Mental Health Matters
By Jonathan Andrews
I care about the wellbeing of people around me and would hate to think that by inaction, I or others were contributing to a culture which damaged this. I also have personal experience of anxiety as a child, and learnt coping strategies to deal with this, which have had the rather helpful side-effect of improving my problem-solving skills. I know that a mental health journey can have a positive ending, even if the journey is difficult.
I also know what it’s like, as an autistic person, for people to assume you have poor mental health when you don’t. It’s common for people to confuse autism, a neurological condition, with mental health problems; assuming this brings only negative traits. The fact is that too many autistic people do face poor mental health, with 70% of autistic children meeting the criteria for mental health issues, often undiagnosed, and this is often due to a wider societal misunderstanding of autism. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an inevitable trait of being autistic.
I have created toolkits tackling mental health awareness for autistic people across the Commonwealth, noting different cultural attitudes in different countries and the added barriers this can form. For example, in developed countries like the UK and Australia, most people will have heard of autism; a 2014 poll found 99% of UK citizens recognised the term, but are less clear on the detail. Many confuse autism with learning disability, or assume every autistic person is unable to communicate, or looks a certain way. It’s from these stereotypes that phrases like ‘You don’t look autistic!’, often well-meant but not particularly helpful, come from. Others may assume autism is a mental illness and that autistic traits are inherently harmful, when many are used to relieve stress. Preventing people doing these often makes the person’s wellbeing worse.
This is something I care greatly about, as an autistic person who, thanks to understanding and an upbringing which encouraged me to be proud of my differences, doesn’t consider their personality to be something to be managed and medicated, but whose different skills deserve to be recognised. Fortunately, as a trainee solicitor, most people recognise the strength traits like determination and focus bring. But others shouldn’t have to have their identities miscategorised and viewed as harmful – and when they are experiencing poor mental health, they deserve to have this recognised and supported.
In developing Commonwealth countries, many will have even less understanding of autism, or even its existence. In many cases, cultural beliefs and practices can cause children who display different traits to others to be viewed particularly negatively. In some, autism is conflated with illness, even the belief of demonic possession, with attempted exorcisms in extreme cases. It is here that autism awareness, such as an understanding of how autistic traits can be recognised in children and adults, is most vital – a few training sessions or well-circulated toolkits, delivered by those trusted by local communities, can help exponentially increase the understanding felt by autistic people, and directly save lives. The chance to live a life with equal opportunities is as much of a right to autistic people in developing countries as those in the developed world. As someone who is comfortable in who they are, I’m keen to ensure others are able to be just as accepted.
Jonathan’s Top Tips:
• Don’t be shy about working with large organisations in order to achieve change.
• Ensure social mobility is a reality: reviewers and interviewers should have an awareness of the experiences of people from different social backgrounds, such as not marking down a CV for lack of evidence of travelling. This is not something everyone can afford, and other aspects may demonstrate the person is adaptable, skilled and dedicated to the role: being inclusive of people from all backgrounds is so important. Otherwise, great talent is easily lost.
• When launching projects, I regularly invite those with the social power to make a difference – because it’s only by getting both those in positions of influence, and the wider community, on side that complimentary change can happen, both from grassroots and top-down influence.
• I’ve learnt in my time leading mental health initiatives that every individual’s experience is different, and advocating passionately about your own experience, while vital, only takes you so far. It’s also important to give others a platform to tackle the barriers they face, and this makes it more likely they’ll stand up for you when you’re breaking down yours. That’s also a lesson for those wanting to lead mental health initiatives: approach partnerships not simply to benefit personally, but also consider the innovative experiences and authenticity you bring which they might be especially keen to learn from. It’s only through mutual support that long-term partnerships can take off.
• I’ve found what has really helped in my efforts to make better mental health support a reality has been not being afraid to tackle difficult issues, such as lack of awareness of autism and mental health, head-on – and to ensure you collaborate with other passionate change-makers, to widen the breath of advocacy and ensure a range of views feed into it, not just your own – no one person knows everything about mental health, but together we can pool our knowledge to improve things for the better.
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