January 1, 2015

The Glamorization of Mental Illness

Jacob Barnett is a 16 year old physics student currently enrolled in Waterloo, Ontario's Perimeter Institute as a doctoral student and when he was 13, he co-authored a research paper on physics. Jacob, according to his mother, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. His gifts in the world of physics, his autism, and his young age, makes him a child prodigy and an autistic savant.

For many people, their first encounter with a person with autism, and a person as an autistic savant, was realised in the 1988 film "Rain Man", with Dustin Hoffman playing the role of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant who was based off of the real life savant Kim Peek, who in contrast to Babbitt's autism, had FG Syndrome.

Rain Man movie poster
Wikipedia/United Artists

Unfortunately, "Rain Man" has contributed to the misconception that all people with autism have extraordinary skills and intelligence that are near or at genius level, when in fact, such occurrences are estimated to affect only one in ten million individuals.

Due to the lack of common education about disabilities and mental illness, we form these misconceptions about mental health and disabilities, autism not being the only victim, but definitely a sensationalised trend.

Ask a random passer-by on the street to list the symptoms of autism, and they are likely to mention "socially inept" or "awkward" before any other symptom, such as a strict regular routine that, if interfered, will cause immense stress.

Indeed, the social ineptitude is likely the most well known and understood symptom of the autism spectrum, and as such has become a colloquial term among the common-folk as calling oneself or others, often jokingly, a "social aspie".

Another term that is often used to describe people with autism is "really smart". This isn't necessarily false, but as with any person, it has its gives and takes. People who have Asperger's syndrome are often called "little professors" due to the expertise level of knowledge they often have in their areas of interest, like for instance, planes, engineering, or the history of Apple computers. Without early intervention however, they may not acquire the skills needed to perform socially, hold a job, or live on their own.

The Ziggurat Model
The Ziggurat model of Intervention

From being around people with autism my entire life, and from later working in the field of mental health, I have definitely found that like our hypothetical passer-by, many people who I have spoken in front of (who granted, aren't experts), parents, and even others with disabilities use "social ineptitude" and "high intelligence" more often than other symptoms in order to describe the autism spectrum.

If these are the terms most often used to describe autism, then won't we have people self-diagnosing themselves with this condition due to a lack of understanding of what autism really is? Yes we will, and people already do.

The Internet is an interesting place; one can use the Internet and remain anonymous the entire time they use it, only divulging personal information when they so choose to. As we all know, this information may not always be factual.

We do have people self-diagnosing themselves with autism and Asperger's syndrome, both online and offline; granted, they may truly believe they are but lack the funds to see a doctor for a diagnosis, though others may use this self diagnosis as a badge in an effort to seem cooler and smarter while they run their blogs on Tumblr.

Life Loosely Based comic
Peter Tracy

If you are self-diagnosing yourself with a form of mental illness that you barely understand, you are misrepresenting and desensitizing the seriousness of these often debilitating conditions. You don't want to have autism; it is not fun to have, and it takes hard work to develop coping skills to mask any sign of you having it, as well as years of childhood intervention.

You don't want to have depression. Depression is much more than just "I get really sad sometimes." There will be weeks, months, sometimes a year or more where you are constantly in a mood of hopelessness, where you are also constantly lethargic, and uninterested in the things you used to be passionate about.

You may even resort to self harm, be it by mutilating yourself, excessive drinking, or drugs, just to have some kind of feeling replace the constant dull and numbness. The medication is also not cheap, and as I experienced from the ages of 15 to 18, can sometimes still make everything feel numb, everything seem dull, and everything lack taste. The solution to that? Your doctor will either up your daily dosage or switch you to a different anti-depressant, which isn't an instant fix as your body needs time to adjust to medication.

I Don't Have... image

You don't want to have OCD. It's much more than just "liking things my way" or "oh that picture is crooked". Remember "Rain Man"? Raymond lived by a very strict routine and had his room perfectly set up, such where if something of his was removed by somebody else or if his routine was interrupted, he would panic. Not just feel anxious, but literally panic.

When you're diagnosed by a qualified doctor with a form of mental illness, you don't just sit on your rear end and ignore life's responsibilities and complain about life being hard; instead you get treatment and you work hard to improve your quality of life.

Having mental illness is not something that we should be placing on a marble pedestal and aspiring to have. When you're sensationalising mental illness and misrepresenting the people who have them, you are only helping to raise more misinformation about how it's understood by the common people, as well as desensitising how serious these conditions really are.

So please stop.

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author Tiger Craven About Tiger
Tiger is a 22 year old college student, activist, and professional living in the Saint Louis metro area. When he's not being apathetic to the idea of God or writing about atheism, he is serving a presidential term for a mental health organisation and a board membership of another, does public speaking about mental illness and disability, and is a photographer and a bassist.