C/O Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Embracing mad and neurodiversity to celebrate uniqueness

By: Elisa Do, Yvonne Syed and River Valade, Contributors

*DISCLAIMER: ‘Mad’ and ‘madness’ are reclaimed terms by the mad/mentally ill community. These terms were used to oppress them in the past and, just like with any reclaimed slur or term, are not necessarily labels that non-mad individuals should be using freely.*

People often throw around words without thinking twice. Phrases such as “the weather is so bipolar” or “I am so OCD” have become more or less normalized in our society today. But just as we should be mindful of our actions, we should also be mindful of how these particular terms can influence mad and neurodivergent students. Madness has been traditionally defined as a state of mental illness, and neurodivergent is a term used to describe folks with what most people refer to as atypical neurological development. 

First coined in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, the term neurodivergent was originally used to describe conditions related to autism. Today, neurodivergence includes many different types of disorders, including autism, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Madness and neurodivergence are terms that are often used together, as there is overlap between the conditions that fall under either label.

However, this overlap cannot be generalized across all folks. Unfortunately, because madness and neurodivergence are often portrayed through a medical lens, the two terms are widely misunderstood. Specifically, at McMaster University, our community has failed time and time again to accurately translate mad and neurodivergent perspectives.

First and foremost, it is important that suffering and distress are not seen as inherent to madness and neurodivergence. The stereotypes and false notions that surround the idea of mad and neurodivergent individuals are often rooted in misinterpretation and ignorance of what it really means to live with these conditions. Madness and neurodivergence is more so a different way of thinking, rather than a state of being broken.

Mad and neurodivergent individuals shouldn’t be seen as though there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed. In fact, there are individuals that identify as mad and/or neurodivergent with pride. For some of these individuals, their unique conditions are a part of their individuality and a result of the variation in how the human mind works.

Mad and neurodivergent individuals shouldn’t be seen as though there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed. In fact, there are individuals that identify as mad and/or neurodivergent with pride. For some of these individuals, their unique conditions are a part of their individuality and a result of the variation in how the human mind works.

For instance, not all people with bipolar disorder constantly suffer as a result of their condition. While neurodiversity in and of itself involves diverse experiences, some individuals find the mania experienced with bipolar disorder to be thrilling and inspiring. People have described this state of being to make them feel more productive, more likely to take risks or take on challenges and full of life.

Similarly, sometimes individuals with ADHD are perceived as disorganized and unable to maintain their focus. For this reason, some individuals have shared their personal experiences regarding the inclination for professionals and support services to reach out to these individuals with the goal of “fixing” deficiencies. This can be in the form of pushing for the use of medications, for instance. However, some people with ADHD also experience something called hyper focus where they are able to completely zone in on something they are very interested in and are passionate about. Unlike the condition notes, some have reported that they can actually be even more attentive and productive in this state of being.

More well known mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are widely emphasized and given awareness in society and on campus. Neurodivergent conditions like the ones mentioned previously are often misunderstood due to the lack of understanding surrounding them and the amount of stigma attached to them.

Furthermore, rather than pursue an institutional or community care-based response, such as providing more counsellors at the Student Wellness Centre, the university expects the onus to be on students themselves in addressing their mental health. This is evident through public awareness campaigns such as the Feed Your Hippo campaign in 2016, and the current revamped version of that campaign, known as Ways to Wellness”. 

A Silhouette article written by a mad/neurodivergent student in 2016 criticizes the university’s attempt to address mental health concerns among students through the “Feed Your Hippo” campaign.

“According to the campaign, making sure to feed your hippo in these five ways can contribute to improved learning skills and academic success as well as mental wellbeing. Yet despite the supposed importance of these activities, no resources were provided to help students actually self care better — all of the onus is on the student,” wrote the author.

Even in the revamped “Ways to Wellness” Campaign, there are similar themes of individual responsibility for mental wellbeing. If you are unable to do their suggestions, say due to the result of the symptoms of a mental illness, it makes it seem like students have to shoulder the responsibility for their mental illness and its impact on their academic performance and that the university plays no part in this. While staffing and resources for mental health has increased since 2016, it is still not enough to support students, especially mad and neurodivergent students that may need more regular appointments, for example.

Aside from placing individual onus on students for their mental wellbeing, there is no mention of madness or neurodivergence within the conversation of mental health at McMaster. Specifically, madness and neurodivergence are often missing from communications to students. This could give the impression that both of those things are something to be ashamed of and to be kept quiet, as opposed to celebrating neurological differences among students on campus.

Embracing our differences is fundamental to establishing a community of diverse abilities. When we label madness and neurodivergence as a state of crisis, instead of a unique state of mind, we limit those individuals from being able to freely express themselves. When McMaster frames the conversation surrounding mental health from commonly-known perspectives only, we are excluding the experiences of neurodivergent folks. When people choose to throw around the words “bipolar” or “OCD” without consideration for how they leave an impact, our community takes a step back on building a safe and inclusive learning environment. 

Mental health is a topic applicable to every single one of us. However, it also applies to each and every one of us in a different way. For McMaster to truly embrace the idea of mental health, we should also remember to involve student perspectives beyond those of the typical norm, and in doing so, reach out to an even greater range of capabilities in our community.

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