As the Doors Begin to Open: Entering a more inclusive, neurodiverse post-pandemic world

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Slowly, cautiously, after over a year of COVID-19, doors are beginning to re-open. But what doors are they—and whom will they be for?

Already before the pandemic, people had begun to speak more openly about mental health. By acknowledging their own struggles with depression or addiction, sports stars and media personalities consciously worked to bring an end to the era in which such matters had to be concealed like secrets shamefully locked away. Loneliness, isolation and the feeling that we will be stigmatised if we admit to having down days or needing therapeutic help serve only to exacerbate suffering.

As members of the clergy, I and many of my colleagues across different faiths have also tried to be more receptive, encouraging and inclusive. Some of us have shared our own journeys to exemplify how important it is to be open about our mental health; many of us are “wounded healers”.

Yet the term “mental health” still troubles me. It feels as though it is always followed by the unstated word “problems”, as if “mental health” can only mean “mental health difficulties”. While it is disingenuous to deny that it often entails suffering, mental health is something we all have. It is good, bad or indifferent, as we have periods in which we find it easier or harder, less or more challenging and frightening to live with ourselves. Few of us get along comfortably all our life with the contents of our own consciousness. I believe this is an important reminder lest, at the same time as being more open, we “other” those who have mental health difficulties.

More on the Forum Network: "Journaling the Pandemic: To Record, To Remember, To Heal" by Sarah S. Willen & Katherine A. Mason, Co-Founders, The Pandemic Journaling Project

More on the Forum Network: "Journaling the Pandemic: To Record, To Remember, To Heal" by Sarah S. Willen & Katherine A. Mason, Co-Founders, The Pandemic Journaling ProjectMore on the Forum Network: "Journaling the Pandemic: To Record, To Remember, To Heal" by Sarah S. Willen & Katherine A. Mason, Co-Founders, The Pandemic Journaling Project

Of course, it’s true that what we have to contend with is far from equal. To be bipolar or suffer for years from clinical depression is not the same as to have down days, or even months. But it is essential that this should elicit not our judgment but our compassion and understanding.

It is important, too, that we appreciate that there are many ways of experiencing the world. The term “neurodiversity” was coined by the sociologist Judith Singer in 1998 to describe conditions including autism, dyslexia and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Disabled World’s website comments that, “Her hope and objective was to shift the focus of discourse about ways of thinking and learning away from the usual litany of deficits, disorders, and impairments”.

An important counterbalance to thinking only in terms of pathology, neurodiversity communicates the potential richness of embracing different perspectives and ways of experiencing life without romanticising it. Friends have told me that they do not want to be described as “people with neurodivergence”, as if they were a human being plus a problem. Rather they want to be appreciated as neurodivergent people.

COVID-19 has increased the urgency of acknowledging and addressing the challenges that face so many in our societies. It has made us more conscious of our own mental and spiritual state and that of those around us. For millions in Europe alone, and for tens of millions across the world, COVID-19 has brought profound loss. The most obvious losses are of family and friends, who often died in isolation without the loving companionship of their nearest and dearest. Relatives frequently had no opportunity to say goodbye, and mourning rituals were either absent or pared to a minimum. This has been even more difficult when deaths have occurred abroad, with restrictions making travel impossible.

Read the report: Health at a Glance: Europe 2020 – State of Health in the EU Cycle and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on Adult Mental Health

Read the report: Health at a Glance: Europe 2020. State of Health in the EU Cycle and see the latest OECD data, recommendations and policy advice on Mental Health

Sometimes, too, one death has been followed so swiftly by another that we are left amidst a bewilderment of sorrows that we have had little opportunity to digest or share.

There are many other losses, too, affecting all age groups and, though unequally, every sector of society. For the young there has been the loss of schooling, at least in its familiar form. More deeply, there has been an erosion of confidence in the future, of trust that the world holds opportunities and that a viable future awaits them. The elderly have found themselves isolated at home or in care homes, unable to receive visits from family, to the extent that some who escaped COVID-19 may have succumbed to loneliness, dying, ostensibly, of “old age”.

For many people there has been extreme financial hardship, job loss and the devastating awareness that they may never work again. For everyone there has been loss of ease of movement; for some, mostly women and children, this has meant helpless exposure to coercive control and domestic violence. For all of us there has been the loss of ready companionship with friends and community. Mercifully, most of us have phones or internet access. But Zoom isn’t the same as a hug.

We have all suffered wounds to our confidence in the world and our hope in the future.

Read the report "Risks that matter 2020: The long reach of COVID-19" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of policy responses

Visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub

All this has led to a deeper recognition of our fragility and the need to strengthen our resilience. Across the media and on countless websites there is advice on self-care, including exercise, diet, mindfulness, yoga, nature meditation and how to structure our day. There has been a growing recognition of the essential role of community, especially faith-based congregations, in offering solidarity, companionship and practical, economic, emotional and spiritual support.

So, as doors begin to open, what can we and our societies offer? However cautious the unlocking of our physical environment, the opening of our mental stress, in both post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic stress growth, will take far longer.

Meanwhile, it’s unconscionable to tell people suffering with anxiety and depression that the next appointment is in six months’ time, and that in the meantime they should look for help online. We need a human ear, and skilled and compassionate understanding. This requires serious financial resourcing: even in solely these terms, it is worthwhile because ultimately the costs of ignoring mental health are greater.

No less importantly, we need community and each other. Our societies are tough and competitive; there’s little space for anyone who can’t fight for employment and rewards on their often brutal terms. We are not like the villages of former times, real or imagined, with aunts and cousins close at hand to sustain divergent family. We therefore need to ensure that professional help is available where necessary to enable families and communities to support each other and all their members. We must open wider our places of worship, community centres, libraries, sports, crafts and other associations and make them spaces of welcome, inclusion, listening, sign-posting, respite and restoration.

Challenging and bewildering as it is, we should also see this COVID-19 period as a time of learning. Across the world, there have been remarkable examples of solidarity, dedication, co-operation and creativity. All this should be garnered, reflected upon and researched, so that together we can make our societies stronger, kinder, more resilient, more inclusive and more cohesive.

Find more about the OECD Virtual Event: Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of COVID on mental health that took place on 15 April 2021 and watch the replay below!

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Jonathan Wittenberg

Rabbi, New North London Synagogue

Jonathan Wittenberg was born in Glasgow to a German Jewish refugee family. After reading English at Cambridge and teacher training at Goldsmiths, he studied for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College, London, and in Israel, following family tradition. He was appointed Rabbi of the New North London Masorti Synagogue in 1987 and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK in 2008. He is a President of the Council of Christians and Jews and a member of the Council of Imams and Rabbis. He is a co-founder of Eco-Synagogue and deeply engaged in environmental issues. He is closely involved in supporting refugees. Further interests include pastoral work, hospice care, and literature, especially poetry. He teaches and speaks widely, including on Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day. His publications include The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year (2001); The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey (2008); Walking with the Light (2013); My Dear Ones: One family and The Final Solution (2016) and most recently Things my dog has taught me – about being a better human. He is married to Nicola Solomon; they have three children and a dog. He loves plants, animals, people, and woodland and mountain walks.