I work in an environment where we deal with the mentally ill all the time. One of the reasons I am studying counselling is because I’m faced with students with mental health issues on an alarmingly regular basis. It is alarming, not because I don’t expect or accept that the mentally ill (by the way I really hate that term, but I’m using it here only because it is one that we are socially familiar with. Ed) will seek out education, but because most of the students never declare they have a mental health problem until it manifests itself. This is because they are worried we won’t allow them to take our courses or that they will be stigmatised or ostracised by is and other students. On the contrary, our establishment does a lot of work with the local education authority to promote support for learners with special educational needs (another term I am not quite at ease using. Ed) and we have a wide range of support initiatives to help them while they are studying.
Today I came across an organisation called Rethink and they are about to start their campaign Schizophrenia Awareness Week, from the 5th-10th October. I was so impressed with their work that it motivated me to write about challenging stereotypes associated with neurodiversity (yep, that feels so much better. Ed).
But then I thought, why bother? Isn’t it something that’s been talked about time and time and time again? Why dredge up this topic, just because it coincides with a seemingly arbitrary date to raise public awareness?
Then I thought of two good reasons for writing this article. The first was because charities like Rethink, Mind and the thousands of other charities devoted to raising awareness of mental health need to be celebrated for their work. Since government funding is never going to truly address this issue, charities rely on the kindness of strangers to keep the fight going. Without the work of these charities our view of mental health will still remain negative. And, if this remains the case, 1 in 4 of us will never get the support or empathy we need to simply be ourselves.
Secondly, we can never talk too much about changing the social stigma of mental ill health. We are still facing unbeatable odds when trying to change the fundamental mindsets of our society. We are still battling against an onslaught of negative publicity and opinion around neurodiversity. Why else would people who need help coping with mental illness feel the need to hide it instead? If society accepted and supported neurodiversity there would be no need for people to hide their minds or for people like me to blog about it.
Before we can rethink we need to unthink. We need to unpick all the lies, the media hype and the stereotypes that have been around since the barbaric practices of the 19th century. In terms of social understanding of mental health, we are living in the Dark Ages, but how do we move on? Do we encourage the neurodiverse to wear their minds on their sleeves or do we try to get people to move passed that initial heart stopping moment when someone shares their mind?
As always, the answer starts with the self. We need to be the change we want to see in others. Ask yourself what your perception of mental health is. How would you feel if a friend told you they were depressed or schizophrenic? Challenge that feeling by asking it, “Where did you come from?” You’ll realise that whatever the feeling it was created outside of yourself. Even if you say to yourself, “Well actually I know someone who is bipolar and they are cool!”, then the feeling you have was created by the person you know.
Our emotions are byproducts of our experiences and our interaction with the world. So, if you’ve never met someone with a mental health problem and yet you still cringe when you hear the term, where does that feeling come from? If you can answer that question then you can change your perception, because you have a starting point to move away from. But if you can’t answer the question, you need to figure out why you feel the way you do and have a serious look at your world view and what shaped it.
Neurodiversity isn’t a crime, it’s a state of being. Mental ill health is a label and a label can wrap around someone so tight that it suffocates them. Help Rethink unwrap these labels this week and do something to challenge your beliefs. Make a donation or get involved or simply read what they have to say.
(DIsclaimer: I do not work for or know anyone that works for Rethink. This article was written without their knowledge and is in no way a promotional piece for them. I just believe in their work and wanted to show my support. I challenge you to do the same.)