Did Hypnotism Kill Three Teens in Florida? #WorldMentalHealthDay

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A high school has just agreed to pay out $600,000 to the families of three teenagers who were killed after their principal hypnotized them. Note that that sentence also could have read “three teenagers who were killed after they watched an episode of 2 ½ Men, or after they saw a pigeon. In other words, one thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other thing, aka correlation does not equal causation, but we don’t live in a logical, reasonable world. We live in a world where Florida exists. So here we are.

The principal had been “hypnotizing” more than 70 students and faculty and anybody who would let him, apparently, for several years. He appeared to be of the hynotherapy sort, which is probably mostly bullshit but at least it’s not as bullshit as stage hypnotism.

A lot of hypnotists claim near-magical capabilities, and for the most part they’re lying, either to you or to themselves. Both hypnotists and the hypnotized are engaged in a form of play-acting, which is why the most effective hypnotists are very confident and charismatic, and the most effective hypnotized people are fantasy-prone and willing to play along and not spoil the fun. Skeptics are unable to be hypnotized, which should tell you something.

Proponents of magical hypnotism say that hypnotism changes a person’s brain waves, which is true! Here are some other things that change your brain waves: seeing a penguin, thinking about what you’re having for dinner tonight, and holding in a fart.

Some people say that hypnotherapy has helped them quit smoking or lose weight, which could very well be true. All we have are anecdotes, not controlled studies, and they don’t seem to be any more reliable than the proven method of real therapists using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy.

So we know that hypnotism is, at best, maybe equal to the placebo effect when it comes to getting someone to quit smoking, but absolute bullshit when it comes to making someone do anything they don’t want to do. And I’ll throw this out there: it’s also bullshit at revealing a person’s past lives, because past lives don’t exist and if they did then there are thousands of people running around who were all Marie Antoinette. Which I guess makes sense actually because there are billions more people in the world today than there were back then. Somebody’s soul must have split into a lot of pieces.

So if it’s all pretty much bullshit, what happened in this case? Well, some Floridians confused correlation with causation and blamed the tragic deaths of three teens on something they don’t understand, like ancient people blaming a bad harvest on an eclipse. Two of the students killed themselves, which means the school should spend half a million dollars on mental health counseling instead of stupid lawsuits. The other student died in a car crash, with his girlfriend claiming he got a weird look on his face right before he veered off the road. The claim is that the principal taught him how to “self-hypnotize,” which he decided to do while driving. Presumably, then, if the principal had taught him how to juggle clubs and then the student tried that while driving, the principal would have been at fault, also.

The other two students were obviously troubled. One was stressed about applying to Juliard, and the other was struggling with test scores in preparation to get into college. The hypnotism was supposedly to help one improve on the guitar and the other to improve test scores. It’s fair to say that they may have been made more despondent by the fact that the hypnotism wasn’t working for them, and it’s also fair to say that any school faculty who regularly interacted with them, including the principal, should be familiar with the warning signs for severe depression in teens and got them help.

But it’s not fair to say that the kids were killed via hypnosis. You may as well say that a unicorn murdered them.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Sorry, hit reply before I finished.

    Hypnotism may help with anxiety and stress, which can indirectly help with things like quitting smoking. It also may have cognitive benefits. It needs to be provided by a licensed mental health provider who also has training in other modes of therapy. And, it’s not going to do Jack for the things he was using it for.

    Those kids needed counseling and they needed to encouraged to realize there were other paths to reaching their goals, aside from highly competitive colleges. Grrr.

  2. After seeing this, I also concluded that hypnotism could not have been the cause. If they charged him on those grounds then this case is ridiculous. However there is a strong argument for responsibility due to negligence and working outside one’s expertise. If a student is as depressed as the two that committed suicide were he was supposed to contact an actual mental health professional or a hospital.

  3. I went to North Port high when it first opened, back then it was a middle school and highschool. I was part of one of the 6 year graduating classes by the time i left and Dr Kenny was the principal. He was generally an awesome guy, helped out a lot of my friends including myself with work knowing i already had a job to help out with my mom at home, he helped get my schedule rearranged so i could work and get my schooling done as well. Such a shame to see his name tarnished and the schools having to pay off these families. The kid in the car wreck had just left the dentist where he was put under I’m pretty sure.

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