Started reading this fascinating article yesterday about what scientists know about how the brain developed and functions. It’s a long article and I still have some way to go, but what struck me most so far is this. An expert in neurology asked his students to imagine that everything we need to know about the brain is a journey of 1 mile. Given that, how far along that journey have we come. The students gave various answers – half a mile, three-quarters of a mile and so on. The expert’s answer? About 3 inches.
The brain is still very little understood. Science can tell you what functions different parts of the brain perform, how nerves send signals and so on. But how it all comes together to form consciousness and thought is still pretty much a mystery.
This lack of understanding and knowledge of course has huge implications for the treatment and comprehension of mental illness and neuro-diversity. it is not like having a broken leg where doctors have an excellent understanding of how the bones, muscles, ligaments etc work and fit together. Mental illness is still very much a mystery because the brain is such a mystery.
What this means is that the person who knows the most about your brain, mental health and thoughts is you. You are the expert and in the best place to help yourself. You can get advice from doctors, read up, hear the experiences of others, all of which help. Support from family and friends is absolutely vital. But I absolutely guarantee that nobody has anything like the understanding of what goes on inside your head that you do.
This has several important implications. Firstly, we all need to take more responsibility for our own mental health. In the same way that we cannot complain if we know we are allergic to nuts and get sick after choosing to eat them anyway, we have to take responsiblity for finding out what makes our mental health worse and avoiding that wherever possible.
We need to take time for self-examination and self-understanding. If you cut or bruise yourself it is second nature to spend some time examining the injury, cleaning it and working out the best way to treat it. But we generally don’t do that with mental illness. It’s tricky – for me one of the most frustrating things about my depression is that I often cannot identify triggers to avoid. But I can and should spend more time getting to know myself, how I respond to certain things and strategies that work to help.
And we need to be prepared to stand up for ourselves robustly. We do not have to listen to others telling us what is best for our mental health or how to live with our neuro-diversity. We can take advice and hear what has helped others, but ultimately what is best for us is for us to determine for ourselves. How can anyone else make that decision when they have no idea what it is like to be you?
You don’t even have to be able to explain it coherently. I cannot abide the taste of brussels sprouts but I cannot put into words why, other than that they taste foul to me. But that is up to me and others need to accept that I don’t like sprouts. In the same way, if I say that find certain types of noise difficult, I shouldn’t have to explain or justify that, it is just how I am.
This realisation that we are each the leading experts on our own mental health is both liberating and a bit scary. In itself it is difficult to get our heads around. But it is the truth. You have every right to be you whatever other think or say.
One thing most experts have in common is great confidence when talking about their specialism. You have the same right to that confidence when talking about what goes on inside your head, and many more of us need to show that more.
The best people to take forward the acceptance of mental health and neuro-diversity issues are those of us who know about them first hand. It’s time to speak up.