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Should vegans be issued with a mental health warning?

Italy-actiivist-holding-dead-animalAre animal activists and vegans on the brink of madness? Psychologist Clare Mann has seen an increase in GPs referring people to her who they believe are suffering from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. Upon meeting these clients, Mann finds that the preliminary diagnoses are made after the patients explained that they are vegan. In this article, she explores the reasons why this group of social justice advocates feel alienated and misunderstood by other people.

12 June 2014

As a psychologist with over 20 years’ experience, I admit that I have a mental health disorder. 

Some professionals might say I have an eating disorder because I am vegan. Others would show concern that I regularly feel anxious, depressed, experience panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress symptoms at what I have and continue to see in society’s abuse of animals.

I say this because, in the past year I have seen an increase in GPs referring people they believe are suffering from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. However, upon meeting them, I find that these preliminary diagnoses follow these patients explaining that they are vegan.

What if their associated symptoms were not signs of mental illness at all, but instead signs of extreme anguish, grief, betrayal and the madness of speciesism?

So if you are reading this and are actively involved in animal advocacy and consider yourself to be an ethical vegan, then perhaps you should be issued with a health warning? 

Not a physical health warning because with the proper nutritional advice, your health will positively improve by adopting a plant based diet, but with a mental health warning.

Once you lift the veil on what is going on behind our speciesism, you will most likely reach the same conclusion – that it is a form of madness but not your madness.  The madness of how our society thinks speciesism – our unspoken superiority over the animal kingdom and differing treatment of different species - is ok.

So why is it so painful to be an animal advocate or adopt a vegan lifestyle? And most importantly what can you do to alleviate your pain and help animals? 

Throughout this discussion, I will use the word vegan to refer to a person whose values and lifestyle choices are underpinned by the ethical belief in the non-exploitation and use of animals. In addition they are those who take action to end the suffering of animals.

Feeling alone with your knowledge of speciesism

Many advocates say that since discovering the truth about institutionalised cruelty towards animals, they experience enormous symptoms of grief, trauma, depression and loneliness. This is only alleviated when they speak to other people who report similar emotions. However, when talking to people who resist, disbelieve, criticise or are indifferent to hearing about their findings, they feel isolated, angry and despairing.

Of the advocates I haCouple-backs-to-each-other-250ve talked to, the vast majority say that they no longer have non-vegan friends because they simply don’t feel understood by them. This is particularly the case when they want to talk about the trauma they feel in relation to animal cruelty. 

But does someone need to be traumatised by animal cruelty themselves in order to support or understand your suffering?

If this assumption is correct, it has implications for the basis of understanding others generally. Does it mean that people can only understand experiences such as abuse, depression or divorce, if they have been through these experiences themselves?

Vegans typically report the following about talking to non-vegan friends:

-        They advise the person of the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, for example, in factory farming, retail or manufacturing.

-        If the friend is a good listener, they are encouraged to share more and are offered support and strategies to alleviate their related anxiety and trauma. 

-        Having told the friend of the extent of animal cruelty and that if a person doesn’t choose veganism, their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, they expect the other person to also make the vegan choice. They say things like ‘If my friend or family really understood my pain, they would be vegan.  How could they not be?’ 

There can be a lot of differences between friends on many issues and deep friendships can develop despite life experiences being very different. We don’t become friends with divorcees only if we have gone through this ourselves. 

However, it seems that there might be a difference regarding the subject of veganism. 

Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised through industrial processes related to food production, clothing, furniture, product testing and other uses. 

A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet not choose to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in production of goods and services they buy. So the non-vegan is not knowingly colluding with animal cruelty. They are unwittingly colluding with it, until the vegan advises them of it. 

The vegan who then talks to their friend about these issues, who subsequently doesn’t also become vegan, believes that their friend either agrees with the cruelty, disbelieves what goes on or is indifferent to it. 

Either way, the vegan knows that the non-vegan now has the knowledge but chooses to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their friends or family don’t understand them. They might believe the non-vegan friend is demonstrating that:

  •         Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
  •         They do not wish or are unable to empathise with the vegan’s trauma or
  •         They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.

Non-veganism versus other issues

To examine whether a non-vegan friend is required to experience something of what the vegan presents in order to understand them, let’s consider other issues, for example issues such as divorce, infidelity and child abuse.

In hearing of a friend’s pain, would a person who had experienced these things be more understanding of the friend? 


If they hadn’t, would it mean they were less understanding? 


What if they hadn’t experienced an issue and yet continued to be friends, helping the other person to come to terms with what is going on for them? 

The knowledge of the issue would not necessarily be calling upon the person (who had not experienced the specific pain being discussed) to change anything about their personal behaviour. 

Vegan-button-250This is because their non-experience of the issue isn’t directly or indirectly saying that the contributors to the pain are acceptable. They don’t automatically collude with the issues underpinning the pain unless they champion the actions that contributed – and in any case, the friend would be unlikely to know about it if they did. 

Non-veganism is different. 

Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, the non-vegan is unwittingly colluding with the cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled as cruelty free, sit on a leather couch or wear a wool jumper. 

It is impossible for them not to collude with the industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan is challenged and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them. 

It is probably only fundamental religious belief that would result in a similar dynamic and yet this too is subtly different. 

For example a fundamental Christian might say that their non-Christian friend doesn’t understand the imperative of their belief because if they did, they too would become Christian. Here we have a similar dynamic. 

However, it is different from the vegan issue. The friend or family member who chooses not to become a Christian might still act in accordance with Christian values of, for example, not deliberately causing harm to others. Their actions to be non-Christian only affect themselves for if the belief was so rewarding, they are surely missing out.

However the friend who chooses not to become vegan is, by their daily lifestyle choices, colluding with harm to others. It doesn’t just affect them. It affects the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of consumer demand. 

So can a vegan only receive support and help from another vegan? 

Not necessarily. It is up to the individual to decide. They might remember a time when they too didn’t know about the industrial cover-up and the extent to which societal norms and culture keep in place behaviours and actions that collude with animal use i.e. speciesism. 

Our family or friends, like other human beings, have the capacity to empathise with another’s pain.  Some people are better at helping someone else than others to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of life. 

To some extent it depends on the extent to which they have experienced grief or trauma in their own lives. However, when a person’s beliefs that are so great that they enter a minority called vegan, who modify their entire everyday choices to avoid colluding with animal cruelty, they are more likely to feel truly understood by others whose hearts have been similarly opened.

Moving forward

How does the vegan avoid marginalising non-vegans and losing out on connecting with people who don’t share their lifestyle choice but who truly care for them such as their families? 

Dr Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet, offers us a solution to help us on this journey. He says that each of us are born vegan and is on the path to returning to this place.

If you are an animal activist or vegan reading this, you will most likely remember a time before your eyes were opened to the institutionalised superiority humans hold over animals i.e. speciesism.  

Draw on that experience to  ‘leap ahead’ for other people who have yet to have their eyes opened, holding the vision of a more compassionate world, one in which humans do not exercise superiority over non-human species and where animals live their own lives for their own sakes – not ours. 

Clare Mann is an Australian-based organisational psychologist, best-selling author and passionate animal advocate. She is the co-founder of the Vegan Voices app and provides skills training to help animal advocates communicate more effectively and animal welfare organisations collaborate for increased effectiveness. 

For more information on Clare and her work, visit The Vegan Psychologist website or call 1300 788 031.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Release, the magazine of Animal Liberation NSW and is republished with permission.

Image (top): Italian activists mourn the cruelty and abuse of animals in a street protest, holding the bodies of dead animals, 13 April, 2014.


+12 #21 Clare Mann 2014-11-13 23:07
Eric - I very much agree with your comments that as human beings, our denial is enormous and our sedimented beliefs can leave us trapped and unable to move. I think as vegan professionals, we have the opportunity to encourage people to extend their compassion to all living entities (including the planet ) and link lack of compassion and empathy to psychological distress and meaninglessness .
+11 #20 Ralph Graham 2014-08-29 01:50
Clare Mann is a shining light in the vegan world and always makes sense.

[Ralph Graham, vegan, trauma therapist ~ Sydney Australia.]
-9 #19 Rodney Compton 2014-07-21 10:13
I feel I need to supplement what I wrote with a broader more cultural defined comment based upon my understanding of Jungian precepts. Though Jung himself was not vegetarian, he opened a metaphorical door to a part of the psyche that became highly contentious and branded him a mystic. His notion that 'we' exist in time and also outside of time, led him to conclude that all human life follows a predestined path and that all endevour is merely an enactment of the ancient Pleroma. This set of ideas - of a pneumatic matrix that encompasses all human life, sits very uncomfortably with our modern Western mind - because it effectively denies the importance of free will - placing the emphasis more on the how (we do it), rather than on what (we do). I firmly believe that vegetarian/vega n philosophy is in synchronicity with a division in human kind, but like the excessive virtue of the Christian epoch before it, it inevitably carries its own shadow - hence the anger and morbid depression.
+1 #18 Eden Paradise 2014-07-21 01:32
". . .we as a species since the beginning of time have eaten animals." True but options were slim and the climate was much different 40,000 years ago. We no longer kill a mammath to feed on the entire winter. I eat vegan because of compassion for animals but I enjoy the immense health benefits immensely. I don't judge anyone who eats meat - most members of my family do - and I don't think people should judge me for eating a plant-based diet. Let's all just be kind to one another, okay?
-17 #17 Handyman 2014-07-20 22:11
While the worlds farm/manufactur ing process on animals are terrible, steps should and are being taken to change it, we as a species since the beginning of time have eaten animals. Why do these people never camp outside indigenous communities around the world who's main diet and source of clothing, comes from animals?
There is nothing wrong with animal advocacy or Veganism they are noble causes. They are often hijacked by those who have unresolved anger, depression, fear, grief, and other assorted mental issues, which are then channeled into this or other similar movements. I can guarantee that if everyone in the world became Vegan tomorrow, the majority of these people would have to find something else to channel their unresolved issues into. Where the author says Veganism is not really a form of fundamentalism, for a large percentage I'd strongly disagree. Once you see yourself as different from the "others" the seeds of intolerance and fundamentalism have already been planted.
+5 #16 Rod Compton 2014-07-10 09:04
I am a vegan after forty seven years as a vegetarian. I have been involved with psychological matters all my adult life and until recently I would have been able to say with conviction that I was a Jungian, but I am not typical of the self serving analysts met on most Jungian platforms. To my mind the split in psychology that has led to therapists regarding the mind as a material phenomenon - identical with the function of the brain, is at the root of the recent problems over Veganism being regarded as a disorder, though it is true that there is often obsessiveness in many vegan subjects attached to their preoccupation with the constituents of a vegan diet. This in itself however does not devalue the main point of Vegan philosophy, which is to reduce or eliminate suffering among, what can be quite accurately described as agricultural sentients. Being vegan is progressive and it is incumbent on mental health professionals to differentiate the philosophy from the patient's symptoms
+7 #15 Eden Paradise 2014-07-09 19:42
In my experience, it's the meat eaters who feel alienated and misunderstood. I'm a very happy vegan. People either agree with my diet for humane and nutritional reasons or they tell me they wish they had the willpower to eat a vegan menu. The latter remark generally elicits a fun conversation about how easy and healthy it is to be vegan.
+9 #14 leah 2014-07-09 00:35
Fab article. Great insight into the thinking behind an ethical vegan lifestyle. : )
+6 #13 Vegan Smythe 2014-07-08 23:48
Great article Clare - great angle.
+7 #12 Julia 2014-06-20 18:24
It's true. We ethical animal vegans are judged quickly and with very limited depth of thought. They should judge themselves mental for not realizing that.

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