Call it Neurodiversity. Not Mental Illness.

by / 11 Comments / 663 View / October 6, 2014

When I was asked to participate in Mental Illness Awareness Week, I balked at the idea.  I have never identified as having a mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental illness is “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning”.  

There is no denying that my sensory processing disorder affects my thinking and daily functioning.  Simply put, certain noises or textures cause me physical discomfort, and if exposed to too much stimulation for too long, my brain stops processing input and I enter a “brain fog” state of thinking until I can “recharge” by going somewhere quiet and calm.  There are certain coping mechanisms that I use to mitigate overstimulation, such as distracting myself by playing with something in my hands or gripping a friend’s hand tightly.  Often, the best tactic for me is avoidance of situations that I know will give me sensory overload.  I have never been to a concert, I physically cannot eat lettuce, and on the few occasions I wore jeans as I child, I begged my mom to take them off.

All of this may sound exhausting and painful to a neurotypical person (someone without mental illness or any difference in brain function) but to me it’s a part of life.  True, there are bad days where I struggle to leave the quiet of my room, but on good days I can focus intensely and notice things that others miss.  I don’t view my life as especially lacking or the way my mind works as wrong or in need of fixing.  

The notion of viewing mental illnesses less as harmful diseases and more as natural differences is known as neurodiversity.  Neurodiversity sees all differences in brain function as unique and valid as they are; there is no need for neurodivergent people to conform to the neurotypical standard of “normalcy”.

Here I hasten to note that neurodiversity is but one way to think about mental illness, and I recognize that this model may not line up with how some people view their illness or difference.  For some, there may not be “good days” or they may feel that their illness is best thought of as a disease or disorder.  Those experiences are valid and I’m not at all trying to discount them.  I can speak only for myself.

Although I do not consider my sensory processing disorder as a mental illness, the way it affects me is very similar. However,  regardless of whether a person has SPD or OCD, it still stands that there are differences that people have in the way that they process the world around them/the things around them

Mental illness is too often treated as something horrible and pitiable, which in my opinion does not help support or include those with mental illness in society.  If we view brain chemistry as having natural differences, the same as every other aspect of someone’s identity, it becomes easier to relate to others and be sensitive to their needs.  It is my hope that we take the stigma and “otherness” out of mental illness and start embracing diversity. Just because my brain processes the world around me differently doesn’t make it wrong.

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  • hello

    eliminating the stigma is actually a bad thing-we should still call it a mental illness, not sugar coat it-this super sensitivity is actually super harmful-obviously we shouldn’t antagonize, or “otherize” people with mental illnesses-but we should definitely view mental illnesses as bad, i.e. things we want to eliminate it-treating it as something that is bad and unfavorable means we will strive to cure it….and unless you would genuinely prefer to have SPD than to not have it, the stigma is a good thing….(stigma to the mental illness, not the person with it-that’s certainly not ok)

    • Jennifer

      …I don’t think you get what stigma is.

      • Guest

        …no i get it-we SHOULD think “oh shit, he has X mental disorder, that sucks”……that creates a sense of urgency, which will prompt people to want a cure even more……the benefits from that far outweigh the emotional harms faced by a victim of this “stigma”…..but either way, it’s a stigma to the illness itself, not the person with it

        • Jennifer

          Why are you assuming people want cures?

          • Jake

            Stigma is not the correct word to use, but the basic view is valid. Calling it Neurodiversity encourages people to think that mental illness is not a negative thing, that it’s something people are supposed to just “live with”. This is just not the case, mental illness harms people, and we should be striving to find cures to better the lives of those with it.

          • Jennifer

            Or maybe the world can adapt to how people are instead of the other way around. Because honestly, having one’s brain rewired (which yes, is what would be required to “cure” sensory processing disorder or similar conditions) is not going to be pleasant.

          • Jennifer

            It actually has nothing to do with saying that people don’t suffer; it’s about thinking about how to *actually* improve their lives, which might mean reshaping the hole instead of the peg.

          • Julie Huntington

            the most suffering I see is after people get psychiatric services

    • Fiora

      Wait…. why is eliminating the stigma a bad thing? Should people be expected to walk around afraid and ashamed of themselves and the their mental health/faculties for the rest of their life?

      And mental illness has been around in some form or another for years, I don’t think it’s going to be cured anytime soon.

      And following your same logic, we should be totally find with a stigma for any other health issues too right? Like for HIV?

      I don’t think you understand the implications of what you’re saying at all.

    • Dae

      why the fucccckkk is eliminating the stigma a bad thing? really?

  • Noam

    “Although I do not consider my sensory processing disorder as a mental illness, the way it affects me is very similar.” Exactly! Mental illness and a lot of other disorders have such an over lap that it’s worth of talking about