A Statement from CFI’s Management Committee

November 12, 2014

As a rule, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) does not disclose to the public the medical conditions of its employees. We respect the privacy of our employees and public disclosure of this information could violate the law. However, the situation discussed in this statement is exceptional.

It is exceptional because, among other reasons, CFI has the consent of the employee to disclose her condition. Moreover, circumstances indicate it may be beneficial to discuss this employee’s condition.

The employee in question is Melody Hensley, the executive director of CFI’s branch in Washington, D.C. Ms. Hensley has herself publicly stated that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was brought on by online abuse and harassment, a.k.a. cyber harassment. CFI, with Ms. Hensley’s consent, hereby confirms that Ms. Hensley has been diagnosed by her treating psychiatrist as suffering from PTSD. The cause of the trauma experienced by Ms. Hensley, according to her psychiatrist, was “cyber bullying and harassment.”

We, the management committee of CFI, believe it is appropriate to confirm that Ms. Hensley is suffering from PTSD. Among other reasons, both Ms. Hensley and CFI receive comments on a regular basis that assert or imply that Ms. Hensley’s statements that she has PTSD must be false. For example, just the other day, CFI received a communication stating “Your organization is terrible for having people on its staff that claim to have PTSD from Twitter!” Some communications on this issue, especially those directed to Ms. Hensley, have themselves been abusive and harassing.

This reaction is disappointing on a number of levels. As explained below, these communications are based on mischaracterizations, false assumptions, faulty reasoning, unscientific attitudes, or misunderstandings. (And, of course, the subset of these communications that are abusive are intolerable.)

First, many of the communications that accuse Ms. Hensley of making false claims mischaracterize the source of Ms. Hensley’s PTSD. It is not the use of Twitter itself, or any social media, that caused Ms. Hensley’s problems. It is the abuse she received via social media.

Second, these comments manifest a lack of understanding of stress disorders, including PTSD. Some of the comments suggest it is impossible to acquire PTSD via online abuse, pointing out that others have experienced online abuse and have not developed PTSD. But the fact that a certain experience does not cause a stress disorder in some persons in no way entails that the experience cannot cause a stress disorder in other persons. People have different levels of sensitivity and resilience. Everyone recognizes that combat can cause stress, yet the rate of stress disorders among combat veterans is nowhere near 100%. This does not imply that those who do suffer stress disorders after combat are “weak” or that their claims are dubious. (We will have more to say about combat veterans below.)

With respect to the assertion that online abuse cannot cause a stress disorder, this assertion is simply incorrect. Although cyber harassment is still a relatively recent phenomenon, there have been studies on the effects of cyber harassment and these studies conclude that cyber harassment can and does cause stress disorders in some individuals.

Some communications have suggested that because Ms. Hensley continues to utilize social media, including Twitter, that this somehow undercuts her claim that she suffers from a stress disorder caused by online abuse. To begin, as indicated above, it is not social media itself that has caused Ms. Hensley to suffer a stress disorder, rather it is the abuse she has received from some individuals via social media. Moreover, those who have suffered a stress disorder after engaging in certain activity are often encouraged, not discouraged, to continue to engage in that activity to help overcome fears that may be associated with the activity. For example, those who suffer stress disorders after car accidents are often encouraged to resume driving as opposed to giving up driving.

Suggestions have also been made that Ms. Hensley’s statements that she suffers from PTSD in some way devalue or diminish the suffering of others who have PTSD, in particular veterans. Such suggestions are the product of faulty or confused reasoning. Obviously, veterans who suffer from PTSD are deserving of our concern and they are entitled to appropriate medical attention. Ms. Hensley’s stress disorder has no bearing on the seriousness or significance of stress disorders suffered by veterans, just as someone’s physical injury as a result of a home accident has no bearing on the seriousness or significance of physical injuries suffered in combat.

The management committee of CFI has this message for those who interact with Ms. Hensley: Those who question Ms. Hensley’s disability have no factual basis for doing so, and to the extent prior comments were based on ignorance or speculation, there is no longer any excuse for such comments, if there ever was. With respect to insults directed at Ms. Hensley because of her stress disorder, they are as contemptible as insults directed at any person because of their disability.

In closing, we note that Ms. Hensley is a person of strong opinions, some of which she expresses via social media. Unless noted otherwise, these opinions are Ms. Hensley’s personal opinions; they do not set forth the position of CFI, and they should not be attributed to CFI. (CFI, as an organization devoted to promoting free expression, allows its employees more leeway than some other employers might to express their personal opinions.)  Those who disagree with Ms. Hensley are obviously free to do so, and they should do so if, in good faith, they find flaws in her views. However, any such disagreement should be expressed civilly, without resort to personal insult.

The CFI Management Committee

Ronald A. Lindsay, President & CEO
Barry Karr, Senior Vice President & CFO
Tom Flynn, Vice President for Media, Editor Free Inquiry
Debbie Goddard, Vice President for Outreach