The other day I inadvertently created a firestorm on facebook. Someone posted: Question: What makes schizophrenia a mental illness and autism not a mental illness? Answer: Politics, advocacy, and marketing.
I didn’t understand the thrust of the post, so I asked a question: “Are you saying that autism should be classed as a mental illness or that schizophrenia shouldn’t be?”
Then the floodgates open. There were over 100 responses to the post, of which mine was just one. They ranged from “autism is not a mental illness” to “autism is a form of mental illness” to “autism is a developmental disorder” to “schizophrenia and autism are both neurodivergent conditions.” Few, if any, seemed to address the original question of politics, advocacy, and marketing. (I have no knowledge whether any of the responders were medical or other professionals; persons with one or the other diagnosis; or family members of those with the, let’s call them conditions for now.)
Some people responded that the term “mental illness” should not be used, because it was inaccurate, or stigmatizing, or both. They found the phrase “mental illness” offensive. “Mental disease” was suggested as a better alternative, though for the life of me I can’t see much difference between them. To me, “illness” and “disease” mean basically the same thing. One can go down the rabbit hole here. Is MS a condition or an illness or a disease or a disorder? Is a broken leg a condition? It’s certainly not an illness – unless it gets infected – or a disease. Someone said that mental illness implied a permanent condition, rather than a challenge that can be treated. My bipolar disorder can certainly be treated, and is. But it is also a permanent condition.
Some of the phraseology that was most often used to define autism were neurodivergent, neurological condition, developmental disorder, neurological condition that often presents with mental illness like anxiety. But neurodivergent was also used to described schizophrenia, which was sometimes linked to brain anatomy and genetics. Some classed them both as “disorders of the brain.”
Others pointed out societal or functional differences or other definitions – schizophrenia can be used in court for a “diminished capacity defense”; autism is listed in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, considered by many the gold standard for definitions and symptoms of mental illnesses); the age of onset for autism is three, or three to 18, while schizophrenia is usually diagnosed at 18 and over, but not always; autism used to be called childhood schizophrenia; schizophrenia is caused by over-pruning of the neurons, which disrupt the normal growth of the brain; ASD could be a result of disruptions in normal brain growth. Someone pointed out that with both autism and schizophrenia, there are different levels of severity.
Various books and articles were cited. Challenging questions were asked: Do those who insist that autism is not a mental illness think having a mental illness is shameful, whereas having autism is not shameful or perhaps is not an illness at all. Others considered treatments: Medications can help with mental illnesses but are not generally prescribed for autism. People with one or the other condition do not qualify for treatment.
And some responses were entirely cryptic: B careful what you wish 4.
But back to the original post. I think the poster was trying to say that the autism community did a better job of spreading the word about the condition and thereby defining it, in this case as not-a-mental-illness.
And it’s true that – whatever you think of them as an organization – Autism Speaks has gotten the word out about autism. They excel at awareness (of themselves as well as autism). They organize huge charity walks. They have numerous TV commercials. Their puzzle piece symbol – again, whatever you think of it – is for many the easily identifiable graphic that says, “autism.”
Mental illness, whatever you prefer to call it, does not have that same kind of presence in the public eye. For one thing, there are so many different conditions that it’s hard to choose one to spotlight. Depression seems to be the condition-du-jour. The conversations around it are that anyone can have it and there is help available, which is all well and good. But the vast majority of these messages come from people who are selling or associated with medications or call-a-therapist lines – money-making operations. Nor do the ads always get depression right, many making it seem like no worse than a mild hangover.
SMI (serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) are only now entering the public discourse, and again, mainly for advertisements of drug treatments. The ones for schizophrenia seldom discuss any symptoms of the disorder – they just show a happy person playing a guitar or some such desired outcome. They don’t convey much about the condition of schizophrenia, its symptoms, how it affects families, or much of anything else.
As for other psychiatric conditions, there is much silence. PTSD is discussed, but only of the “wounded warrior” variety, not the kind that can result from other traumas. Anorexia/bulimia, OCD, social and generalized anxiety, narcissism, and the whole spectrum of personality disorders get little to no screen time.
There is growing discussion about things society – and especially first responders – should know or do about people with psychiatric conditions, but those are largely at the talking stage and a few pilot projects. When the subject hits TV, it is usually triggered (sorry) by an individual incident and is more likely to involve unorganized protests rather than coordinated efforts to address the larger problem. And at times, it seems that no one is listening.
Especially to the people with “forgotten” mental conditions – those that don’t have drug treatments or celebrity proponents or coordinated responses. It’s not that I think autism doesn’t deserve the attention it gets – though clearly there are more discussions to be had around the subject. I just sometimes despair of getting attention for mental illnesses.
But to go back again to the original post, mental illness and autism are two different things that cannot be easily compared. But it is true that autism, at the moment, has an organization with a loud voice behind it. Mental health, not so much.