Quack Science: The Problem with Marianne Williamson

Emily Fox
Emily Fox
Aug 9 · 6 min read

In case you haven’t heard, in recent interviews presidential candidate and self-help guru Marianne Williamson has been busy spreading misinformation about mental illness and its treatment. Specifically, she downplays the severity of clinical depression.

Americans Living With Clinical Depression

Clinical Depression can be simply and briefly summarized as a chemical imbalance in the brain, with a complex combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors at its core.

A 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over 16 million adults in America suffer or have suffered with clinical depression. Further, an estimated 29 million Americans are prescribed anti-depressants annually.

An Unqualified Critic of Mental Health Treatment

Williamson seems to have a long history of quackery when it comes to the topic of mental health, depression in particular. In the recent past, Williamson has even gone so far as to call clinical depression a “scam”.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Williamson said:

“With the advent of modern psychotherapy, a lot of the batons sort of passed from religion and spirituality to modern psychotherapy which was an interesting transition. And then over the last few years, very very quickly, the baton was passed again to psychopharmacology. And so, a nuanced conversation was lost regarding the nature of human despair.”

Williamson is a self -help author with two years of undergraduate study, and not a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. She insinuates that “modern psychotherapy and psychopharmacology” are not the best solution to “the nature of human despair”, and infers that “religion and spirituality” are superior, while being completely unqualified to make such a conclusion.

While Williamson’s self-help books landed her on the New York Times bestseller list, serious issues such as clinical depression are best left to those with rigorous education and training, founded on hundreds of years of study.

Her uninformed remarks not only perpetuate stigma on mental health, they light a fire under it. In the same interview, Williamson said:

“What I speak to is not serious … what is today called clinical depression, although I have questions sometimes how that is looked at.”

Without qualification to do so, Williamson questions the methods that licensed mental health professionals use to make diagnoses. With modern psychology’s long history of scientific and academic research, it astounds me that Williamson, with no formal education in the field of psychology, would consider herself qualified to question their diagnostic methods.

Williamson Discourages Anti-Depressant Use

In past tweets and interviews, Williamson has equated anti-depressants with “numbing” pain. She also actively discourages anti-depressant use, calling it a “creation of the medical industry”.

In her interview with Anderson Cooper, she equated anti-depressants with a “cheap yellow smiley face” that gets “put … over all human emotion”. Williamson also suggests that anti-depressants are unnecessary because “there are times when sadness is part of life.”

As someone who’s had severe episodes of major depression lifted in part because of anti-depressants, I take issue with the suggestion that anti-depressants aren’t needed. Anti-depressants don’t paste a “cheap yellow smiley face” on people; anti-depressants help people get up in the morning. They help people take a shower, go to work, and care for their children. Quite frankly, they help people to not end their lives.

Harmful Anti-Psychiatry Rhetoric

Contradicting years of scientific research, Williamson says depression is “ultimately a spiritual disease”. She calls sadness “something to feel”, and suggests that clinical depression can be “a sacred journey”, as she shares a link to purchase her latest book.

In addition to minimizing clinical depression, she also disparages psychotherapy as a whole. In her interview with Anderson Cooper, Williamson stated:

“I believe that someone who is clergy, someone who is a psychotherapist who is not coming from a psychopharmacological perspective, someone who is a spiritual person is just as qualified an expert to talk about issues of deep sadness, even depression.”

Licensed therapists undergo years of study in Master’s or Doctorate level programs, and are supervised for literally thousands of hours before being able to qualify for a license. The idea that a lay person with little to no education (in the field of mental health or otherwise) is “just as qualified” an expert is absurd.

Hollow Apologies

When pressed by Cooper on how her anti-psychiatry rhetoric is negatively impacting people with mental illness, Williamson said she was being “mischaracterized”. She also apologized for calling clinical depression a “scam” in a podcast interview with Russell Brand, saying it was a “glib comment.”

After the interview, Williamson tweeted an apology saying in part, “I’m pro medicine. I’m pro science.”

Williamson appears to be talking out of both sides of her mouth, one side saying what she knows people want to hear, and one side saying what she truly believes. Undoubtedly, her walk-back of her harsh criticisms of modern psychiatric treatments are inspired by her bid for presidential nominee.

Williamson Doesn’t Get It

Williamson seems to be unable to grasp that her anti-psychiatry rhetoric is harmful. Her dismissive comments about depression, psychotherapy and the medication used to treat depression make a mockery of the science and study of mental illness, and it also minimizes the immense emotional pain people with clinical depression endure.

I’m not suggesting that Williamson fully intends to offend or hurt those dealing with this particular disorder; but nevertheless, her dismissal of clinical depression and its treatment, and her inability to see how her comments are harmful, make light of a very serious illness.

While Williamson may not mean to offend, she must know that her anti-psychiatry views are controversial, to say the least. It seems that at the heart of her beliefs is a rejection of clinical depression as a legitimate illness. If she believed it was a legitimate illness, she wouldn’t broadcast such ignorant views to the detriment of her audience.

By increasing the stigma of mental health, depression and its treatment, she dissuades people from taking their medication or seeking therapy that could drastically improve the quality of their life. She also does a great disservice to those who may be suffering from depression, but don’t yet know what it is they’re experiencing, or who to turn to for help. Her comments could possibly result in much additional and unnecessary suffering.

The Height of Irresponsibility

Williamson’s comments are the height of irresponsibility for a presidential candidate. For a presidential candidate to deny the validity of clinical depression and anti-depressants on a nationwide platform calls all facets of mental health and mental illness into question, unnecessarily.

Mental health is an important issue, and its neglect is negatively impacting this country in a myriad of ways. Proper funding for mental health programs and services is vital for Americans to lead healthy, fulfilling lives. There’s no doubt in my mind that our next President must believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of mental health treatment, and anyone who doesn’t is unqualified to hold our country’s highest position.

Final Thoughts

On a personal level, as someone living with clinical depression and having recovered from a very deep depression, I find Williamson’s commentary cruel and belittling. I cannot overstate how greatly I have benefitted, and how immensely my life has improved, because of the care I received from licensed therapists and the anti-depressants I’ve been prescribed. These were not in whole everything that helped me recover, but they were a very important part of my treatment that I could not have gone without. I don’t want to imagine how I would have fared had I believed I had a “spiritual disease”.

I would invite Marianne Williamson to speak to mental health professionals and educate herself on the issues of mental health. For her to continue spreading misinformation as a presidential candidate is harmful and irresponsible.

Depression Is Treatable

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, help is available, and your depression can be overcome. You can find immediate help and resources for treatment below:

SAMHSA • 1–800–662-HELP (4357)

National Alliance on Mental Illness • 1-800–950–6264 • Or text NAMI TO 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline • 1–800–273–8255

I would also personally recommend Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns (also available on audiobook.)

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