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Outer Space, Neurodiversity and Mental Illness Narratives I’m Not About Right Now

In third grade, my teacher let each student pick a topic we wanted to learn about and then teach to the class. As I sat down to wrote this blogpost, this memory came to mind, not because my over-enthusiastic third-grade-self immediately started devising my lesson plan for teaching my classmates all about theatre by way of writing and directing my own play, but because of what another one of my classmates was told he couldn’t do. Leo was in chess club and math club and advanced reading group, and when our teacher asked him what he wanted to teach the class about he said, “Outer Space,” in a quiet but steady voice. All of us were shocked to hear our teacher respond, firmly with a “No.”

“Why?” Leo responded.

“Its too big. There are way too many elements for you to even begin to focus on.”

“But that’s what I want to learn about. And that’s what I want to teach to everyone.

“Why don’t you pick the most interesting part about outer space and start there.”

“Mars.”

“Still too big. Pick something about Mars and become an expert.”

I think he ended up going with the atmosphere of Mars or something like that; the only thing I remember from the lesson he taught the class was thinking he was way too smart to be in third grade. But the reason I’m thinking about Leo and his project, is because I’ve realized I’ve got my own “outer space” and I’m starting to appreciate why my third grade teacher asked Leo to specify.

If I was given the same opportunity today, to learn about something in the hopes of teaching it to my peers, my “outer space” equivalent would be the equally big topic of Mental Illness Awareness and Neurodiversity. And, I guess my “Mars” equivalent would be shrinking that down to mental illness and neurodiversity representation in the arts. To me, its obvious that our brains are as diverse as our bodies. I was never really a strong science student, but just from growing up around a variety of different ways of thinking, it just made sense that different people’s minds worked in different ways. Neurodiversity is essentially the idea that the differences in cognitive functions should be talked about in the same way we approach cultural and racial diversity. Pretty straight forward, right?

Once you start really getting curious about the way you talk and think about people who are perceived as being “different”emotionally, intellectually or cognitively from the norm, its pretty easy to see how limiting and damaging that kind of thinking can be, not only to others but to yourself. Labeling someone with words like “crazy,” “psycho,” “moody,” “weird” or “dumb” even in what might seem like the most harmless way, starts to not feel so good when you think about the way those labels stigmatize brains that function in different ways. As an artist, its terrifying to identify with a disorder or disability (not my favorite words, but we don’t have better ones yet) that has been invalidated by stigmatized language and thought. Understandably, this can make many artists retreat and judge their work as coming from a perspective that doesn’t fit with what others will understand. By underestimating the natural neurodiversity of human beings, we are majorly limiting the range of perspectives in the performing arts and beyond.

That’s a brief overview of my “outer space.” This is a concept I’ve grappled with a lot, especially in the last two years, as it has come a little closer to home, and I have been increasingly frustrated with the lack of awareness in those around me, especially in the field that I’m trying to pursue. The arts and mental illness have a tricky history, as we all are probably too aware; artists in all mediums have been revered for their ability to take their struggles with mental illness and disability and put them into their work. And yet, so often in the literal narratives portrayed in film, tv and on stage, I am faced with less than impressive representation. It’s just getting a little ridiculous, so I have begun to compile, for my own peace of mind, a list of mental illness and disability plot tropes, that I just don’t have time for right now.

  1. “Normal” person is wrongfully placed in an “asylum”/ “psychiatric hospital”/[insert politically incorrect term here]. It seems the only marketable way to experience a narrative that takes place in a psychiatric hospital is through the eyes of someone who isn’t supposed to be there, and usually during a time period that we can look back on safely and point out the things that were wrong about mental illness treatment then. This makes those who may need or would benefit from psychiatric help the “other,” often to the point of dehumanization. It places the suffering of a “normal” person as more valid, than that of someone more neurodivergent, and often ignores the hard truth that we still are in need of a lot of mental healthcare reform. Often, these narratives are used to provoke fear in viewers by showing them how terrifying it is to have your reality and sanity questioned, making the point that those who “belong in a home,” can never live full lives. Yeah, I’m done with watching this movie, even when the protagonist has a moment of recognition with the other patients, that “deep down” they’re not all that different, which brings me to the next trope.
  2. Underdeveloped neurodivergent character is used as a plot device for the protagonist’s development. This trope is often the female romantic interest for a male protagonist. Ugh, right? The vaguely mentally ill, underdeveloped woman who is just worrisome enough for the guy to re-examine his priorities and learn how to love or something like that, but not concerning enough for her mental health to be examined any further than that. Another example of this trope is the use of a cognitively disabled person as a sort of pet for the main character, or a symbol of innocence that reinforces that assumption that those with cognitive impairments are child-like or naive and not people in their own right.
  3. Disabled character has dream sequence, flashback or sudden epiphany that rids them of their disability, if only momentarily (especially when this limits neurodiversity in casting)Okay, sometimes this makes sense, but usually it just comes from not trusting your audience to be able to understand someone who is different from them. I could get into my whole problem with the scene where the person in a wheelchair can walk for a moment, or the deaf person can suddenly hear, but we’ll save that for another blogpost. To me, it just seems to minimize the validity of the life of the character as they are, and brings attention to all the things they are not, or can’t do.
  4. Plots that are focused on “fixing” the “damaged” characterI’m all for treatment and self care and trying to live your best life. But aren’t we all trying to figure out how to take care of ourselves? Stories that put the focus on bringing a character “back to normal” just aren’t my thing. I find them to be minimizing of the lifelong relationship a person has to have with all their diagnoses; they usually promote an idea that there is a right way to treat a mental illness, and that there are solutions for those that “fight.”
  5. Psycho “disturbed” mass murderersJust perpetuating ableist stereotypes that neurodivergent people are inherently violent. I also find this trope to be lazy, and not very dramatically interesting when you get down to it; isn’t a lot more intriguing to explore how a person of any background could be driven to violent acts? I’m way more interested in discovering the violence that is possible in all of us, then just blaming all violence on a single group of people.

Of course, I know that there are plenty of counter-examples where a brilliant story-teller takes one of these tropes and turns them on their head. I’m looking for more of that, if you’ve got some examples of that, send it my way. And of course, I’m still trying to learn about “outer space” as I’m trying to teach it. As usual, the answers lie in asking more questions and preparing myself to be proven wrong at any moment.

Yay for helpful articles that can say the technical stuff a little more eloquently than me:
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
BJPsych: Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it
Neurodiversity: American Institute For Learning and Human Development
And Just in Time for Halloween… 3 Ways Popular Horror Movie Tropes Are Ableist !

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One comment on “Outer Space, Neurodiversity and Mental Illness Narratives I’m Not About Right Now

  1. Thank you so much for sharing, Annie. Loved this article!

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