Mental Illness Or Mental Skillness? The Case For Neurodiversity

Recent media coverage of Carrie Fisher’s death has been dominated by outpouring of love from friends, fans, and fellow stars. Fisher was most famous for playing Princess Leia, the doughnut-bunned heroine of the Star Wars franchise. Just like her mother, she was a triple threat. But she wasn’t known for dancing or singing. Fisher was an actress, an author, and a fierce mental health advocate.

What was refreshing about Fisher was her honesty. She made no secret of the fact that she was bipolar and had battled addiction. After footage emerged of Carrie frantically pacing around a cruise-ship stage in 2013, she explained what was happening instead of trying to cover it up. She told Daily Mail:

I was in a severely manic state, which bordered on psychosis. Certainly delusional. I wasn’t clear about what was going on. I was just trying to survive.… There are different versions of a manic state, and normally they’re not as extreme as this became. I’ve only had this happen one other time, 15 years ago, so I didn’t have a plan of action.

It is important to note that Fisher made this statement in a Hollywood world where admissions to hospital for mental health issues are frequently explained away as ‘exhaustion and dehydration.’ Fisher didn’t want or need anyone’s pity, and clearly didn’t see the point in making up more palatable excuses for her breakdown. She was who she was and made no apologies. If a big star like Fisher didn’t give any fucks about identifying as mentally ill, why should we?

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have as much power or authority as Fisher. Some of us hide aspects of our identities to keep our jobs, to keep our friends and family happy, or to hold onto our friends. When it comes to mental illness, we view it as the ‘other’ – a foreign experience that is not shared by the dominant group. This line of thinking conceals the truth; we all suffer from mental illness at some point. For some of us, it may come in the form of stressing over exams or falling into a brief depression after a breakup. Many people, such as Fisher, deal with more extreme versions of everyday experiences of mental illness. So why do we view ‘mentally illness’ as something to be feared?

One of the problems is that mental illnesses are categorised as illnesses or diseases. Small pox was a disease. A really, really horrible infectious disease. What did we do? We invented vaccines to eliminate it. It’s wonderful that we are working on cures for illnesses and diseases, but mental conditions don’t belong in the same category.

When you take a disease away from a person, they are still the same person without the physical suffering. The same logic does not hold true with mental ‘illness.’ Eliminating a mental illness takes part of a person’s soul with it.

Like Fisher, many famous creative people have battled bipolar disorder. Demi Lovato, Van Gogh (suspected), Robin Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Winston Churchill, Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain and Pete Wentz are just a few celebrated bipolar people. If the mental illnesses of these people were removed, I am certain that their creative contributions to the world would never have happened.


The neurodiversity movement

Is it possible that mental illnesses are not illnesses but points of difference? Neurodiversity advocates think so. Instead of identifying as mentally ill, disabled or disordered, the neurodiversity movement calls for recognition of neurodiversity. Autistic advocate Nick Walker best defined neurodivergence on his blog, Neurocosmopolitanism:

Neurodivergence (the state of being neurodivergent) can be largely or entirely genetic and innate, or it can be largely or entirely produced by brain-altering experience, or some combination of the two (autism and dyslexia are examples of innate forms of neurodivergence, while alterations in brain functioning caused by such things as trauma, long-term meditation practice, or heavy usage of psychedelic drugs are examples of forms of neurodivergence produced through experience).

Following this logic, a ‘mental illness’ is just a neurotype that differs from the dominant norm. This places mental conditions on par with other social categories like gender, race, sex, class, and sexuality. A mental condition or ‘neurotype’ is not to foreign to someone’s identity, but an essential part of it.

Unlike the Mad Pride or Antipsychiatry movements, the neurodiversity movement does not call for the end of psychiatry or medical treatments. But it changes the focus. Recognising that we all have different neurotypes highlights that the answers to improving mental health do not just lie just in medicine. It is a problem for social structures, the legal system, public health, the education system – a problem for all of us to solve together. Neurodiversity invites people in, while labelling someone as ‘mentally ill’ just casts them out.

As a lawyer, I know that clients won’t always take my advice. When push comes to shove, people will make the decision that is best for them. I imagine the same holds true for psychiatry.

Unfortunately, we often berate ‘mentally ill’ people for ignoring their psychiatrist’s advice, and stopping their medications. Maybe the problem isn’t really the medication itself, but how people view the relationship with medical professionals.

Historically, people labelled as mentally ill have been denied autonomy – classed as ‘insane’ by the legal system, sterilised, killed, and thrown into asylums. This history of oppression associated the label of ‘mental illness’ with someone who needs to be removed from society.

A mentally ill person may view medications and psychiatry as methods of control and dampening their spirit. Someone who identifies as neurodivergent may be more inclined to follow psychiatric guidance and take their medications. They may view psychiatric treatments as opportunities to take control of their lives under specialist guidance.


Making a neurodiverse world a reality

What can you do to help break the stigma, and spread the word about neurodiversity?

  1. For starters, you can try to remove sanist words from our everyday vocabulary. Once you start paying attention to your language, you’ll be surprised with how many times we use words like ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ in a negative manner in everyday conversation. Specific mental conditions have also taken on a linguistic life of their own. Instead of calling the weather ‘bipolar,’ call it temperamental. Remember that being neat does not make you ‘so OCD.’ Don’t get angry with yourself if a few sanist words pop out every now and then. The less negative language around mental health the better, but no-one is perfect. I try to ensure that I stay clear of sanist words when I’m in public or writing on the internet. But a few sanist slurs might pop out when I let my guard down around my friends, boyfriend and family.
  2. If you can see that someone around you is struggling or acting out of character, ask them if they are okay. Sometimes it’s important to just be there with them, knowing that you are someone safe to talk to. If they do open up to you, encourage them to seek professional help from their doctor.
  3. Get involved in activism, even if your contribution is small. If you love writing, then write about mental health and neurodiversity. If you are neurodivergent or mentally ill and feel like publicly coming out about your mental condition, then do so. Share your knowledge about mental health any way that you can. Every conversation counts.
  4. Recognise that people can identify themselves in whatever way empowers them. I think neurodiversity is a much more positive take on mental health conditions. However, many people will disagree with me and find it more empowering to classify themselves as ‘mentally ill.’ There is no one size fits all, but what is most important is that we start celebrating, rather than stigmatising, difference.

We can all do something to shift the dominant narrative of psychiatric conditions from mental illness to neurodiversity. Let’s celebrate our differences and end the stigma together.

First published in New Matilda. Click here to see the original article.


‘Died by Suicide’ or ‘Committed Suicide’?

The words ‘committed suicide’ are pervasive in discussions about suicide, both in the media and personal conversations. Recently, social justice advocates have called for a significant change in language, stating that the words ‘died by suicide’ should be used instead of ‘committed suicide.’ Is this a justified attempt to change our attitudes towards suicide, or merely a case of excessive political correctness?

The case for ‘died by suicide’

Think about the situations where we use the word ‘commit.’ We can commit a theft, robbery, murder, assault, felony… or a suicide. The word ‘committed’ does not just mean that someone performed an action, but is connected with crime. The word ‘suicide’ seems out of place on that list, but not so long ago, suicide was a criminal offence. Society has come a long way since then, and we now treat suicide as a health issue rather than a legal one.

Due to the link with crime, the word ‘commit’ carries implicit associations with guilt, shame and embarrassment. These associations are appropriate when we are talking about crimes, but this is no longer appropriate with suicide. Since the crime of suicide was abolished, we have gained a better understanding of why people die by suicide. However, the language we use to discuss suicide often does not reflect this transformation. If we truly aim to recognise suicide as a health issue, it is important that our language reflects this updated outlook.

The connection between the word ‘commit’ and shame can negatively impact on the likelihood that a person will speak to someone if they are experiencing thoughts about suicide. If we don’t talk about thoughts about committing a crime, why should we expect people to talk to someone it they are thinking about committing suicide? Changing our language can take the shameful sting out of discussions about suicide, and can allow us to recognise that someone who is depressed or suicidal is suffering from a health condition, rather than a character flaw or weakness.

Is there a case for saying ‘committed suicide’?

The upside to using the words ‘died by suicide’ is the reduction of stigma surrounding suicide and mental health. But is stigma necessary? Some researchers have suggested that destigmatising suicide makes it seem like an optional way to die, rather than a forbidden, shameful act.

One of the key examples of this is the association found between celebrity suicide deaths and increased suicide rates. A possible explanation for this association is that these reports make suicide seem like an appealing option which is inevitable in some circumstances. However, stories about celebrity suicides may also encourage people to engage in important discussions about suicide.

Understanding that mental illness can affect celebrities can assist in de-stigmatising suicide, and demonstrate that mental illness can affect anyone. Mallon has suggested that celebrity imitated suicides can be prevented with careful reporting. Such careful reporting would contextualise suicide without reporting a celebrity’s circumstances in a way which changes an unthinkable act into a viable option. Importantly, this recommendation drills down to how we discuss suicide, rather than suggesting that we avoid such discussions and media publications altogether.

Destigmatising the cause of suicide – mental illness

While using the words ‘committed suicide’ stigmatise suicide as an unthinkable act, it is important to remember that not all members of the community are at risk of dying by suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people seriously affected by mental illness. In contrast to crime, suicide is not the result of personal weakness, character flaws or difficult circumstances.

Despite recent attempts to raise awareness for mental health, being labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis still carries shame, stigma and dangerous stereotypes. A 2006 Australian study found that almost 1 in 4 people thought depression was a sign of personal weakness, and would not employ a person with depression. Even more harrowing, 1 in 5 people reported that if they had depression, they would not tell anyone. In light of these statistics, how can we expect people to speak up if they are suffering from a mental illness? On the face of it, stigmatising suicide as a horrible outcome seems appropriate, but we must recognise that suicidal thoughts are a symptom of a serious psychiatric condition. Connecting suicide with the same shame, guilt, embarrassment and disgrace of a crime decreases the chances that people experiencing suicidal thoughts will seek the assistance of mental health services.

Discussions about suicide are fraught with difficulty. On balance, the words ‘died by suicide’ do not transform suicide into a viable option, but reflect that suicide is a health issue rather than a criminal act. This is not a case excessive political correctness, but a call for us to reconsider the language we use to discuss a serious issue in our society. We need to use language which takes the shameful sting out of discussions about mental illness and suicide, and encourages people to speak up and seek assistance when they are experiencing difficulties. We may not be able to change our language overnight, but if we make an effort to say ‘died by suicide’ rather than ‘committed suicide,’ at least we are making a start on the destigmatisation of mental health.

This article was first published in On Line Opinion.

How often should your business blog?

Many marketers advise their clients to blog frequently. Following this logic, the more content you create, the more visitors come to your site, the more potential clients you convert. This flies in the face of the old adage: ‘quality is better than quantity.’

So how should you schedule content? My advice is that you should create content as often as possible without sacrificing quality. For some, this might be every few days. For others, this might be once a month. The frequency of your posts should be matched with the resources that your business can devote to quality blogging. Maybe a small start-up won’t have the time to write frequently, or the money to outsource. That’s ok. Likewise, some large businesses have the resources to post quality content daily. You want your brand to be remembered for useful, well written posts – not poorly written puff pieces. People see through blogs that lack substance and are pumped with SEO keywords.

Content that converts is memorable, useful and leaves readers wanting more. For an example of quality (but sometimes infrequent) blogging, check out this blog from Rapsey Griffiths Insolvency & Advisory. The posts are focused on the expertise of the business, are well written, and provide helpful advice. Complex insolvency law and accounting concepts are explained in a straightforward, accessible manner. It’s a complicated service to explain, but they do it well. Generally, there are two blog posts per month. But some months, there are no blog posts at all! Clearly, this business wishes to portray that they are about quality rather than taking shortcuts. If people can see you taking shortcuts in your blog posts, they will wonder what other shortcuts you take when you sell them goods or services.

Take home message: Post quality blogs as frequently as possible. Take stock of what resources you have, and what time or money you can devote to blogging. Constantly be on the lookout for interesting article ideas that would be useful to your readers and potential clients. You don’t have to get through every idea on the list, but do write posts that you can pull off well. Well written and useful content will gain readers and conversions. It might take more time to see results from less frequent posting, but a constant stream of below-par blogs will do your business a disservice.