I had an interesting discussion I put out on social media to see if the collective brain had any insight. I’ve now had a couple of directors ask me if we consider autism a mental illness. The answer our original jury came back with is that while it may not be classified as a mental illness per se, it is so entwined with mental health that we would consider the films. However, it’s a really tricky question to answer whether autism is a mental illness, and seems to spark some intense debate in either direction.
A lot of folks point out that autism is generally classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder. That was my initial feeling as well, I guess the idea being that it was something hard-wired and always expressing itself, whereas a mental illness was comprised of symptoms that could be triggered by genetics or brain chemistry or environment or all of the above. But you know what, despite a passion for mental health advocacy, I don’t have formal training in either psychiatry or psychology, so I feel completely unqualified to make a judgment call either way. I am simultaneously terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes regarding a sensitive issue.
The one constant that everyone could seem to agree with is that autism is a mental *disorder* and can certainly be, and usually is, about mental health. Our original mission statement had “disorder of the mind” as part of it. It seems to me that autism certainly falls under the larger umbrella of “a film festival about mental health.” I don’t like the idea of slapping labels and categories on things, and I honestly don’t know that I would have considered it unless someone had asked me point-blank if we consider autism a mental illness. We have screened films about ADHD, which is also classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, as well as films where a diagnosis is vague or undefined. We’ve shown films about a specific moment in time where someone is paralyzed with anxiety or depression without even necessarily having a clear diagnosis or any at all. What all of the films had in common is that they were about mental health in some way or another–mental health being broadly defined by the CDC as our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being.”
The mission statement we first came up with was this:
“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival highlighting works that portray a realistic depiction of mental illness. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with these chronic psychiatric conditions. We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives on mental illness, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.
We define “mental illness” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any psychiatric diagnosis, emotional disorder, addiction, or other disorder of the mind.”
I can see now how this is limiting and exclusive in some ways. Also, I know that there are some people who dislike the label “mental illness.” So I decided to make the title of the festival (which I still like) more of a play on “mental fitness”–some people have already interpreted it that way, and I honestly like that interpretation much better.
I pieced together a new mission statement I hope is a little more open and inclusive:
“Mental Filmness is a Chicago-based film festival showcasing films about mental health. The festival is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental health by sharing stories and promoting empathy for those who live with a chronic mental health disorder or those who have experienced a mental health issue.
We are especially interested in challenging stereotypes, showing different perspectives, and informing and enlightening the general public about mental health.
We define “mental health” as a broad umbrella that encompasses any issue related to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, or our overall mental fitness.”
I think at first I was also a little attached to the idea of showing that people who live with conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or who have experienced suicidal ideation or attempts, are people you encounter in everyday life. I wanted to eliminate stereotypes about who was “crazy” or dangerous or lazy or scary. However, the second statement is actually more reflective of our catalog. I like the idea of people who *don’t* live with a chronic mental health condition seeing themselves reflected back to them as well. I like the idea of the audience seeing that mental health could be anything from being hospitalized for depression or a suicide attempt to being so anxious before a date or job interview you become paralyzed and unable to leave your apartment to being too depressed to buy wrapping paper for a friend’s birthday gift. I think these everyday moments are also important for helping people realize that mental health is not necessarily about being crazy or unstable–it’s simply about our mental fitness, or our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It would be judgmental and arbitrary to draw a line based on the nature, degree, or diagnosis of mental health—and hopefully this statement is more reflective of that.
I think it’s important to always be questioning yourself and trying to grow, especially when it comes to such a sensitive and important topic. It’s also important to take in feedback and be open to dialogue. Diagnoses and medication and therapy techniques are always evolving, but the one constant regarding brain health is it will always be about our mental “fitness” or wellness and finding that balance. It can be stigmatized in any form and if people became aware of and open about their own anxiety and depression early intervention may be possible before it spirals into a more serious problem, and they may realize talking about our mental health is just as important as talking about our physical health and should be just as commonly accepted.