## IQ and mental health

It’s possible that I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to check. I just saw this tweet by Baal about what he calls the “Aaron Swartz syndrome” (of brilliant people lost to mental illness because they put too much pressure on themselves).

(and yay, tweets are publicly visible again)

Baal’s tweet here is about a mutual classmate who we lost over a decade ago.  And this tweet triggered off a thought that I’ve had regarding pattern recognition, and which I might have written about earlier.

Fundamentally, what makes us intelligent is our ability to see patterns. Before the advent of modern “advanced linear algebra”, the difference between giving instructions to a human and to a computer was that the latter had to be incredibly specific. The human, on the other hand, could get approximate instructions, and then quickly see patterns in what they were observing, and get the job done.

Even a lot of “advanced linear algebra” works the same way. You give it a bunch of data, and it uses some mathematical transformations to “learn patterns” about the data, and then looks for these patterns in hitherto unseen data to make predictions. So what makes “artificial intelligence” intelligent is that it can use maths to divine patterns.

I remember taking this Mensa test when in college. It was all about pattern recognition. Four images given, and you need to figure the best fifth image to complete the sequence. That sorts. And Mensa claims to be a “club for the insanely intelligent”, and they use pattern recognition as a means to identify the more intelligent humans.

I can go on but I think I’ve provided sufficient evidence arguments on how intelligence is basically about pattern recognition. The more intelligent you are the better you are at identifying patterns.

Now what does it have to do with mental health?

The answer lies in false positives.

The problem with being good at pattern recognition is that sometimes you can tend to overdo it. You start seeing patterns that don’t really exist. I must mention here that I got over my extremely long-term and fairly deep depression back in 2012 when I was asked to deliver a few lectures on logical reasoning – explaining to my lecturees that correlation does not imply causation convinced me of the same, and I started feelingbetter.

So – because you are good at pattern recognition, you end up seeing too many patterns. I remember this from business school – I saw a bunch of people eating lunch together and thought I’ll go eat with them. And then I noticed a pattern among the set of people (something silly to the effect of “they are all from Section A, and taking this marketing elective”) that didn’t apply to me. And suddenly I decided I didn’t belong there and didn’t go to sit with them.

On that day I remember this happening multiple times, and I finally ate my lunch alone. Now thinking back, this was silly of me – and I had voluntarily brought upon myself unpleasant thoughts (“I don’t belong in this group”) and loneliness.

This is just one example – such things regularly happened through the decade of the 2000s. I would see demons (patterns, basically) where none existed. I would overthink decisions like crazy. I would bring loneliness upon myself. I would make random correlations, that would only serve to depress (“oh, my lucky shirt hasn’t dried, so I won’t be able to do well in today’s exam” types).

Generalising – what you see is that the better you are at seeing patterns, the more the spurious patterns you see (in advanced linear algebra, we call this “overfitting”). And these spurious patterns end up affecting you, and clouding your judgment. And making you less capable of leading life.

I keep thinking, and saying, that my engineering class has been especially badly affected by mental illness. In the class of 30 odd, we’ve lost two people to suicide already (including the person Baal mentioned in his tweet), and know of several others who had mental illness severe enough to either drop out, or take semesters off.

And given that the class was largely made up people from the extreme right tail of the distribution in a highly competitive entrance exam, I’m coming to believe that correlation exists – all of us being superior pattern recognisers, have been prone to recognising spurious patterns, and many have fallen prey to mental illness, to different extents.

## Elite institutions and mental illness

At the Aditya Birla scholarship function last night, I met an old professor, who happened to remember me. We were exchanging emails today and he happened to ask me about one of my classmates, who passed away last year. In reply to him I went off on a long rant about the incidence of mental illness in institutions such as IIT. Some of what I wrote, I thought, deserved a wider audience, so I’m posting an edited version here. I’ve edited out people’s names to protect their privacy.

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<name blanked out 1> passed away a year and a half back. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was also suffering from depression, and he committed suicide. He had been living in Bangalore in his last days, working with an IT company here. I had invited him for my wedding a couple of months before that, but had got no response from him.
He was the third person that our 30-odd strong Computer Science class from IIT Madras lost. Prior to that another of our classmates had killed himself, and he too was known to be suffering from some form of mental illness. The third was a victim of a motorcycle accident.
I’m quite concerned about the incidence of mental illness among elite students. From my IIT Madras Computer Science class alone, I know at least six people who at some point of time or the other have been diagnosed with mental illness. I myself have been under treatment for depression and ADHD since January this year. And I don’t think our class is a particularly skewed sample.
I think this is a manner of great concern, and doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I don’t know if there are some systemic issues that are causing this, but losing graduates of elite institutions to mental illness is I think a gross wastage of resources! I don’t know what really needs to be done, but I think one thing that is certainly going to help is to set up on-campus psychiatric and counselling services (manned by trained professionals; I know IIT Madras has a notional “guidance and counselling unit” but I’m not sure what kind of counseling they’re really capable of) , and to encourage students to seek help when they sense a problem.
Of course, there are other constraints at play here – firstly there is a shortage of trained psychiatrists in India. I remember reading a report somewhere that compared to international standards, India has only one third of the number of psychiatrists it requires. More importantly, there is the social stigma related to mental illness which prevents people from seeking professional help (I must admit that I faced considerable opposition from my own family when I wanted to consult a psychiatrist), and sometimes by the time people do get help, irreparable damage might have been done in terms of career. Having read up significantly on mental illnesses for a few months now, and looking back at my own life, I think I had been depressed ever since 2000, when I joined IIT. And it took over 11 years before I sought help and got it diagnosed. Nowadays, I try to talk about my mental illness in public forums, to try and persuade people that there is nothing shameful in being mentally ill, and to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible when they think they have a problem.
I’m really sorry I’ve gone off on a tangent here but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and got reminded about when I started thinking about <name blanked out 1>….
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I know that several universities abroad offer free psychiatric support to students, and I know a number of friends who have taken advantage of such programs and gotten themselves diagnosed, and are leading significantly better lives now. I don’t really know how to put it concisely but if you think you suffer from some mental illness, I do encourage you to put aside the stigmas of yourself and your family, and go ahead and seek help.