We are our brains. Every synapse, nerve, and muscle is connected in one way or another to our brain. It determines everything about us, which makes it both our biggest asset and our fatal flaw. When our brains are cared for and operating well, we can be incredibly well-established in our lives. However, if a brain is experiencing some form of illness it can be exceedingly difficult to thrive. People with intellectual disabilities, as well as the neurodiverse, can and will face extraordinary mental and physical challenges.
However, a mentally ill or neurodivergent brain does not mean that all hope is gone. It merely means that accommodations need to be made so that you can work with your brain’s unique methodology, rather than against it. But with the right processes, people with mental illness can still lead happy and fulfilling lives.
The link between mental wellness and academic achievement
Illness And Neurodiversity
All psychological medicine experts, from the vaunted doctors to Master’s of School Counseling students, have to first understand what they’re dealing with before they can effectively treat a condition. By the same token, to understand what we’re talking about when we use these terms, we must first clearly define them.
A “mental illness” is one of any number of diagnosable conditions characterized by often distressing changes in mood and cognition. It can happen to anyone, at any age, for a multitude of reasons. In the same way that a cold is a physical illness, conditions like depression, anxiety, BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), and Schizophrenia are mental illnesses. They can be treated with a blend of appropriate lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication.
When people refer to “neurodiversity” they refer to a condition that is present from birth, rather than acquired later through trauma or conditioning. As a result, this leads to different thought processes, and different strengths and weaknesses when compared to a neurotypical brain. Two forms of neurodivergence that you’re likely aware of are ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and Autism.
It is important to recognize that some mental illnesses are referred to as neurodivergence. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Schizophrenia are both mental illnesses, but due to their effects on the brain’s development and the mental processes of the patient, are considered a neurodiverse condition.
The sheer number of people who suffer from a mental illness or are neurodiverse is staggering. One in five adults in the US (57.8 million in 2021) are diagnosed with one form of mental illness or another, and 15-20 percent are neurodiverse. It might not sound like a lot, but it means that you likely know, have met, or shared a significant amount of time with someone either fighting an invisible battle you know nothing about or simply don’t understand the things you might assume are “normal.”
This is part of what makes life hard for people who suffer from brains that don’t function in the way that the world expects them to. People with depression often have difficulty functioning in “basic” ways, such as feeding themselves, or even getting out of bed. People with ADHD famously have trouble focusing or maintaining a routine.
Currently, the world’s response to this is to just throw these people into the fire. Social paradigms such as standardized testing and the 9-5 work day may not seem like much of an inconvenience to those with neurotypical or healthy brains. However when the world demands that you’re up by 8 to be at work or school by 9, but you were awake with terror and racing thoughts until 6 a.m. the previous night - it doesn’t take long to see how people with mental struggles may simply get left behind by the system.
The previous example is just a surface-level analysis of an incredibly common occurrence among people with certain mental illnesses or neurodivergence, and it certainly isn’t representative of the worst that these people can go through. So how can these people be helped? How can people who are mentally ill or neurodiverse thrive in a world that wasn’t built for them to thrive in?
The first thing you can do is to get a diagnosis. Self-diagnosis is legitimate, but many resources will only be open to you with a formal, professional diagnosis. You understand your life experience. You know whether or not what you are experiencing is the norm. When you start exploring the possibility of your mental illness or neurodiversity you may come up against some backlash. The number of ADHD people who are called lazy because their brain just refuses to allow them to accomplish a given task is astounding. If you are sure that you’re not living up to your full potential because you just cannot seem to do the things everyone around you can, then do some research, take a list of symptoms you feel, sum up your experience, and go to a doctor. Getting a diagnosis and treatment plan sorted out is likely to be a long, drawn-out process that will take months, maybe even years. But that doesn’t mean you need to remain stagnant in the meantime!
Mental Wellness refers to a series of mental exercises or strategies that can be used to enhance mental functioning and cognition, as well as emotional regulation and focus. It is a method of self-care that aims to connect practitioners with their brains and to gain more control over their thoughts and mental state. Many forms such as therapy utilize wellness strategies such as meditation, play, and exercise in their treatment.
The best thing about mental wellness is that the strategies used to reap the benefits are often simple, and only take about 10-15 minutes per day to start seeing results. It is proven that poor mental health causes devastating effects on a person’s life, and their ability to study or learn in a school room environment. It is only through acknowledging the drawbacks of mental illness and addressing them through mental wellness techniques and other treatments, that people with brains that function differently from the average person can thrive.
Support for mental wellness
If you are dealing with a mental illness or are neurodiverse, it’s important to remember that you aren’t “broken”, and you’re certainly not the exception to healing. The world might not be easy for you to thrive in but that doesn’t mean that you are doomed to never self-actualise. Going through the process of a diagnosis can be the first step in achieving some much-needed validation, and with mental wellness techniques, there’s no reason that your studies, and your life, can’t be as amazing as you want them to be.
Further reading: 10 Surprising links between exercise and mental health.