Jenara Nerenberg is a writer covering the innovations in the sciences and humanities that help carry humanity forward. Her work can be found online at Fast Company, New York Magazine, Susan Cain’s QuietRev, CNN, TIME, Travel & Leisure, NextBillion, BlackBook and the Greater Good Science Center. She is scheduled to speak at Spotlight Health on how social capital affects wellbeing. She agreed to answer our questions on neurodiversity, health care access, and more.
You describe yourself as neurodivergent. What is neurodiversity and how can we be more open to embracing it?
Neurodiversity is recognizing the array of human brain makeups as beautiful and natural, rather than pathologizing some as “abnormal” versus “normal.” It is also about recognizing the inherent gifts that come along with the diversity of brains — as history shows us, many brilliant artistic and scientific innovations emerged from those given labels such as ADHD, autistic, dyslexic, highly sensitive (HSP), etc. By embracing neurodiversity, the stigma is taken away and we are all viewed as important, valued, and necessary components of this ecosystem we call humanity. Don’t we all benefit from the passions and inspirations that come from “out of the box” thinking of artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs? Many of those folks are neurodivergent.
What do you wish people understood about those who are neurodivergent?
If you’re reading this, you probably know a handful of neurodivergent people — in your family, at work, or your friend circles — but their divergence is invisible or in some cases, masked as a coping/survival tactic. I went to Harvard, reported for CNN, and have enjoyed success in very particular areas, but in other areas that seem incredibly simple or straightforward to some, I struggle to a point that is debilitating and truly painful and humbling. For that same depth of capacity that many neurodivergent people have — in terms of heightened creativity, focus, and innovation — there is also an equal amount of struggle or incapacity, often within the context of our highly regimented daily social structures that don’t quite work for folks like us (think logistics, planning, coordinating, executive function tasks). I have a particular memory for names, faces, people, and the details of their lives, but I get lost planning food, sleep, and schedules.
What should our government be doing to promote access to mental health care?
Several things — those in crisis need access to safe sanctuaries that can help ease and transmute psychological suffering into the creative, artistic, healing opportunity that psychosis can be. Katie Mottram (Emerging Proud), Phil Borges (Crazywise), James Narwood (Gnosis Retreat Center), and others, including those at the California Institute of Integral Studies and elsewhere are truly pioneering this area, commonly referred to as “spiritual emergency.” The idea is that adults, like children, need holding and support. Imagine a toddler tantrum; adult psychosis is, in some ways, similar. Do we punish or ostracize a tantruming toddler? No, we hold them, tell them we love them, and wait for their tantrum to pass (toddler tantrums are primarily due to hormonal shifts happening in the body). How beautiful would it be if we did the same for adults? It’s not that adults are throwing fits — it’s that their systems are overwhelmed. This can come from historic abuse, stress, burnout, trauma, poor diet, drugs, and more, and in many cases psychosis serves as a “re-set.” I also think of it like a snake shedding its skin. Many people “emerge proud” from psychosis with tremendous creative and scientific insight and I think we need to design actual physical spaces and environments that support people in that process. Not sterile oppressive psychiatric wards but beautiful, soothing, supportive, caring environments.
And officials at every level of government, policy, and health care need a two- to three-hour basic introductory workshop on neurodiversity. If those in power understood neurodiversity, then those deemed “mentally ill” would be treated differently and their stigmatization and their “acting out” in “unacceptable” ways would reduce. And if the public follows suit by treating family, friends, and colleagues more compassionately, then those who are neurodivergent can more easily function and thrive within society. L’Arche and Geel are two examples where acceptance of neurodiversity is implemented and the results speak for themselves. I think that in the U.S. context, rates of incarceration, police shootings, homicide, and domestic violence would reduce.
Can you describe the cultural shifts we are witnessing in relation to the way we discuss mental health?
My colleagues and I are building a movement to dramatically shift the way mental health is viewed, discussed, and framed, especially in the media. Daisy Ozim is doing this with Resilient Wellness, Nick Walker is doing this with Neurocosmopolitanism, Irene Lyon is doing this with Healthy Nervous System Revolution, James Narwood is doing this with Gnosis Retreat Center, and Katie Mottram and Phil Borges are doing this with their films Emerging Proud and Crazywise.
My neurodiversity project encompasses many of these themes and efforts and looks at mental health and neurodivergence through a variety of angles. My intention is also to raise to the surface how mental health and neurodivergence gets overlooked in women, in particular. I believe it is a failure of modern science that so many women are overlooked, misdiagnosed, and left out of the research entirely. Imagine an onion with its many layers — many women arrive at a therapist’s office with symptoms of depression and anxiety and the conversation often stops there. When you begin to peel back the layers, what is often uncovered is ADHD, Asperger’s, or Highly Sensitive Personality (HSP). But because most of the research on those neurodivergences is about boys and men, the way those neurodivergences show up in women has been, until now, mostly unknown. My forthcoming book, Divergent Mind, exposes this.
What makes you optimistic about the future of mental health care in this country?
There is a whole crop of intersectional activists and writers “coming out” in the mental health landscape about their own personal struggles, paving the way for others to do the same. I want to see more people “come out.” Reading the stories of writers like Maria Yagoda and Amy Ellis Nutt helped me “come out.” They are two women with incredible academic and career success and yet who have suffered tremendously and spoken publicly. If we get more “mainstream” folks to come out about their mental health challenges, then I think we will see a real tide change and an actual cultural shift. It takes guts. Reach out! Here is my story.
What mental health practices have you witnessed in other countries that should be adopted here in the US?
I lived in Asia for 6 years — primarily Nepal and Thailand, with lots of trips to China, India, South Korea, and elsewhere during those years. In those particular countries, there are two things to be said. There is a certain amount of living according to one’s natural rhythms that serves to support mental health of individuals and communities. There is affection, ritual, community, traditions, and other rhythms that help regulate our nervous systems in a natural, organic way. But on the other hand there is also a lot of taboo and conservatism around the topic of mental health challenges, especially when they are severe. So then often the role of spirituality or religion becomes increasingly important as an outlet, which is both positive and negative. It’s wonderful when particular ideas, thoughts, rituals, and beliefs are ultimately healthy and helpful. It’s not so wonderful when clinging to those things becomes a copout or what we call “spiritual bypassing,” effectively leaving issues unaddressed, like trauma, abuse, or dysfunction.
As a journalist, you have covered tech innovations that could revolutionize health care. How is technology helping us better understand the brain?
I actually think technology has a long way to go in helping us better understand the brain. I see a lot of apps and gadgets that focus on “mindfulness,” but if you think about it, that doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about the brain, right? They don’t really give us the kind of tailored, individualized neuro and bio feedback we need to re-wire our patterns and behaviors. I’m looking forward to when individual tech gets much more savvy and sophisticated about the human brain. As for health care in general, sure, tech has revolutionized the landscape — my six years reporting across Asia for outlets like Fast Company, CNN, and Healthline made that transformation very personal for me.
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.