I am no stranger to mental illness. I’m not talking about autism, which is a neurological condition, kind of like the frame I use to experience the world. Before I knew I was autistic, it wasn’t that I thought all people looked at the world through the same frame, but I did not realize how or why I felt like my frame seemed to be SOOOOO different.
Through my autistic frame, I do not understand why most humans seem so self-interested, self-promoting and seeking only to interact with people who are like them. In my mind, the diversity in views, problem-solving ability and creativity is one of the most fascinating features of humanity. Honestly, I’ve never been very interested in surrounding myself with people like myself simply because I didn’t think I could ever find that many people like me. It is one of the first skills autistic people must learn to become even marginally successful in life: to get interested in other people, even if they may never be interested in you in the same way. All this is to say, we are conditioned to learn about, engage with and get along with others who will never know or understand what we go through just to appear normal.
Until my diagnosis, I felt like I was just not the “type of person” who got to feel happy. Happiness, joy or even contentment would forever elude me because each of those is predicated on belonging, and belonging requires two things to be true at the same time: your authenticity and others acceptance. Since my diagnosis, I have come to realize that my authenticity is inherently unacceptable to a great number of people I need to relate to and with to keep my job and my social groups and society, in general.
These conditions I describe would immediately remind anyone familiar with mental illness as fertile ground for depression, anxiety and other similar conditions. When you place these interpersonal dynamics in a world full of climate change, political unrest, rampant racism/sexism and other cultural dis-ease, you have virtually guaranteed autistic people will experience consistent waves of mental illness over the course of their lives.
But these conditions aren’t limited to the autistic community. You can think of literally any culturally marginalized identity group and apply the same logic. It is impossible to be free from mental illness under these conditions. If you can’t “be yourself” and have a reasonable chance of feeling accepted as you are, you will feel disconnected and over time, this will morph into something worse.
Which leads to the question, why do we treat mental illness as an individual problem to be solved for each individual person? Why is it seen as a personal failing if you cannot keep yourself on an even keel? I’m honestly not sure what type of person would be able to carry on mentally/emotionally in the face of all that we are currently enduring on the planet at this time. For those who are able to turn off their pain and anguish or to shut out the news of all that is happening around them, I’m starting to think you are becoming the new minority. And if you are planning on expecting the rest of us to keep up with your level of emotional detachment or compartmentalization, you WILL be disappointed.
The answer to this situation is that we must begin to treat mental illness like a public health issue. While there is some case for the extreme outlier folks to “reign in” some of their extreme personality traits, it is also absolutely necessary for ALL OF US to take responsibility for our actions that restrict or place conditions on others’ belonging. We must expand our views about what we are comfortable with other people believing. This happens not only to racial/ethnic minorities, immigrants, neurominorities, LGBTQ+ people, etc, but also nearly everyone with a political opinion on anything. While I abhor the marketing term “cancel culture,” those who claim it SOMETIMES have a point. At the same time, these same people will prioritize their own comfort over others lives, in certain contexts. We all need to challenge ourselves to act in our capacity to expand our acceptance of others. Just because you don’t agree with someone or wouldn’t choose to live the way they do, that doesn’t mean that person should not exist or isn’t entitled to the same rights as you. You are at least partially responsible for that person’s mental health and you can, just as easily, be responsible for their mental illness. The only way out of our collective mental illness epidemic is for each of us to actively make choices to care for others’ mental state as we would like for them to do for us.
So find someone you don’t agree with and make sure they know you see them and care for them as they are. Share and model your vulnerability and express that you’d welcome them doing the same. This act of kindness might just create a ripple that starts turning the tide on our collective mental illness epidemic. Without it, we’re all doomed to a dark mental/emotional future that none of us will be able to climb out of.