Mental Health

Is Overgeneralizing Negative Experiences Helpful?

The problem with overgeneralizing negative experiences – graphic of colours spiralling

While browsing on NetGalley for books to read, I came across a book called The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fallacy: A Mental Health Industry Bonanza of Profit and Human Destruction. Alrighty then. Here’s part of the book description on Amazon:

“When discovering that she is the exception of the rule concerning genuine PTSD experiencers’ recovery when under the “care” of mental health professionals, it left her no choice but to publish her non-fiction meticulously researched trilogy The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Fallacy: A Mental Health Industry Bonanza of Profit and Human Destruction documenting the mental health professions’ PTSD modus operandi and disclosing how she by osmosis healed herself.”

While this example may be a bit over the top, it’s not uncommon for people to generalize negative experiences as something that goes beyond just what happened to them. It’s also very easy to find others online who’ve had similar kinds of experiences. That may lead to the conclusion that many, or even most, people have similar negative experiences.

My concern is that this can have unintended negative consequences by discouraging some people from seeking treatment. It could also end up feeding into stigma.

I’ve seen this kind of overgeneralization a fair bit with people’s writing off certain treatments across the board because of their own negative experiences with medications, including withdrawal symptoms. I find this particularly concerning, because there’s already enough stigma around taking psychiatric medication; we don’t need more coming from within the mental illness community. Yet there is a strong anti-medication segment of our community, which makes it extra difficult for people who are contemplating starting treatment.

I remember reading someone’s opinion that Effexor (venlafaxine) was a “garbage drug” because they had difficult withdrawal effects from it. That’s awful that this person had that experience, but that doesn’t mean everyone will have the same kind of experience. I’ve had a positive experience with that same drug, and that also doesn’t imply that everyone is likely to have a good experience. There isn’t a single drug that’s all good for everyone or all bad for everyone; there’s a wide range of different reactions, and no single person’s reaction will ever define a drug.

Saying that bad thing X happened to me, and this is how you can catch it early and intervene if it starts happening to you, is useful information. Using an individual’s negative experience of PTSD treatment to extrapolate that PTSD is a fallacy created by the mental health industry isn’t likely to do anything useful for anyone other than the author who’s venting, or for others who share the same opinion.

Maybe I’m just overly attached to shades of grey, and tend to be skeptical when shown black and white. There are a lot of really valuable stories that need to be told, both positive and negative, but context matters in situating those stories within the broader world, and context is seldom black or white.

Lots of people have negative experiences with treatment, but by framing them as individual experiences could hopefully raise awareness about the potential downfalls without deterring people from trying to access treatment in the first place.

What are your thoughts on how useful it might or might not be to generalize individual experiences more broadly?

Stop mental illness stigma

You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.

28 thoughts on “Is Overgeneralizing Negative Experiences Helpful?”

  1. You do make a valid point as generalizing the experience will lead to confusion and loss to an Individual who might get benefit from a perticular treatment or drug thus presenting the bad experiences as individuals incidents and explaining the ways to recorver or maybe avoid such should be the practice.

  2. I think your comments about medication are a case in point. So many people ask me if I’m worried about becoming addicted to the antidepressants I am on because they have heard others have been. This is a complete untruth and related to people coming off them too quickly which triggers withdrawal symptoms that lead people to believe they still need them. Slowly reducing intake prevents being stuck in this cycle. It’s not addiction though and is very dangerous for others to feed that belief. My SSRIs have been my lifeline. I am not addicted to them and I have come off them slowly in the past … but taken them again after 3 months because it’s clear to me without them I am unwell. I want others to have medication if they need it, not be worried about taking it. Overgeneralisation of negative experiences does more harm that good.

  3. Yeah, there’s a lot to that! I try not to generalize like that, but sometimes I’m guilty. For example, ask me my opinion of therapists! It’s not going to be very favorable. But my sense is that there’s something about me that makes therapists feel threatened, and that’s going to be a non-issue with someone else seeking therapy. I don’t know if therapists get threatened by my keen psychological insight (it was my major, after all), or if they’re threatened by my strength of character, or if they’re intimidated by my knowledge of what works for me and what doesn’t; but whatever it is, it makes me + a therapist = disaster, and I get badly hurt. There’s no way around it. I’m convinced of it this time. You know the long list of bad therapists I had before this one.

    I hate it when people say something’s going to be horrible if it’s something that’s anxiety inducing. I’d never share terrifying birthing stories with a pregnant woman. That, to me, takes it to the level of near-cruelty. Nor would I share (without a valid reason or relevancy) stories about disastrous surgeries to someone who’s about to go under the knife. I think that takes it to a level of badness that goes beyond complaining about therapy, or whatever. People who do stuff like that need to be called out on it.

    Very interesting!!

    1. I haven’t had good luck with therapists either, although nothing like you’ve had. I’m still pro-therapy in general, but I don’t think it’s right for everyone.

  4. Wow – sharing this one on Twitter. This gives me a lot to think about in terms of my own experiences with medications as well as with the tendency to extrapolate general cases too quickly from specific individual experiences.

    Hopefully I’ve not come across as anti-psych or anti-medication, because I certainly am not. It is true however that I have had largely negative experiences with the medications I’ve tried, and comparatively positive experiences since I have been trying to address my conditions without medication. However, the only psychiatric medications that I personally have felt “withdrawal” symptoms after cessation are the benzodiazepines. Any other med I’ve taken, while their intended effects may have waned and their side effects been amplified over time, have not been difficult to go off of. That’s just me, of course. Different people’s body-minds are different.

    I also think that in my case, I may have suffered from some misdiagnoses when I was down in California. The doctors who told me I was ADHD seemed genuine. The ones who told me I was Bipolar were either reading off a past chart that said so, or else seemed to be confusing the effects of a medication for an actual ongoing issue. (I believe that was supposed to become “Bipolar Four” in the DSM-V – when an antidepressant, for example, simulates the effects of a manic state. You would be more familiar with that than I.)

    Finally, on the medication aspect of your post, I have found myself wondering if those of us who engage a lot of long-distance running, which is known to affect release of l-dopamine and beta-endorphins as well as norepenephrine and maybe some other neurotransmitters, may possess altered neuro-physiologies that would ideally need to be taken into account by any doctor prescribing psychiatric medications. Again however this is just a lay person’s subjective hunch. I don’t know much about neuro-physiology, but I have sometimes wondered if the reason some medications have affected me so much more adversely than other people is because they were administered to an altered mental state to begin with.

    But what intrigues me most about this post is the tendency to “box up” our experiences as examples of a larger diagnosis, and in so doing, sometimes inadvertently (or perhaps conveniently) sidestepping the need to address the actual specific issue. I could probably come up with numerous personal examples off-the-top, but this post is already horrendously long. Please feel free to edit to taste.

    Thank you for another very well-written and thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks! There are a variety of reasons some people may be more susceptible to side effects, including genetic variants encoding for neurotransmitter transporters and metabolic enzymes in the liver. Luckily, I’m one of those people that don’t tend to get many side effects.

      I agree that there’s the potential to get sidetracked from addressing the actual issue. Getting hyperfocused on one thing can mean blindspots to things that might actually be important.

  5. It’s almost unavoidable that we’re going to try and find some relatability with any individual’s experiences, and so be tempted to see compare and assume that they’re trying to generalise. If someone‘s sharing their experience, I can’t think of any way you can share the lessons you’ve learnt without having it come across as generalised, so I’d have thought that the line is crossed when you deny any other experience that contradicts yours without right.

    It’s as you said, if one individual had a good experience with medication and another bad, then it might mean that it helps some and not others. Although some points can be plain wrong, sometimes the differences are down to context.

  6. This is mostly off-topic, lol. I’ve started GOING TO the blogs of people I enjoy reading rather than just following and hoping I catch what they write in my feed and I gotta say your site is quite impressive! It’s very similar to what I’ve wanted to do but never seem to find the time (or rather never seem to set aside time) to lay down the design. I like the idea of having everything put into sections that can be easily browsed.

    To your post, the title of that book (and specifically the subtitle) reminds me of those self-published Amazon books by fairly unhinged individuals. I don’t know if that’s actually the case with this book, it just made me chuckle. The problem you describe goes both ways from my experience. We believe our allegorical situations, positive or negative, are what EVERYBODY experiences so anyone who describes something else is lying. I’ve naturally been guilty of this myself as I do all of my thinking out loud and without explaining that ahead of time, everybody assumes I’m trying to state a fact. Lol

    1. Thanks! I’ve had loads of time on my hands, which most people don’t have.

      I’ve been thinking about the everybody who experiences something else thing lately, and wondering if there’s sometimes a group identity that develops around a shared experience, and reports of other experiences are treated almost like an identity threat. Regardless, it’s all very interesting.

      1. I think you’re on to something there as that seems to be a very real thing going on in the world either lately or always has and it’s just more apparent now. lol

  7. Hmm, interesting. It reminds me of this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/2370/
    And of the saying that nothing works for everyone, everything works for someone, and something works for everyone (or something like that)
    I’m generally anti-medication for myself (not for everyone!), but maybe I could reconsider that a bit.

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