A report from a remarkable workshop about Mental Health and Neurodiversity
On 12 October the Sydney Alliance and Sydney Policy Lab ran a workshop called ‘You Can’t Ask That’ about Mental Health and Neurodiversity. This is what happened, and what is coming next!
- 70 people in the room and 13 people online joined for a one-of-a-kind workshop about the public dimensions of mental health and neurodiversity
- All but one of the speakers live with a mental illness and/or a neurological condition like ADHD or Autism — and they spoke about their experiences
- The event was educative: testimonies were shared then small group discussions were held with the speakers — people could ‘ask that’ about mental health and neurodiversity
- The event ended with a ‘call to action’ inviting people to a meeting to plan a year of activity in 2023, supported by the Sydney Alliance and the Sydney Policy Lab
Covid has demonstrated that issues of mental health and neurodiversity do not simply reside in the brain of a few ‘unlucky’ people. Rather crises like the pandemic and other difficult public contexts contribute to mental illness and make life harder for people with different brains. Take mental illness. It is already set to affect 20% of the population, and this rose by 25% during the pandemic. Over the past decade, diagnosis for Autism and ADHD have risen strongly amongst children and adults.
There is a need for mainstream organisations — unions, religious groups and community groups to work out how they can play a role in improving mental health and creating space for neurodiversity.
From the outset, the event was very relational and connected. The co-chairs Dee Nguyen and Jade Luu acknowledged Gadigal country, then introduced themselves. In doing so they talked about their neurodiversity, sharing how unusual but how powerful it was to be their whole selves in this space. They described the purpose of the day, and created a shared space of curiosity — where no one was expected to be an expert on neurodiversity (or even know what that word meant). People then had time to connect relationally in pairs then at their table, sharing who they were and what it would mean to be in a respectful space.
Alliance Lead Organiser David Barrow addressed the room, sharing the power of the Sydney Alliance and its powerful record of having trained over 5000 community leaders in community organising to build a social power that can address the myriad of challenges that come from living in Sydney. The room then quietened as he also explained that we were here to right past wrongs. Led by a chain of strong women — Maha Abdo, Mary Waterford, Mel Gatfield and Amanda Tattersall — we were together to begin rectifying a mistake. We were gathered to redress love denied with a commitment to a better world, and specifically to public action on mental health and neurodiversity.
Amanda Tattersall addressed the room (her full speech is here). Her speech was preempted by raw emotion, “not tears of sadness, tears of joy” she exclaimed. She spoke about her journey of having bipolar, and her dawning recognition that the greatest challenge she faced was a world that saw bipolar as a personal fault that generated only personal responsibility, and not something that was contributed to by public pressures.
She offered us all a different way to see mental health and neurodiversity — presenting the ‘public dimensions of mental illness’ arguing that if the cultures and practices of workplaces and schools could trigger mental illness — then we as active citizens — could improve mental illness and create spaces for thriving neurodiversity if we made those spaces better. She said “when it comes to mental health and neurodivergence, “our problem is not our beautiful brains; our problem is finding the people, the imagination and the will to redesign the world so all of our brains can thrive.” She ended with a question for us all to contemplate:
What difference would it make if we saw mental health and neurodiversity as all of our responsibility? What if we had a world where people like me didn’t need to hide? Where instead of seeing our brains as matters for diagnosis and doctors, what would change if we saw mental health and neurodiversity as something that we could do something about by changing our organisations, institutions and communities so we all could thrive?
We then had the privilege of hearing from Judy Singer. Judy is a veteran Sydney Alliance leader with the Jewish Board of Deputies and she is also globally recognised as the author of the term neurodiversity, a concept she developed while writing her honours thesis in 1998.
Judy Singer spoke about her life and the concept of neurodiversity. She expressed the importance of seeing neurodiversity through intersectional eyes, and that her Autisitc brain is intertwined with her Jewish and Holocost heritage, her class position as a housing commission resident and her gender (especially as women are often overlooked when it comes to diagnosis). She explained the simple beauty of the term neurodiversity — a contraction of neurological diversity, intended to symbolise a social movement for justice, the final identity movement born of the 20th century.
We then heard two testimonies about what it was like to live with mental illness and neurodivergence.
Charlie Wood, the highly regarded climate movement organiser, spoke of a life where her sense of gender, body and mind were treated as ‘not normal’ and punished by public institutions. Whether it was being attacked by kids at school, misdiagnosed and traumatised by doctors in the hospital system, or pathologised for her anxiety about climate change and injustice — she lived the torment of not ‘fitting in’ with public expectations. Initially, her sense of disconnect manifest as an unyielding energy to make ambitious social change, but even that was painful and unsustainable. Today Charlie has found the space and relationships to own her differences — committed to a more inclusive and loving form of social change.
Ben Fowler spoke about living with ADHD, growing up with limited resources in a country town (his full speech is here). Outrageously bright, as he got older he struggled to translate his intelligence within the rigid confines of the education curriculum, finding his own learning on the internet and through books vastly more stimulating than the classroom. Eventually diagnosed with ADHD, he found this ‘coming out’ more challenging than when he ‘came out’ as gay. Social stigma combined with the assumption of ‘normal’ make living with a brain difference hard. But even so — just like the extraordinary power of other identity movements, like the LGBTIQ movement, ‘normal’ can be challenged.
The room then broke into three groups, about 20 people in each. For 15 mins at a time, mini-workshop groups facilitated a conversation with each of the speakers — Judy, Charlie and Ben. People could ask any questions they wanted. The idea was to draw people’s curiosity and uncertainty into the room and provide a safe space for addressing or challenging ideas. In setting up the groups, we explain that speakers would need to protect their private space — and that some questions might need to be addressed 1–1 or not at all. But the desire was for everyone to lean in and learn.
In the final 10 mins of the workshop, the plenary reconvened to report back on the insights from the mini-workshops. There was a feeling that we were only just starting the conversation. The ‘call to action’ was outlined (see below). People were invited to sign up to the planning meeting with emails in their inbox.
As we closed the meeting — there was a feeling that we had just done something new. That no one had ever had a workshop quite like this, with so many speakers with lived experience, that was so plainly designed and run in ways that harnessed their knowledge and sensitivity to space.
There was also a deep recognition that the Sydney Alliance had done something rare — if not a world first. It has co-hosted this unusual, powerful event — not just because it was the right thing to do — but to rectify ‘love lost’ and build a power that could hope to embody forgiveness.
What happens next?
The next step for 2022 is a planning meeting. To find out more abut it please email the Sydney Policy Lab at firstname.lastname@example.org.