Free speech debates often focus on the mental health risks of bullying and hate speech- but they rarely consider the mental health benefits of freedom of expression. As a clinical psychologist, I believe that open dialogue is ultimately better than top-down censorship for those seeking wellness, authenticity, and individual as well as relational growth.
Source: Drazen Zigic/iStock
Caveat: Free speech does not prevent us from “censoring” certain voices in our own personal life: Whether it’s the proverbial toxic mother-in-law or a news website that seems rife with bias, none of us has an obligation to lend our ears to anyone or anywhere– but we also don’t need to stifle the ability of those voices to continue to exist. In fact, we may even benefit from talking with members of the communities where we live and work… even if (sometimes especially if) their viewpoints differ from our own.
If you’re curious about free speech and mental health, I invite you to consider three main points:
1. Free speech helps people learn and grow:
Humans develop (and sometimes discard) ideas based on social feedback. Our incredible gift of language is so powerful that evolutionary psychologists have speculated that language was an essential factor for humans to evolve into such a sophisticated species.
In addition to facilitating the exchange of information and development of ideas, free speech allows a healthy separation between a person’s ideas or beliefs and that person’s core self: Language lets us externalize our thoughts and feelings, recognizing them as separate from ourselves. Of course, our thoughts and beliefs are part of who we are–but a healthy person can retain a stable sense of self despite changes in their thoughts and beliefs over time.
When we can separate our thoughts from our core identity, we set the stage for growth– but when we experience them as a permanent part of our core identity, we become rigid and inflexible about noticing and discarding them– even if they are what psychologists call “maladaptive beliefs”. Learning to discard these inaccurate or distorted beliefs is key to mental health.
Ironically, being able to say “stupid things” actually helps us to realize how stupid they are; and potentially choose to change our minds. Have you ever noticed that there are certain things we need to “learn by experience”? Sometimes, that comes in the form of hearing ourselves say something aloud and realizing how foolish it sounds, and/or having our community provide feedback that generates a new perspective. Without free speech, we are less likely to examine our thoughts and get feedback on them, which actually leaves us more vulnerable to harboring inaccurate or distorted views.
2. Free speech helps Safe Spaces:
When speech is prohibited, the viewpoints underlying hateful speech do not disappear– instead, they become subverted. This makes it harder to trust we are accessing the true views of others. In fact, the “forbidden speech” model means that we can wisely assume that others are hiding certain “verboten” views. This undermines social trust, thereby ironically undermining the concept of a “safe space”. Conversely, when “haters” can make their views openly known, it’s much easier to avoid, challenge, or take steps to bolster ourselves with support whenever we encounter them. Personally, as a woman, I would rather know if a man automatically views me as less intelligent simply because of my sex. Rather than silencing his voice, I’d much rather know about him so that I could choose to challenge, avoid, or persuade him.
Free speech also helps “safe spaces” because security and stability increase when people understand that they are actually safe even if others voice abhorrent viewpoints that evoke a “mental earthquake” (compared, to say, an actual earthquake). Words are not violence (I say this as a clinical psychologist and as a woman who suffered extreme, life-threatening domestic violence before meeting my wonderful husband). Teaching people that “words are violence” is actually disempowering because it suggests that we should cower in fear or risk physical blows over words rather than reserving that type of retreat or attack for situations of actual physical danger. Instead, we should teach people to rise up, “answer back” vociferously, and not to be afraid in the least over words (unless of course those words are an actual credible threat of physical danger). When clinical psychologists assess a patient, one of the areas we probe is whether the person has a history of violence, and we don’t mean verbal– we mean physical. This is because a physically violent person is a danger to others in a way that a nonviolent person is not. Yes, verbally abusive people are “flagged” by psychologists too– but not in the same way as a person who poses a physical danger to self or others.
3. Free Speech may reduce Anxiety and Depression:
Anxiety and depression can arise for many reasons, and there are multiple ways to be resilient against them. Here are some ways that free speech can help:
- Verbalizing our thoughts and feelings increases our sense of control: The ability to put our thoughts and feelings into language has been proven to increase a sense of control, which likely increases our sense of self-efficacy and encourages what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”. Both increased self-efficacy and having an internal locus of control are protective factors against anxiety and depression. Moreover, research shows that labeling feelings helps prevent the amygdala from “hijacking” our thought process; this is partially why learning to label our thoughts sets the stage for more rational, clear-headed thinking.
- Authenticity facilitates social support: Social support is a known protective factor for mental health. It helps to bolster us against anxiety and depression. When we feel forced to keep significant parts of ourselves secret, we are less authentic and more vulnerable to feelings of isolation. We are less able to fully experience social support because of fears that people might “cancel” us if they knew that perhaps some small component of our authentic self didn’t fit neatly into the bounds of whatever is considered to be “acceptable” speech. Social isolation can develop when social support is degraded by fears of being “canceled” over free expression and open dialogue.
Source: fizkes/iStock millann/iStock Dziggyfoto/iStock
- Free Speech may increase self-awareness: The key to mental health often begins with self-awareness. When we habitually hide our thoughts from others, we tend to become less aware of them internally as well. We go into denial. When we aren’t addressing our thoughts in a straightforward, healthy manner, we may “let them out” in ways that make us vulnerable to anxiety or depression. For example, a person who felt afraid to voice any questions or concerns about political disagreements to the point where they stopped even mentally acknowledging their concerns to themselves might display a generalized sense of anxiety and say truthfully that they “really don’t know why” they’re so anxious. When we aren’t aware of important parts of our feelings and/or we can’t handle them directly, we’re more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Health Essential Reads
How Heat Can Affect Your Mental Health
5 Offbeat Tricks for Cooling Down In High Heat
As a clinical psychologist, I believe that suppressing freedom of expression deprives us of healthy discussions where people can persuade each other through intellectual exploration and develop ideas that help society. Social support that includes free speech allows people to put their thoughts and feelings on the table to examine them, reflect on them, and even change them in a gradual, authentic manner over time (rather than feeling compelled to pantomime a dramatic “change” immediately or risk being ostracized or deplatformed).
Mental wellness requires healthy boundaries. As a psychologist, if I were working with a client who generally expected it was the role of others to either stop having ideas that the client didn’t like, or that it was always the role of the public square to eliminate voices that the client disliked, I would likely have a discussion with the client about building a sense of personal agency, boundaries, and resilience for his or her own benefit. In my book, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, I actually explore techniques to help empower people to use their anxiety or discomfort constructively, rather than becoming overly eager to destroy or deny whatever makes them nervous– it’s often a process that leaves them stronger and more empowered.
Obviously, there are times and places where certain dialogue is not appropriate– but the parameters of what speech is “permissible” even in college classrooms or neighborhood barbecues seems to be ever-shrinking to the point of “speech phobia” that results in unhealthy levels of suppression and repression. As a clinical psychologist, I think we would be a richer, healthier, more intelligent society if we welcomed more diversity of thought… even if some words feel like a figurative “slap in the face” (figurative being the key word). If you disagree, I would love to have an open discussion and learn or consider some new viewpoints– I’m truly open minded. I have even been known to change my mind now and then:)
Dr. Chloe's vlog on the Mental Health Benefits of Free Speech
Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007 May;18(5):421-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x. PMID: 17576282.