Mental Illness and Coping Like a Superhero

The longer I spend studying psychology, the more aware I become of three realities of life:

1 – Mental health and mental disorders are a spectrum. Sure, it can be broken down into many smaller spectrums such as depression, anxiety, dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc., but overall health is a spectrum containing many other smaller spectrums. I can best demonstrate this by using the physical body. Overall health is head to toe wellness. However, a person with a broken arm is not fully healthy. Their heart may be strong, they may be able to run a marathon, but as an overall unit, they are not at 100% health. So it is with the mind.

2 – The second thing I realise is that we’re all on the spectrum to some degree. Not one of us is able to claim total mental health. Whether it is a low lying OCD where you have to double check a window is locked before leaving the house, agoraphobia with panic attacks, or schizophrenia, we are all in this together. What’s more, because of the stigma attached to mental health no one likes to talk about it so we feel we’re alone and experiencing something shameful, which everyone else is doing as well.

3 – I am seeing more and more articles regarding mental health struggles being linked to a “superpower”. I first noticed a link with TS and sport when I noticed that it is common for hockey goalies to have some kind of tic and my interest grew from there. Then I considered comedians such as Wayne Brady, Drew Carey, David Letterman, who have depression, and a host of others and how they seemed to use the thing that affects them to fight on.

First, let me begin by stating that mental illness does not bring an inherent superpower, as comforting as we may like to believe it does. What I believe is more accurate, is that some people are able to build a counter-balance and use a strength as a coping mechanism to work against their illness. If superpowers were inherently part of the package we would all want a mental illness, and we wouldn’t have a need to treat them. I believe that as a resourceful species we find ways to overcome weakness and deficit with something else. We recognise an area we are vulnerable and find a way to build a strength to counter it.

For example, I have a personal investment in Tourette’s Syndrome and first began to realise a potential link between disorder and strength when I learned of Tim Howard’s experiences. He was not teased for his condition although he was aware of talk, but he was labeled “disabled” while playing soccer in England for Manchester United (Edwards, 2014), and he was able to fight through this and make his condition work for him. Current studies suggest that Howard’s skill and natural talent may in fact have some roots in his TS, in that children with TS only (not comorbid with other conditions) show faster reaction times than a control group of similar age (Vicario, Martino, Spata, Defazio, Giacche, Rappo, Pepi, Silvestri, & Cardona, 2010). The positive side of this is that while it should never be hoped that an individual would ever have to live with any disorder, it can in fact become something of a what is reported as “superpower” (Dahl, 2014). Is every kid with Tourette’s Syndrome going to be a world class athlete? Probably not, but they may be able to get good enough that their social standing is bolstered through their sporting achievement. It is also important to note that while TS gave Howard a slight edge, he didn’t get to the top without a lot of hard work, practice, and dedication. Is it a superpower? I would hesitate to label it as such. Is it something of a booster? I think that is closer.

An article published just last week shows four areas where people with anxiety disorders show an increase in four “superpowers” – Increased threat detection, higher IQ, increased empathy, and the ability to feel the energy of others (Segal, 2017). And the link with humour and depression? Yep, that too has been studied and humour has been found to be a coping mechanism (Freiheit, Overholser & Lehnert, 1998).

So what’s the message? Well, there are three points to this really:

1 – Whatever you are struggling with, you are not alone. We’re all dealing with something and anyone who claims otherwise is either lacking in self-awareness or lying.

2 – Whatever you are struggling with doesn’t have to define you.

3 – If your coping mechanism is a superpower to you then fly with it.

Dahl, M. (2014, July 02). Can tourette’s help explain Tim Howard’s superpowers?. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/07/can-tourettes-explain-tim-howards-superpowers.html

Edwards, A. (2014, May 14). Usmnt goalkeeper Tim Howard opens up about his struggles with tourette’s syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.mlssoccer.com/blog/post/2013/05/14/usmnt-goalkeeper-tim-howard-opens-about-his-struggles-tourettes-syndrome

Freiheit, S. R., Overholser, J. C., & Lehnert, K. L. (1998). The Association Between Humor and Depression in Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatients and High School Students. Journal of Adolescent Research, 13(1), 32-48.

Segal, S. (2017, April 25). 4 Powers That May Be Hiding Behind Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved May 02, 2017, from http://curiousmindmagazine.com/people-anxiety-may-hiding-powers/

Vicario, C., Martino, D., Spata, F., Defazio, G., Giacche, R., Rappo, G., Pepi, M.A., & Silvestri, P., Cardona, F. (2010). Time processing in children with tourette’s syndrome. Brain and Cognition73(1), 28-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2010.01.008

Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/en/batman-superman-lego-superhero-1293525/

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Categories: Mental Health

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  1. Where Should Treatment for Tourette Syndrome Focus? – PsychSpot

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