Mental Illness Or Mental Skillness? The Case For Neurodiversity


The language used around mental illness – and the stigma attached to it – needs serious review, writes Brooke Murphy.

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, or to keep our friends and family happy. 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 ‘mental 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.

Brooke Murphy completed her Bachelor of Laws (Honours Class I) at the University of Newcastle in 2014. She is currently completing a PhD (Laws), and practices as a solicitor in Newcastle. In her spare time, she enjoys reading books and making collages.