A Different Way of Treating Mental Disorders

While I was reading A Cathedral Within—a philosophic book focusing primarily on educational programs in America that aim to bridge perceived learning gaps—I stumbled upon a section where the author, Bill Shore, was recounting a story about an inconsequential playdate with his son. It was a mundane situation highlighting the educational value of playing catch, in that playing catch helps to train the adolescent brain to focus on the ball. If Shore could have better taught his son to remain focused on this inanimate object, his son would have achieved a greater progress.

At Boston College, I study the humanistic and neuroscientific underpinnings of mental disorders, as well as how they are represented in media and talked about in discourse. Upon reading this section of Shore’s book, I immediately thought of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is generally a socially misunderstood disorder. That being said, one of the criteria of diagnosis is highly-restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.

Shore’s story perplexed me because the goal made total sense in context—baseball players need to focus on the baseball, salespeople need to focus on faces. To be successful in these given environments, focus must be directed toward at a specific target that is “not-human.” We see this as entirely normal because we have carved out an accepted space for each of these professions and have accepted these other ways of interacting.

All people have potential to contribute to the world around them. Although some mental disorders are seen as detrimental to a human being’s way of life, the so-called detriment is actually non-existent. The only reasons these symptoms “disrupt a way of life” is because that is what we, as society, say this is what happens when someone does not conform to our norm.

There will always be deviant behavior that the “average” population will attempt to categorize as different or wrong. This can be attributed to a curiosity, a misunderstanding, or a rhetorical shortcut so people can say someone is “weird” and move on.  How we define what is deviant will come in different expressions of our baseline of normal.

Centuries of primary sources show us this: Think Van Gogh, Tolstoy, Dickens, Michelangelo, Newton, Beethoven, and Churchill. They all displayed symptoms of some type of modern-day psychiatric illness, but we use these figures as the definitive cornerstones of their respective fields.

Dickens’ depression, originally thought to inhibit him from living a full life, instead ushered in a new literary voice that was intent on commenting on society as a whole. Michelangelo’s ASD allowed him to paint the Sistine Chapel—his single-minded routine adapted itself to producing something great. How else would he have completed the entire painting? You get the point.

Still not convinced? Think of Down syndrome. There is one thing which defines us and something which everybody hopes to have in their lives: love. You can scoff at this, but it is true despite its chessiness. To be loved and to love, regardless of which theoretical perspective you use, is one thing that unites us all. I have not met a single person with Down syndrome who will not give you that desired, humanistic love. Genetically, they have an extra chromosome; physically, they look different; socially, they lack the common set of characteristics we use to engage in discourse. But these people have a capacity to love another human being without restraint.

In loving you, they violate the set of rigid characteristics that is proper for the modern American, but they do it nonetheless. However, their loving deviation from our “normal” baseline is not completely understood, so we decide that easy-to-do manual labor is the best place for them in society. What if people with Down syndrome could work in nursing homes or care facilities? Speaking from experience—growing up with families who had a member with Down syndrome, spending a full four years in high school with children with Down syndrome, and continuing that passion throughout college—people with Down syndrome require very little reciprocation but are willing to give themselves to anyone.

The rhetoric behind what is different needs to change. We need to learn to adapt to differences and take a critical look at how we treat people with deviant behavior. An institution is not the answer and neither is leaving these people in the protective care of their parents for the rest of their lives. I believe that researching difference is the first step but there needs to be an implementation and application of the results which psychologists and neurologists find.

Maybe people with ASD do not pay attention to faces and rather give time to inanimate objects—fine! Allow these people to be strategists who focus on one goal and one goal only. They might end up painting the next Sistine Chapel. Maybe people with Down syndrome cannot learn calculus—fine! Allow these people to spend their time with older senile people who want to talk to someone and tell someone their story. As modern medicine allows people to live longer, social services for the elderly are going to become increasingly more important.

Maybe this is too Jesuit for your liking, or too optimistic to consider. However, next time you step up to the plate or onto the field, consider what the other players’ faces look like. How did you have to train to succeed on that field, court, or classroom? Regardless of how mundane this seems, I guarantee that you will not be able to complete the task without utilizing attributes that define a whole series of people. Playing catch may seem like a simple task, but remember that the effort in doing so correlates to what we have learned from who we have defined as different.