Mike Kasdan says that mental health maladies like depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism reflect the diversity of our minds, and we should embrace them rather than stigmatize them.
“Everyone has a defect and everyone has an identity, and they are often one and the same.”
~ Andrew Solomon
There is a well-known and deep-seeded stigma about mental health in our society. When you stop and think about it, this is not terribly surprising.
First, the underpinnings of our society – our laws, our cultural mores, the things that give us comfort that we are in this together and not alone – all are based on the assumption that we are more alike than different. Being different can be uncomfortable; it can be isolating. Ironically, however, it is our differences, our variety, that can be our greatest strength.
Second, we fear crazy. The inner workings of the human brain can be unsettling, irrational, and dark. Often we look at differences that we don’t fully understand and see them as an illness – something to be fixed or cured. This is the case with the autism spectrum, with bipolar disorder, and with ADHD, for example. And this is despite the case that each of these “conditions” comes with a super power.
But what if everything we think we know is wrong?
We all like to joke about being just a little bit “crazy.” There’s a power, a creativity, a uniqueness, an unpredictability in it that is attractive. But for the most part, we’re only willing to go part of the way.
We say “Sure, I’m crazy. Crazy like a fox.” Or, “This is just so crazy it just might work.”
Or when we’re getting just a bit too wild, we channel Ke$ha, tilt our head coquettishly, and call each other “cray cray.”
1. mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way.
2. extremely enthusiastic.
While I would rarely admit it in everyday conversation, I qualify under both of the above dictionary definitions. In fact, we all do. We’re all crazy on some spectrum. It’s not a matter of whether; it’s a matter of in what way.
To be clear, mental health conditions like acute depression can be debilitating. Depression can be paralyzing and isolating and terrifying. I understand this first hand. In saying that we are all “crazy on some spectrum,” I am not discounting the need to treat depression, whether by talk therapy, so that those suffering can address the contributing conditions of life, and, where necessary, with medication, to alleviate the crippling paralysis and anxiety that may prevent those suffering from even functioning on a daily basis.
Very bad things can and do happen to people. Horrible abuses of all kinds. And those things may either be caused by or cause mental illnesses with horrible consequences that can be dangerous to the person suffering and to others. We know full well, many of us personally, incidences of suicides among those suffering from depression, or other conditions like borderline personality disorder or severe anxiety.
We also know that horrible acts can be carried out by those suffering from these conditions, mass homicides like in Newtown, for example. Like many things, on the severe side of the spectrum, we must be wary.
So the point is not simply “embrace your crazy.” Nor is the point “Don’t treat these conditions.”
Rather, it is that we shouldn’t dismiss people who suffer from mental health conditions. This attitude only increases the stigma of mental illness, which for those suffering, layers another hurdle on top of dealing with the disease itself: dealing with society’s attitudes towards the disease. Because, on the spectrum, they are us. And that when we look closely, there are many valuable aspects to each of these “diseases.” Each—including depression—are part of the human condition.
We should not act like or treat them as less good or worthy or skilled or important members of society. When we do, we are dismissing vibrant, creative, and incredible people. And when we do, it causes those people to hide from or be ashamed of who they are.
A few years ago, NPR ran an article entitled “Madness and Leadership: Hand in Hand.” I came across the piece while researching the meaning of a new word whose meaning I was trying to decipher: “hyperthymic personality.”
The article discusses a book by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi called A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Ghaemi’s thesis is that leaders with forms of mental illness, specifically mania or depression, are often better in times of crisis.
The article (and book) is fascinating because of Dr. Ghaemi’s research into the lives and medical records of many of our best known leaders, from Lincoln to JFK to Martin Luther King. Each had some form of mental illness, and his research supported the view that there are leadership benefits to mania and depression. As Dr. Ghaemi explained:
“Historians have often not paid much attention to these features of their lives; they’ve just written them off as irrelevant to their leadership. So one thing I wanted to do was just to show that these symptoms not only were present in their lives, but were relevant to their leadership.”
According to Ghaemi’s research, both King and Gandhi tried to kill themselves during adolescence, and that both suffered severe bouts of depression later in life. As for JFK, in a fascinating aspect of his study, Dr. Ghaemi correlated the least successful periods of his leadership with the time he was on medication for what he characterized as a mild form of mania:
“I went through the John F. Kennedy medical records in his archives—I believe I’m the first psychiatrist to do so. His behaviors have been well known—his hypersexuality, his high energy—what I do is to go into the medical records and show how those symptoms really are consistent with this temperament called hyperthymic temperament in psychiatry, which means mild manic symptoms all the time . . . I extensively describe his treatment with steroids, which worsened his manic symptoms. He was even treated with a neuroleptic, an anti-psychotic, when he was in the White House, for a period of depression.”
When Kennedy was taken off of these drugs by his doctors in the last year of his administration,”a lot of his policies changed remarkably and he became that major civil rights advocate, that very resilient Cold War leader who we now look back on and value very much.”
Ties to “mental illness”—which feels more and more like a misnomer—are not limited to political leaders, of course.
It’s artists and “creatives” too. There is a definite—albeit controversial—correlation between mental illness and artists. Among the classic examples are Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Michael Jackson.
A recent article in Fast Company entitled “The Mad-Genius Paradox: Creativity Could Be Tied To Both Sanity And Madness,” explained:
“The idea that very creative people are also a little crazy has been around since humanity’s earliest days. In ancient Greece, Plato noted the eccentricities of poets and playwrights, and Aristotle saw that some creative types were also depressives . . . Today the link between creativity and mental illness is firmly embedded in the public conscience. Unlike some supposed cultural wisdoms, however, there’s a good bit of scientific evidence behind this one. Behavioral and brain researchers have found a number of strong if indirect ties between an original mind and a troubled one.”
By recognizing “mental illnesses” as minds that are operating differently from so-called conventional minds, we can recognize a type of diversity. And we can see that in this diversity lies great intellect, creativity, and leadership ability.
Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S., affecting about 1 in 10 adults in the United States. The causes of depression are still not well-understood, and I am no psychiatrist.
A friend of mine wondered aloud once: “How much of depression is what happens when people cannot be who they are?” I find this to be a good way of looking at a very complex thing. If true, even if only true in part, we would do well to work to embrace more fully who we are; to harness our gifts.
Having suffered through some very dark times myself, I can say that having been there has made me more connected, more in touch with who I am and what I need, more aware of my own flaws, and more empathetic towards others.
These qualities—which bloomed as I went through my own depression—are qualities that I love about myself; qualities that make me a more whole person and, I believe, better able to execute and lead. I think this is true for many others.
Take mania or bipolar disorder, a mental health condition characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy and activity levels, and very high highs and low lows. It affects about 3% of the U.S. adult population, with over 80% of those cases characterized as severe.
I’ve not been diagnosed as bipolar, but I have been told I have “a hyperthymic personality”. . . whatever the heck that means . . . Personally, I think it means I’m *awesome*. (That’s a joke.)
For myself—whether in creative pursuits or in business (and really they are one and the same), I have learned to embrace my own “burstiness,” to allow my mind to wander and jump from idea to idea—even if where I am jumping around between are old movie references, jokes, music lyrics, and thoughts that don’t seem to fit together.
Often the path seems manic, but I often end up with a creative solution or idea.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ADHD is now the the most prevalent psychiatric illness among our country’s young people, affecting 11 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17. Rates of diagnosis have risen sharply, and continue to spike.
One way of looking at ADHD is as a disease characterized by lack of attention, focus and impulsive behavior. Another way to look at people with the “disease,” is that they have brains that get bored quicker and seek stimulation and a fast-paced environment.
Interestingly, one way of looking at ADHD/ADD is as evolution for fast paced life. As a New York Times article from earlier this year, “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.,” mused:
“Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.
To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.”
The New York Times article also shares the story of a man with ADHD who was unsuccessful at his job. He then changed paths, and threw himself into a fast-paced risky start-up, where he was highly successful. His greatest liabilities—impatience, short attention span, lack of focus, and restlessness—became prized assets integral to his success.
The moral of such stories is that we should not rush to treat away characteristics associated with ADHD. Rather, if properly embraced and harnessed, the symptoms of having a curious, energetic, and wandering novelty-seeking mind, can be differentiators and important strengths.
Another illness whose incidence and diagnosis has increased dramatically is autism.
According to The National Institute of Neurological Disorders, autism refers to “a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” Those with autism display incredible raw brain power, but lack the ability to filter and focus and often struggle with social cues and connection. The social impairment and raw brain power are connected: those with autism are “different” because they process the world differently; their brains work differently.
As with ADD, while many fret at the sharp rise in autism, some more provocative thought leaders suggest that autism is not a disease, but rather an evolution. One such man is Juan Enriquez. In this TED Talk, “Will our kids be a different species,” Enriquez suggests that autism could be a result of how our brains are changing in response to living in a time of unprecedented information stimulation, literally that our brains are changing and developing traits of hyper-awareness, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory to deal with the massive influx of external stimuli and information in our modern lives.
Putting aside whether this theory is correct or not, autism is often seen as a negative, a disease that must be treated. Those suffering from severe autism have great difficulty relating to others. The differences are so pronounced and affect every aspect of daily life for them and their family and friends.
But what if we shift our thinking here too?
The story of Dr. Temple Grandin, for example, shows us that we should. She was diagnosed with autism as a young girl, was thought to have brain damage, but grew up to be a world-famous speaker and a revolutionary designer of ways to better treat livestock. Drawing on her own experience of feeling anxious and threatened by her surroundings, she studied the behavior of cattle and how they react to their surroundings and external stimuli. Drawing on her studies, she then designed adapted curved corrals, intended to reduce stress, panic and injury in animals being led to slaughter.
Grandin accomplished this because of her autism; not in spite of it.
As Grandin so aptly put it in her own TED Talk, “the world needs all kinds of minds.” Simply put, her mind works differently. In her talk she explains that she is able to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve to problems that “typical” brains might not be able to.
It would be a mistake to conclude from all of this that all we have to do to improve our lot is to look at the bright side of life. Unfortunately, the issue of mental illness is far more complex than that.
First, while there certainly are many examples of people overcoming or growing from their experience with mental illness, the high profile examples of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Vincent Van Gogh discussed above are exceptional. These were extraordinary individuals. Another example we discussed, Temple Grandin, is likewise a remarkable person whose experience is quite a bit different from many people with autism.
While there is evidence that their mental condition—whether characterized as a mental illness or a different way of thinking and processing—contributed in an important way to their success, we cannot overlook that they are each extraordinary people. Not everyone can or will easily turn their condition into an advantage.
Second, it bears repeating that while these conditions are an intrinsic piece of one’s identity, one that can be a source of strength and ability, there is a certain threshold after which these experiences become devastating illnesses that cause terrible suffering; illnesses that require careful medical treatment.
Once past that threshold for any of these diseases, functioning on a daily basis becomes a challenge. For those suffering with mental illness that are beyond the threshold, it gives little comfort—to say the least—to tell them, “Abe Lincoln was depressed, and he was awesome.” Past the threshold, that becomes irrelevant to their condition and experience.
The painful and difficult reality for these people is that if they do not receive proper medical care, the despair caused by their illness can become so overpowering so as to lead to suicide. Tragically, Van Gogh and Plath, both creative geniuses, both succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide. So much lost. It makes you think about what would have been lost if King and Gandhi had followed through with their suicide attempts. Or if countless others did not receive proper diagnosis, care, and treatment. It also makes you think about yet another horrible downside of our societal stigma: these social pressures actually prevent those suffering from getting treatment.
Though these issues are highly charged and extremely complex, all of this speaks to the need to shift our approach towards mental illness, to recognizing it as a part of our human diversity, and to viewing different ways of thinking and processing as viable and valuable. It also speaks to the importance of de-stigmatizing mental illness in our society. It will literally save lives.
We are funny. Among our greatest strengths as humans are our diversity and our creativity. The world is made far richer and more interesting specifically because of the many different types of people in it. And yet, our differences are uncomfortable. We crave fitting in. Our reaction to mental health issues,and the societal stigma attached to it, is in part a symptom of that craving and that discomfort.
We try to imagine that each person will think the way we think and feel the way we feel and reason the way we reason. And we really want to believe that people think the way we do, or at least process information in same the way that we do. The world seems much safer that way.
But it just isn’t true. We seem to forget that the person sitting right next to us has a totally different worldview. Not just in having a different sum total of experiences, but in the way they are processing the exact same information that we are processing.
Slapping a label on that and calling someone “different” or “crazy” doesn’t change that reality. We’re all different. And we’re all crazy.
Embracing the differences in people’s minds—and that includes those suffering from depression, mania, ADHD, autism, and many other conditions—is truer to the reality of who we are.
It is the first step in moving us all forward together.