Mental Health Resources tailored for EAs (WIP)

by Miranda_Zhang8 min read20th Aug 20215 comments

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Effective altruism lifestyleSelf-care
Personal Blog

TL;DR: Here are some mental health resources tailored for EAs that have helped me.

I think that reading about the intersection of specific mental health issues (e.g. anxiety) and effective altruism can be more efficient than reading about specific mental health issues and interpreting their relationship to EA principles.

Basically, it seems easier on your brain to use advice that is more specific to your situation, such as being part of the EA community.

However, my limited experience with the EA mental health community has not turned up a lot of resources specific to EAs.[1] This is unsurprising because none of the mental health issues that EAs face are exclusive to the EA community—so I'm not sure how much more useful tailoring mental health resources to EAs would be.[2]

Still, I have found that I am more likely to resonate with and apply insights that do specifically consider mental health issues from an EA lens, and so I want to compile those rare resources here for posterity.[3]

Resource List

These are divided into more specific aspects of mental health. For each resource, I have provided a high-level summary, one favorite quote, and a personal reflection of how the resource has benefited me.

Note: Following Tessa's comments, I'm transitioning this post into a general collection of EA mental health resources. I will mark resources I have yet to review with an asterisk and only provide a one-line summary.

Perfectionism

Holly Elmore on Scrupulosity (2019)

A 5-minute talk that combines Obsessive Compulsive (Personality) Disorder with perfectionism, which really reflects my experience of perfectionism re: EA.

Essentially, for me EA has helped a lot by taking morality seriously as a real world project. With evidence-based charity comes a lot of sobriety. But it’s also hurt because my way of thinking is magnified in this community and I’m constantly made aware of all the things I could, in theory, be doing to help the world.

I once told a therapist that "EA didn't cause my unhealthy perfectionism but it sometimes interacts unhelpfully with it"—this talk not only describes that but also provides actionable insights.

The Parable of the Talents by Scott Alexander (2015)*

Covers scrupulosity, intelligence, and self-esteem through a personal account.

Motivation

Helen Toner on Sustainable Motivation (2020)

A 24-minute talk on avoiding burnout by creating a sustainable lifestyle. Not really EA-specific but as a member of the EA community, Helen provides relatable examples and supports the scientific method of [running experiments on] self-improvement.

... we should be thinking hard and talking with each other about how to build sustainable motivation in our lives. Do it for your work, because your work matters and you'll be more effective at your job. Do it for your community, because we're constantly setting norms and expectations for one another. And do it for yourself, because you're a human and you matter.

I think EAs may be more prone to burnout because it can be difficult to compartmentalize when you are so keenly aware of a) the world's problems and b) the ability you have to address them (for those of us who are more privileged), so even though burnout is very commonly talked about, I felt like I learned from Helen's take. As someone who plays the Sims, I also really like her Sims metaphor!

Replacing Guilt by Nate Soares (2015-2016)

An EA mental health classic: on his blog, Soares wrote a series of posts on a range of mental health topics, ranging from feeling guilty to maximizing for effort vs a goal. If you aren't new to EA, I highly recommend starting from the 'Drop your obligations' section.[4]

It's much easier, I think, to stop asking "is this action the right action to take?" and instead ask "what's the best action I can identify at the moment?" ... You never have enough information to make a fully informed choice. You never have enough time to consider all the possibilities, or weigh all the evidence. You are always biased; your brain is compromised. The problem before you is too hard, and no matter what you do, a billion more people are going to die.—'The Best You Can'

Some of this series was helpful for me and some of it, not so much—but the stuff that was helpful is stuff I'm confident I'll keep returning to. This series is popular for a reason!

Personal Accounts

'Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome' with Howie (2021)

Part one of a two-part 80,000 Hours interview with Howie, who worked at Open Philanthropy. A really honest and, as of right now, rare account of an EA struggling with mental health despite being an incredibly impactful person.

I think a problem that a lot EAs have is just inability to set standards for themselves that they can possibly meet. I think that there’s just this sort of maximizing, optimizing type of attitude that can just make it really tempting to shoot for the stars and then not actually have a plan that could possibly lead you to be successful.

I loved this episode. I think much of its impact simply came from validating my experiences and realizing that super cool EAs also struggle with similar thought patterns and issues. This seems more reflective of my experience around [the lack of] mental health discourse within EA.

Desperation hamster wheels by Nicole Ross (2020)*

A personal reflection by Nicole on her experience with mental health issues and potential explanations for the improvements she's seen. Includes a list of recommendations to try.

Generalized Resources from EAs

Although not true to the spirit of this post, I'll briefly list MH resources provided by EAs/EA-aligned therapists in case you are searching for an EA-aligned MH professional.

  • The Lorien Psychiatry Database* A WIP database that provides an overview of several mental health conditions (including alcoholism, borderline personality disorder and depression), medications, and supplements. Takes a classic psychiatry approach.

  • Mental Health Resources by Ewelina Tur* A useful document listing recommendations for everything from workbooks to apps.

Personal Context

TL;DR: Aspiring to maximize EA alignment exacerbated underlying tendencies towards burnout etc., and in my journey to recovery, I feel cautiously optimistic that mental health resources tailored for EAs will be especially useful.

I only 'discovered' EA as a community in 2020 and it's been an incredible whirlwind since. I'd read 80,000 Hours back in 2018 (you know - when it still had the career quiz) and had the vague sense that maybe AI policy could be significant, and so I decided to major in Public Policy instead of Psychology, and ...

... That was about it until 2020, when I was asked by the then-organizers of UChicago EA to help lead the Arete Fellowship.[5] They then recommended I apply for career mentoring through EA Oxford, which is what kickstarted my engagement with the wider EA community. Huw Thomas singlehandedly explained longtermism to me and I finally 'got it.' Maybe it's because I didn't focus enough while I was browsing 80k or maybe it's because conversation activates my brain in a special way, but I finally heard the music.[6] What do you mean, there's thousands of people who think like this and whom I could talk to?! I thought this was all just ... Philosophy and Peter Singer and being-scared-about-AI. And EA is certainly about those things, but it's also much bigger and less well-defined and more nascent.

All of a sudden, I was thinking about how I could be EA-everything. I took career planning seriously for the first time. I became a University organizer. I decided my thesis had to be an Effective Thesis. I joined EA Slack and Facebook groups. I turned on Twitter notifications for active EAs in my favorite cause areas and subscribed to All The Newsletters. While picking classes to take, I obsessed over optimizing for EA-alignment while still being able to graduate. I scheduled a plethora of networking calls to figure out how I could make my first job out of college as EA as possible.

I also compounded my burnout by making it feel really high-stakes. Ever since entering a highly-selective high school in 2016, I've struggled with episodes of anxiety and depression, and this sudden influx of EA maximization has been A Lot. I started taking my mental health more seriously this year, including starting long-term therapy. It's helped a bit but not as much as I thought, which has been disheartening. However, I feel more optimistic about my self-improvement prospects when I read about mental health issues specifically from an EA perspective.[7] I wondered if that might be the case for other EAs—but I figured that, if it wasn't, it would still be helpful for me to keep track of mental health resources that specifically deal look at the influence + implications of EA principles. Thus this list was born![8]


  1. Speaking from my VERY limited experience, ranging from counselling with EA therapists to the fantastic WANBAM Slack and the similarly-fantastic EA Mental Health Navigator to Forum posts such as this one. ↩︎

  2. Indeed, I think the highly-engaged EA community tends to be biased towards thinking it's more unique than it is, and could benefit from drawing more from resources that do not take an EA lens. ↩︎

  3. A big part of why I'm doing this is because I haven't come across a centralized directory for these types of resources but please let me know if one already exists! ↩︎

  4. I read this series recently and I felt like there was so much ground covered, almost to the point where I don't feel comfortable categorizing this in any specific section. Even just listing it as is, without dividing the series into subdivisions, seems counter to the spirit of my compilation and so I hope to later edit this post to break down the series further. ↩︎

  5. An exaggeration but not by much. I kept engaging with + spreading EA ideas and taking an EA perspective to isues, but I didn't build it into my life as much as I do now. ↩︎

  6. Perhaps the best metaphor about the 'avant-garde' EA community I've come across, so I really wanted to reference it here! ↩︎

  7. I suspect this is because I'm still struggling to dedicate time + effort to my mental health, and so I am unlikely to take on any cognitive load beyond directly applying insights I come across. This means that I'm not maximizing their utility because I'm not fully understanding how they can be applied to, say, moral perfectionism driven by EA. ↩︎

  8. Now that I think about it, most if not all of these come directly from EAs. I don't think that has to be the case, though, so I'm not going to rename this as 'For EAs, from EAs: Mental Health Resources' even though I'm tempted. ↩︎

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I've found many of Julia Wise's posts to be useful for pushing against "maximize ONLY EA THINGS" tendencies in my life, in particular:

  • Cheerfully - a post about how, even if you agree with the younger Julia's statement that "my happiness is not the point", you need to find a way to relate to your future as more than an obligation
  • You have more than one goal, and that's fine - trying to abandon the feeling that "the harsh light of cost-effectiveness" should be turned on everything you do (a somewhat similar mood is expressed in Scott Alexander's post Nobody is perfect, everything is commensurable but I found Julia's post to be more closely targeted at my emotional motivations)
  • Burnout and self-care - lessons on sustainable, bounded generosity drawing on Julia's time as a social worker

I would also recommend browsing the posts that have been upvoted under the effective altruism lifestyle and self-care tags.

yes! i've read some of her posts too but alas, forgot about them too (hence the need for this post i suppose). will add, thank you for your fantastic flags!

i also subscribe to those tags so i should probably add the ones that i've enjoyed too : )

Lynette Bye's post on Resources On Mental Health And Finding A Therapist, which you link in the first footnote, also includes links out to several resources:

Among effective altruists, there’s a particular pattern of mental health problems related to feeling guilty about not doing enough to help the world: feeling guilty setting personal boundaries, or worrying that you’re not smart enough to make a difference, or thinking that what you’re doing is good but just not “good enough” to matter. Desperation Hamster Wheels is a great description of one EA’s experience with this, Helen Toner’s sustainable motivation talk is good, and the Replacing Guilt series on Minding Our Way seems to be particularly valuable in helping find a healthy balance to these thoughts so that you actually make progress toward your goals.

If you want more resources, Scott Alexander’s new psychiatry practice has a growing database of mental-health-related resources. Ewelina Tur, an EA therapist, has a list of mental health resources here, including workbooks, mental health apps, and audiobooks. The EA Mental Health Navigator website has a list of virtual mental health resources here.

ah, great flag, thank you! i've watched Helen's talk before and found it helpful, but forgot to put it in, so i'll add that in now.

also adding a section for resources that i haven't personally viewed, for posterity. very much appreciate this!

Is there anything that might be helpful for social anxiety/shyness/underconfidence? I feel like this is something that affects EAs and can hold people back in making high impact career, advocacy, donation etc decisions-due to the fear that they might be perceived as weird to non-EAs.