are more likely to seek psychological support, since they commonly demonstrate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, suicidality or paranoia.
When an individual seeks out the help of a skilled professional, they often report symptoms that are labelled as constituting a mental disorder or, as I prefer to say, mental distress. When they are asked, they invariably say that they have adopted a vegan lifestyle, which, to the non-vegan medical professional, might be seen as extreme. Upon closer examination, I believe that the experiences reported by vegans are so traumatic and more to do with the knowledge and awareness that has come into their life rather than their lifestyle choices being defence mechanisms or strategies to avoid feeling supressed psychic pain.
What do vegans know?
A person who adopts an ethical vegan lifestyle has become aware of the enormous and inherent cruelty and social injustice of the industrial use of animals in our society, whether in food production, the entertainment industry or testing of products for human use. The industrial exploitation of animals is based on considering animals to be property and, in an attempt to maximise profit, costs are reduced meaning pain reduction is not part of the equation. This means that animals raised for food particularly are not afforded the same legal protection as domestic animals. The vegan is traumatised by this awareness and often feels powerless to have their beliefs taken seriously or effect change quickly or at all. However, their trauma goes deeper than this. They have become aware of a gross injustice and speciesism inherent in this industrial system. When they try to share this with others, they are often pilloried as being too sensitive or encouraged to accept that ‘It is normal to eat animals’ or ‘if things were that bad, they would never be allowed’. This intensifies their pain and feelings of isolation as other people often become uncomfortable with the information they share and the challenge to their own values. These repeated experiences cause the person to alienate their friends or family, further intensifying their distress.
In an attempt to gain some level of stability and relief from their pain, they seek out the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist. For individuals to be told that their dietary choices are extreme and constitute eating disorders, paranoia or depression is, in my opinion, the medical profession missing something very important about the determinants their mental distress. To have their distress minimised or trivialised, is reported by many clients as a form of violence or additional abuse. This results in a complicated grief reaction with unresolved previous grief being re-experienced. In an attempt to alleviate their further sense of psychological pain, anger and resentment, they often hold on more tightly to their ethical vegan behaviours. It is these reported behaviours that result in professionals regularly assuming that their chosen strategies defined through their eating and lifestyle choices are a function of mental illness. It is my opinion that, rather than being symptoms of mental disorders, they are a function of mental clarity, mental wellbeing, increased, levels of empathy and compassion. How are these welcome psychological traits suddenly being categorised as constituting mental disorders?
Challenging the status quo
I believe that ‘If all we have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail’. It is all too easy for a professional to see an individual’s behaviour through the narrow lens of medical labelling and faced with symptoms of non-typical eating behaviour label them as abnormal. We have seen this in other non-typical lifestyle choices like homosexuality which was only relatively recently removed from the list of mental disorders. Additionally, veganism challenges everyone (including the professional) to examine his or her own speciesism and human superiority. Speciesism is the term used to explain why different animals are afforded different treatment e.g. why we are horrified by cruelty to dogs and cats but accept or don’t question the slaughter of other animals for food or as the recipients of testing. It may be the uncomfortable feelings experienced by the observer that results in denial or rejection of the injustice. However, this is unhelpful at least and abusive at worst for the professional to categorise an individual’s attitudes and behaviour as abnormal in an attempt to unconsciously avoid experiencing their own discomfort inherent in their own speciesism or entitled superiority afforded simply because they are human.
I encourage vegan clients to seek out the help of others vegans to support them on their journey. If their symptoms are acute, seeking out a vegan psychologist or counsellor who can empathise with the inherent challenges of this lifestyle would most likely be helpful. However, whilst the psychologist might be vegan, do remember that you can only work through your pain if you trust and have rapport with the professional. If this does not exist, no amount of shared philosophical standpoint will help you work through your challenges.
I encourage medical practitioners, psychologists and counsellors to appreciate that the eating and lifestyle choices of the vegan are not symptoms of eating disorders. This is a value-based judgment based on norms in society and such inappropriate labelling can compound the suffering of the client and be a form of superiority over animals – this time, over other humans.