Last month a YouTuber named Nasim Najafi Aghdam shot up YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, injuring three people before committing suicide. Following this tragedy it was revealed that she had been extremely upset over the site’s decision to demonetize her videos, which many believe to be the reason for the attack. Other details about this woman began to trickle out, including the fact that she was a vegan animal rights activist who attended a PETA protest at some point.
There is evidence to indicate that she was mentally ill — not least of which, of course, is the fact that she shot strangers who happened to work for a company that angered her, before killing herself. Her videos were also quite bizarre.
This ordeal didn’t spark a conversation about the overlap between veganism and mental illness, though Donald Trump Jr. came close to bringing it up. Such a conversation would likely have been extremely unhelpful, providing yet another bad reason for people to dismiss veganism. But I think there is a connection between veganism and mental illness that is worth acknowledging.
There’s some support for the notion that vegetarians and vegans are more depressed, such as this study. Other research suggests that the opposite may be true. But even if it is the case that veg-heads are more likely to suffer from afflictions such as depression and anxiety, it doesn’t really mean much. It may be that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to decide to stop eating animal products. It could also be the case that a third factor contributes to mental illness and also to a decision to go vegan or vegetarian. Sure, it’s possible that refraining from animal products somehow causes symptoms of mental illness, but there’s no evidence to support this hypothesis.
Another possible reason for the mental illness-veganism connection, if there in fact is one, is that coming to terms with the scale of suffering we inflict upon animals takes a significant psychological toll.
More troubling, however, is the link between eating disorders and veganism. It shouldn’t be all that surprising: a pathological tendency to limit one’s intake of food, as in an eating disorder, can in many ways be masked by veganism. Or, someone who is vegan could apply additional filters to what they find permissible to put in their body, thus slipping into disordered-eating territory. This shouldn’t be ignored; it is a lot more common that we like to think.
What does this mean for veganism? Again, pretty much nothing. People like to attempt to indict a vegan lifestyle utilizing guilt by association. The fact that there are millions of healthy vegans the world over is not eliminated by the fact that unhealthy and mentally ill vegans exist. Instead, in a strange way, this illustrates that vegans are a lot like everyone else in that we are a diverse collective of people with different beliefs, values and habits. That which is peripheral to veganism — whatever ridiculous things people may do in its name — stands separate from the merits of a vegan lifestyle.
So even if we do tend to have higher rates of mental illness, it doesn’t take away the fact that we’re on the right side of history. Perhaps in a century or sooner, we’ll wonder about the psychological makeup of those of us who, knowing full well that billions of animals suffer and die needlessly each year, continued to partake in such a brutal system.