Welcome to the fifth part of our seven-part Mental Health Awareness Week series, shedding light on the key issues surrounding mental health, ensuring that people are helped, voices are heard and breakdowns are averted.
When you think of conditions classified as disabilities (a word that I shudder to use) such as autism and dyslexia and of mental ‘disorders’ (again, a word that induces mild skepticism depending on the person).
That wasn’t a rhetorical question by the way, I’m generally curious. In my experience, the answer goes through more changes than a soap opera cast.
Hidden conditions like autism, dyslexia and to some extent, attention deficit (hyperactive) disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder mainly manifest within the first five years of our life. But that doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Rather, these conditions are classified as disability in a viewpoint that give the impression you’re lacking something in the IQ department. I’m not entirely sure which stereotype is worse. Taken the wrong way in its connection with mental health and we’d have people falling prey to the misinterpretation that because these conditions are a part of our lives 24/7, that we’re mentally ill 24/7. (DISCLAIMER: We’re not, but the way, perhaps a little eccentric)
But there are moments when there is an overlap, when you find yourself struggling with one or two traits, and they do escalate into some of the issues people with mental health struggle with, such as panic attacks.
Triggers play a tremendous part and sometimes it is these associations that can take us to that difficult emotional spot. And many of the conditions we look at do have those emotional triggers that set us off. For ANY condition, it is pivotal that we understand what each individual person’s triggers are, to ensure that we are more able to provide support.
For example, in the case of people with autism, they benefit from having a structured routine in their day-to-day life. Socializing can be very difficult for some people on the autism spectrum because we have difficulty reading social cues. We don’t always understand the meaning behind what someone says (i.e. humorous joke or dead serious). Integrating into an unfamiliar environment is a sure-fire way to get the stress levels on the rise.
Sensory overload is also a key contender for some autistics to come up against. Maybe it’s an aversion to bright lights or maybe the sound of a pin dropping is enough to set us on edge. Sometimes, being under emotional, bubbling stress can exacerbate that overload.
All lights, sounds and touches can feel like a bombardment of baseballs coming at you in all directions.
Bipolar is a condition that is readily well-known among a lot of people, and is actually quite useful as a starting point, in part because it displays one of the biggest early warning signs of poor mental health: unexpected displays of emotion. You can go from manic and full of energy to depressed and deflated within a certain period of time. Now, just to be clear, the amount of time bipolar individuals take to go through these swings vary from person to person. Just making sure no one misinterprets this as a Jekyll and Hyde scenario.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is an interesting case based on two of the key characteristics. People with OCD may feel the need to do certain things so many times or stick to a set of routines. And for a lot of these people, these are fairly simple things, like making sure the front door is locked, a particular food order, among others.
But if people with OCD are subject to stress, then many of those traits run the risk of being escalated.
Either they can become overly dependent on these routines or they end up developing structures to somewhat minimalist subjects, reacting quite negatively to even the slightest deviation. For example, someone who is reliant on counting to seven before commencing an activity may be extremely distressed if they do not make it to seven.
But while routines and compulsive behavior are a major part of OCD, they are not the ONLY traits. Another side to OCD that aren’t mentioned frequently enough are the intrusive thoughts.
Now, before we get any further, intrusive thoughts is NOT the same as hallucinations. I just want to make that clear before the schizophrenia comparisons start flying. Sometimes, people with OCD experience intrusive thoughts, could be about whether they’ve left the front door unlocked for the dogs to escape, or it could be about more worryingly things, like hurting a friend or family member, or even a random person. A person experiencing these thoughts will have neither the intention nor the capacity to commit such acts, but that thought plays out so vividly in their head that it almost feels as real as any other memory, taking an emotional toll on someone and can in some cases, severely limit their chances of day-to-day life due to the arising phobias. It can come and go, lasting for months, possibly even years, before dying down, often when that person is less emotionally troubled.
Many of these conditions have traits that we can normally keep in check for the most part, but much like most mental illness, given the wrong circumstances and those traits will flare up to the point it poses a risk to your mental health if not properly supported.
In the vast mental health machine, we need to understand the cogs that are hidden conditions and the catalysts linked with these conditions that bring on emotional distress that follows. This doesn’t have to be a negative bit of trivia. It doesn’t need to be taken as an emotional minefield you have to edge yourself through. Think of it as a nugget of wisdom (or something vaguely resembling wisdom).
Also, many of these hidden conditions come with support methodologies; sometimes it’s about behavioural therapy and sometimes there can be something or someone that can provide a calming influence to you and bring you back down to an even level suited to you. I’m not going to use that old soundbite ‘bring you back down to reality’ because you never technically leave it.
If you know your autistics from your dyslexics, you may be able to clue yourself into how you an support people through these mental flare ups.
If you found this piece useful, why don’t you check out the other articles in the Mental Health Awareness Week Series: