neurodivergent and mentally ill are NOT the same thing

Years ago, a stranger in a white coat gave me a list of all of the things they thought were “wrong” with me. I asked for it, so I can’t really complain. Having just gone through a bit of education about being neurodivergent and mentally ill, I wanted to know what was wrong with me.

I wanted knowledge. How do I define what’s wrong with me?? How do I fix it? I had these “new” words in my vocabulary, like neurodivergent and mentally ill.

Different brains are still beautiful brains.

Where do I fit? Am I neurodivergent, or mentally ill?
Wait, what … … … Both??

Somebody PLEASE…tell me what’s WRONG with me!!!

I didn’t know much at the time, just that my life had been going horribly wrong for a really, really long time. Having been suicidal in the past, I realized I was facing that threat from myself again. Not wanting my daughter’s story to have to include “mother committed suicide”, I finally had to do SOMETHING.

So I walked into a mental health clinic and told them all the “things”. These were things that I viewed as WRONG with me and I wanted them to FIX me.

Turns Out I’m Not Completely Broken

They didn’t fix me. In part because some of what I wanted fixed just isn’t broken. In part because they didn’t listen or have the expertise I needed (but didn’t know I needed) at the time. Lesson learned: Just because you’re talking to a psychiatrist or psychologist doesn’t mean they know or have expertise about your specific needs.

If you suspect you have ADHD, and you ask your psychiatrist/psychologist about it, and they say you can’t possibly have ADHD because you’ve been able to focus on the current conversation – then they DON’T know what they’re talking about. Find someone who does.

I’ve learned a lot since then. The most important thing I’ve learned is that mentally ill and neurodivergent people in the US face a lot of challenges that make day to day life more difficult. The challenges faced …

Wait. Stop. Focus.

You know what. It doesn’t matter. What I was just talking about is worth talking about, but right now, right here…whether you or I have been labelled as neurodiverse or mentally ill or both just doesn’t matter.

How are brains work is how they work, and while we may be able to get some help coping, or even medicate ourselves into some semblance of normal – that does not mean that how my brain works is “wrong”. At least, not all of it.

I’ve learned that being neurodivergent AND mentally ill is not only possible, but more common than I thought.

Which means we need to talk about it.

Not as experts (although I’ll try to quote some, sometimes), but as people.

Neurodivergent just means different.

Just…people. Trying to understand ourselves and one another.

Finding our own connections and community.

Just people – who are different.

Isn’t that all of us??

neurodivergent and Mentally Ill can make day to day life a bit MORE …

More difficult, more bitter, and sometimes, even more sweet.

The very best version of me is chaotic, and goes from bitter to sweet and back again…often. Sometimes so often that it can make things difficult for those who care about me. That’s me at my best…I’ll leave me at my worst up to the imagination for now. 馃槈

One of the labels I have had to accept is “Bipolar”. I also have ADHD, and a few other things going on, so my life is a bit of a bumpy ride.

It is not unusual for a neurodivergent person to ALSO have other things going on. Mental and physical wellness can be a bit more complicated when your brain is wired differently. Add to that the misunderstandings and struggles that come with being different in ANY way, and you have statistics. Statistics that show a higher rate of mental illness in the neurodivergent community than in the neurotypical community.

Defining Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, and Mentally Ill

I’ll try to provide as much understanding as I can on this blog, and one of the best ways to do that is to understand some of the words and phrases used here. Neurotypical just means that someone’s brain works as expected – similar to the societal “norm”.

As for being neurodivergent and mentally ill…

According to Google definitions (and they use Oxford Languages for their definitions):


  1. differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal (frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders); not neurotypical.

neu路ro路di路ver路si路ty/藢n(y)o蜐or艒d蓹藞v蓹rs蓹d膿,藢n(y)o蜐or艒藢d墨藞v蓹rs蓹d膿/nounnoun: neurodiversity; noun: neuro-diversity

  1. the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).

And finally, according to the Mayo Clinic:

“Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions 鈥 disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior.”

For the purposes of this blog, Neurodiversity and being neurodivergent are akin to hard wiring – these are ways in which our brains have been wired since birth. There is nothing to “cure”, so much as there are strategies to learn that can help those of us with “different” brains to cope in a society built for a norm different from our own.

Mental illness involves a variety of other things, and I honestly debate with MYSELF about what is and is not “ill” about my own brain. For instance, I’ve had ADHD all my life. I can review my childhood and see it, and understand how its effects permeated my life. On the other hand, I didn’t develop Bipolar Disorder, or at least see its effects, until I was in college. Anxiety and depression? There is a genetic component, almost certainly. Yet, these aspects of myself come and go. Are they mental illnesses, or just another part of my brain being wired “differently”?

Neurodiversity is not the same thing as having a mental illness

It’s a bit murky, for sure. Some people view any “difference” in how our brains are wired as “illness” or dysfunction. So some people lump it all together. Honestly, it can make it easier to talk about sometimes.

We’re trying to understand one another, though, and viewing a brain that is wired differently as “ill” is just not … useful.

In fact, living with and trying to understand another human being can be hard even when their brains work similarly to our own. Add in neurodiversity and mental illness, and it can make it hard to feel like we’re the same species at times.

The challenge, however, is worth it. Loving and understanding each other is at the core of … well, almost everything.

From peace on Earth to peace in our hearts.

Belonging, peace, connection, feeling “OK” in our own skin, in our own lives. I think these are universal desires that look different to different people. Some people need connection with a large number of other people. Some just need one or two good friends and a dog. Or cat. Lizard? Fish? How about a pet rock?

The point is, different people need different things, but we all need SOME kind of connection.

If you are one of the millions of people who have a challenge or two finding connection, then let’s start right now. Leave a comment – introduce yourself.

You have found community,

and connection,

and compassion,

and understanding.

Is your brain different from the “norm”?

I know – that is a loaded question. What one individual matches something that is so very difficult to pin down anyway?

So I’ll answer for you: Yes, your brain IS different from the norm.

does that difference present challenges to living a happy, fulfilling life in Your society?

If so, please, join the conversation. I want to tell your story. I want to help someone else understand you, and themselves.

Let’s really do the work to understand each other, create community, and have compassion and empathy for our fellow human beans. 馃槈