DISCLAIMER: I am neither a doctor, nor a professional. I’m just a person with a vested interest.
Last week, my boss told the team that while we should disclose to them when we’re sick and need support, “everyone has depression and anxiety”, so we shouldn’t bother them with that one. So, I’m here to (re)introduce you to two concepts that you may not fully understand: mental health and neurodivergence.
Mental health refers to the ongoing wellness of your mind, similar to how physical health impacts your body. You can look after your mental health through exercise, a work-life balance, variety in life, healthy eating etc. However, you can always develop an illness in response to something external – similar to catching a cold.
Neurodivergence is a different barrel of cats. While not formally recognised, the term neurodivergent is widely preferred to alternatives such as: “mentally d*sabled” or “ret*rded”. It was first used by Judy Singer as a more inclusive way to describe the Autistic community. The brain, or neurology, of someone who is neurodivergent functions as other than the norm. Often, this is something you are born with (the same way you can be born blind), but can also be developed as a result of an external event that causes lasting change to how your brain functions (e.g, a traumatic incident). Some commonly recognised branches of neurodiversity include ASD (Autism Spectrum D*sorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity D*sorder), Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and many more.
Misunderstandings of these two terms, and all that they come with, continue to influence the ways people perceive themselves and others, and can harm those most vulnerable.
I like to think of neurodivergence as a sort of three-dimensional, multi-tiered Venn diagram.
Level 1: Visible Symptoms
The body has only so many ways of expressing symptoms. Anyone who’s been confused about whether they have a cold or COVID can relate. If you search up any different branches of mental health or neurodivergence, you might argue with me: “But Zofia, I can’t find any similarities between ADHD and depression at all?” This is where our internal biases come into play. Symptom lists frequently describe similar or equivalent symptoms using different terms, often because of the preconceptions associated with the conditions they’re describing.
At the end of highschool I was diagnosed with chronic depression and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). When asked what I was struggling with, I described mind fog, numbness, difficulty sleeping, procrastination. The words I used to describe my struggles came from words I had heard before, unconsciously, in lessons on mental health they taught us in school*. Last year, I was re-diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar II. This time, they asked the questions: “Do you feel as though you’re driven by a motor?”, “How long did those feelings last?”, “Are you distracted easily?”, “What are your sleeping patterns?”. These questions changed the lens through which I viewed my own mind. The symptoms hadn’t changed, but they were now described using clinically recognised vocabulary which I had never heard before. Yet externally, despite the different formal descriptions, those symptoms in me had presented the same way.
Level 2: The Internal Sources
Behind this web of overlap, every branch of neurodivergence has its own root causes for the symptoms it displays. For example, I give you three symptoms: “An inability to cope with everyday stress”; “Fidgeting or restlessness” and; “Being easily annoyed or irritated”.
Try guessing which branch of neurodivergence I’m talking about. Good luck! These symptoms come from lists describing three different diagnoses, and crop up with different phrasing on many more.
Someone with depression might experience fatigue, as everyday tasks become more exhausting and taxing for them. Intrusive thoughts might make them restless and frustrated at their lack of control. This in turn might cause them to become irritable, or easily upset.
Someone with anxiety might find the unknowns of day-to-day life overwhelming, making it extremely difficult to cope with tasks that might be seen as simple from the outside. They might fidget and become restless as a way to distract themselves, and funnel nervous energy into productivity or over-preparing. Constantly being on edge makes it harder to control emotions and can make one easily annoyed, irritated, or exhausted.
Someone with ADHD might have trouble keeping track of time and find the uncontrollable nature of day-to-day life exhausting and difficult to cope with. They might have too much energy and struggle to sit still, becoming restless or fidgety. They might feel flooded with thoughts and have trouble regulating their emotions and, as a result, sometimes react disproportionately to certain situations.
These symptoms may appear anywhere, but to seek help, identifying the source of the symptom is crucial. No amount of CBT** is going to give my ADHD brain a semblance of understanding linear time (google: time blindness). Antidepressants would not only be useless for my bipolar II, they might actually make my cycles more volatile. On the other hand, mood-stabilisers have been the miracle I was waiting for. Knowing these sources changes how we understand our symptoms and gives us the tools to both recognise our strengths and seek support for our weaknesses.
Level 3: Diversity
The final, most fun tier! Within everything, there is diversity. Not every person with ADHD is alike, nor do they experience ADHD in the same way. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) literally has spectrum in the name. It would be misguided, however, to view this spectrum or diversity as a simple sliding scale.
It is not a linear progression from “bad/nonfunctional” to “not-bad/normal”, and looking at it that way is frankly offensive. It’s a beautiful sphere of experience, with variation in expression, experience and intensity. No one in these groups has it inherently better or worse than another. That concept comes from onlookers, who determine our worth or our legitimacy by how much they perceive us to be different.
The diversity within these groups is within them, meaning contrary to the beliefs of many boomers, we are not “all on the spectrum”. Or at least, we aren’t all on every spectrum.
“But wait Zofia! My doctor said I had anxiety because of my exam?? Does that mean I’m neurodivergent?? I’m better now, does that mean I know how to fix it??” Good question! Of course, I am not a doctor, and I don’t know you. But here we circle back to the beginning: mental health vs neurodivergence. Remember that first tier of our diagram? The symptoms? Over the course of your life, you will at one point or another experience some or many or all of the visible symptoms on that tier. Your experience with those symptoms might be passing, or it could be a major event in your life. Whatever it is, however mild or severe, your experience is valid, important, and real – and you deserve and need support.***
But there is a difference between experiencing a symptom, experiencing mental illness, and having a fundamental difference in the way your body works. Many people experience feelings of anxiety associated with a high stress situation. This can sometimes be debilitating. But remove them from the situation and, with support, help and treatment, they may no longer experience that anxiety. Someone with GAD or an anxiety d*sorder experiences anxiety without necessarily having those external stimuli. While they can do things to manage those symptoms, at the end of the day, that is the way their brain works.
Managing your mental health is as important as your physical health, but is not always comparable to a branch of neurodivergence. Despite the similarities in symptoms, the way you manage, or treat mental health don’t always work as a usable mechanism for someone neurodivergent.
For us, this is not an illness, nor is it something inherently bad. This is just us, who we are. Not defining, but part of. We have our strengths and our weaknesses, just like you, but ours might be in more unlikely places. There is no one-time-fix that will cure us. Why would being neurotypical be seen as a cure anyway?
This is not to say that mental health is trivial. It is vital, and as someone with both Bipolar II and ADHD I, know the importance of maintaining that health. Without it, the intensity of my episodes increase, I struggle more with regulating my emotions, my time blindness is amplified and I lose track of my physical self-care. Mental illnesses can be, at best, exhausting, and at worst, deadly. This is why it is so important that we understand where our overlaps lie, so we can all get the help we need, and celebrate the diverse strengths that our diverse minds bring to the table. With some luck and communication, we can muddle through the mystery of our heads together.
*I am so, so glad we talked about mental health in school. This is in no way a criticism of that.
**Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: very helpful for intrusive thoughts often seen in depression and anxiety
***Your experiences with mental illness are important and should not be dismissed. Please seek help if you feel yourself experiencing trouble with your mental health, or if anything in this piece has spoken to, or provoked something for you.
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