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Autistic Lens

Supporting Autistic Adults with Mental Health Challenges

May 25th, 2022

Jake Anthony

For Allies

Jake Anthony is an AutismBC content collaborator and an advocate for people with diverse abilities.

Along with his autism diagnosis, Jake was also diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) when he was a child. His biological father, as well as many other members of his family, have lived with the same neurodiversities and mental health challenges. In this piece, he shares some of his mental health journey and how best to support autistic people who are struggling with their mental health.

It’s okay not to be okay

Unfortunately, there are still many people who feel that their mental health struggles are a shameful secret- something that has to be hidden and never talked about.  This makes it impossible for a person in crisis to say, “I’m not okay and I need help.”

My biological father struggled with mental health issues all his life. Whenever he was in crisis and would talk to my grandfather about going to a therapist, he would be told: “Why would you do that and bring shame on yourself and the rest of the family?” As a result, he didn’t reach out for help and his mental health got just got worse over time. His quality of life and happiness would have been so much better If the important people in his life had just said “We understand and we’re here to support you in whatever choice you decide to make.”

I’m so lucky that when I was diagnosed, my parents and so many other people in my life supported me in getting me the help I needed in dealing with my mental health! I’ve never been made to feel like I need to hide any part of who I am, not talk about my problems or avoid seeking professional help when I need it.

The harm of stigma

There’s still a huge lack of real understanding around, as well as acceptance of people with mental health challenges in society. Sadly, for some people, when they think about mental illness, these are the words that come to mind: dangerous, unstable, difficult, hysterical, unpredictable, destructive, violent. What all these words have in common is that they perpetuate negative stereotypes. They reinforce the stigma that people with mental health challenges should be feared, can’t be trusted and are incapable of forming lasting relationships. With this kind of thinking, people’s positive qualities and strengths are often overlooked, as well as undervalued.

I’ve had some friends who I had a good relationship with until they discovered that I live with mental health challenges. Then, suddenly, they stopped having anything to do with me. I find that when you’re a person who struggles with your mental health, you learn who your real friends are pretty quickly. It’s so important that we look at people as individuals, not as a diagnosis or label. Instead of judging and stigmatizing people, we have to take the time to better understand and embrace them for who they are.

Debunking mental health stereotypes

There are a lot of stereotypes out there about people with mental health that are completely inaccurate and really bother me. Here are my top 6:

Myth #1: We’re unable to hold down a job

I know so many amazing people who live with mental health challenges, who, besides holding down a steady job, also inspire and support other people struggling with their mental health to be able to do the same.

Myth #2: We can’t maintain healthy, positive, and long-term relationships

I have friends who I’ve known for as short a time as a few years, with others having been in my life for 20+ years now. I have two friends who both live with mental health struggles, yet they’ve been happily married for over 30 years. That speaks for itself, in terms of debunking that stereotype!

Myth #3: Film and tv accurately depict mental health challenges

I’ve met so many people living with mental health challenges who are 100% the opposite of this image! Too often, we’re portrayed in media as being violent, toxic, antisocial, self-centred, manipulative, and incapable of feeling empathy. Speaking for both myself and so many others with lived experience, I would argue that people with mental health struggles have a greater sense of empathy, due to our own day-to-day personal struggles. Many of us are extremely social and we really enjoy connecting with and getting to know other people. Because we know how much the support of other people helps us in our lives, we tend to be very generous and supportive toward those in need. Since a lot of us have been manipulated by people who think our challenges make us incapable of knowing when we’re being taken advantage of, this is something we’re very sensitive about not doing to others in our lives.

Myth #4: We all struggle with substance abuse

It surprises me when I tell doctors that I have mental health challenges and one of the first questions they ask me is, “do you have a history of drug use or excessive consumption of alcohol?” Even in the medical community, there seems to be an assumption that people living with mental health challenges must be battling addiction issues as well. It’s important to remember that everyone’s circumstances and challenges are different and so is how they deal with their mental health.

Myth #5: That we cannot lead happy lives

Many people view those who struggle with their mental health as sad, tragic figures who can’t ever live a happy, peaceful life. All my life, I’ve lived with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder, along with my autism diagnosis. While I’ve had my fair share of difficult times (and who hasn’t), I’ve also had many great, positive experiences. It’s important for people to know that a person’s mental health challenges do not determine whether they live happy lives or not. If you have a strong support network of family and friends, as well as some personally meaningful direction in your life, it’s 100% possible for you to find that happiness!

Myth #6: Psychiatric medication is bad

There are still a lot of people who, for whatever reason, believe that people with mental health challenges taking medications is a bad thing. I’ve been on many different psychiatric medications to help me cope with my anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive challenges since I was seven years old. While medications are only one tool in my “mental health toolbox,” they help make it more possible for me to have a more emotionally stable and happy day-to-day life. Some people like me need to be on psychiatric medications to deal with their daily mental health issues, while some others go through their entire lives never needing to take any medications. We have to remember that we’re all different people, with our own challenges and strategies for dealing with those challenges. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to mental health supports. All our needs vary based on our individual diagnoses.

Don’t take it personally

There have been many times in my life when people have interpreted my dark state of mind as I struggle with depression and anxiety as me being upset with them. Some people have gotten angry with me, thinking I’m unfairly blaming them for my emotional troubles. It’s important to remember that all people battling mental health challenges deal with their low periods differently and not to take it personally. We all have our own processes for dealing with difficult emotions. Some individuals completely shut down and keep to themselves. Others might seem on-edge or irritated for what seems like no reason. Sometimes, feelings like anger and fear are directed at the wrong people or triggered by something that has nothing to do with what’s really bothering them.

Instead of making a snap assumption that the person’s just trying to be unpleasant, ask what’s upsetting them. Some people may not be in a place where they’re able and willing to talk about it. If that’s the case, give them their space for the time being and bring it up later when they’re in a better place emotionally. By doing this, you can develop a better understanding of people’s ways of dealing with their emotions.

Support autistic people

Here are some tips on how you can support autistic people who struggle with mental health conditions:

Tip #1: Treat people as individuals

Remember that each autistic person’s co-occurring mental health conditions are different and affect them in different ways. If the person’s comfortable talking about it, take the time to get to know more about their mental health situation.

Tip #2: Don’t make assumptions

Don’t assume you know why a person is acting or reacting in a certain way. This tends to lead to a lot of misunderstandings that could be avoided by simply asking the person what’s bothering them. If the person needs space and can’t talk about it at that point, then bring it up again later at a better time.

Tip #3: Respect personal boundaries

Even with the best of intentions, sometimes trying too hard to get involved and help can cause somebody who’s struggling with their mental health to become more upset. If the person’s saying or acting like they need space, it’s important that that boundary be respected. Otherwise, continuing to engage can cause the person’s mental state to get worse.

It’s best to ask people what you can do to support them, instead of trying to tell them what they need, which comes across as patronizing. If they say there’s nothing you can do to help, it’s important to back off and respect that they don’t want or require your help.

Some people with mental health conditions may only feel comfortable talking about their challenges with a mental health professional. It’s important to respect this boundary but do not take it as a personal rejection of your help as a friend. Some subjects and experiences are too personal and difficult for individuals to feel comfortable talking about outside of a doctor/therapist-patient relationship. Different people have different needs and comfort levels.

Tip #4: Be available

Sometimes the best way to support somebody who’s struggling with their mental health is to simply let them know that you’re an email or phone call away if they need you. This way, they can reach out to you on their own terms, when they’re ready to ask for your support.

Tip # 5: Listening is key!

This means both the ability to listen to a person’s mental health challenges and to listen to what they’re saying they need from their support circle of friends and family. Sometimes the person may just need someone to talk with or to pour their feelings and thoughts out to.

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