The basics of mental health, stigma and ableism
The term “mental illness” usually refers to a condition that affects our ability to function, that affects our relationships with others, or causes us distress. It can affect the things we think and believe, the ways we act, and how we feel. There are several different types of mental illnesses and they are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM), which is the manual used in Trinidad and Tobago to diagnose mental health conditions. There are different things that can cause a mental illness, including environmental factors, genetics, trauma, and more.
Mental illness is not a term that resonates with everyone, however. It is a term derived from the Western medical model of mental illness, which is essentially the idea that mental health issues are mostly derived from internal, biological and chemical sources, rather than social and external. It is the individualizing of mental and emotional distress as something that develops internally, when research has shown that much of our mental and emotional distress is in relation to external factors, like poverty, racism, trauma, etc.
The term “mental illness” also treats all behaviours and experiences that deviate from the social norm as illnesses and disorders to be cured, which is not necessarily the case. Just because someone has experiences that differ from what society considers acceptable does not always mean they’re in distress or need to be cured. Other ways of conceptualizing human distress, experiences, and behaviours have existed long before the medical model and the idea of “mental illness” in cultures around the world, and they continue to.
Whatever language you use or whatever ways you conceptualize your experiences, however, are completely valid and your decision to make.
The stigma refers to beliefs we have about mental health or mental health conditions that are inaccurate and that hurt people. A few common stigmas include:
- people with mental health issues are mad or crazy
- people with depression need to “just toughen up”
- people who hear voices others don’t are dangerous
- people with mental health differences belong in an institution for the rest of their life
- people with “scary” mental health conditions can’t have a normal, full, happy life like anyone else
Ableism is essentially discrimination towards disabled persons, including persons with neurodivergences and mental health conditions, as well as the belief that people without disabilities are the ideal way to be and are the norm. Examples of this include having workplaces and schools that are “one-size-fits-all”, when the environments, learning styles, and more in these institutions do not cater to everyone. They are designed with the idea that we are all the same, and that disabled people are the exception. Ableism is everywhere in our society, and in every institution. To learn more about disability justice, which is a framework developed by disabled individuals, click here.
In 1997, Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, created the term, neurodiversity. It refers to the idea that variations in our brains are natural. The neurodiversity movement rejects the idea that there is one “normal” brain and that all others are abnormal.
There is no defined set of conditions that can be defined as “neurodivergent”. If you have a mental illness, you can identify as neurodivergent. You don’t even need to have a diagnosis of any kind to identify as neurodivergent. The neurodiversity movement is for everyone and should not be gatekept. It is meant to make the world a more inclusive place.