Openness to change and adventure keeps me young at heart. I started to notice in my 40’s that some people seemed to have settled already into a routine life and fixed views. They stopped growing and allowing themselves to be surprised by life or to have their opinions changed. I won’t let that happen to me and intend to still be open to change and adventure in my 90’s. My husband and I moved our family to New Delhi for four years — that was quite an adventure! It wasn’t always pleasant, but the richness of experience could not be beat. Our children are better people as a result, and so are we.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Devon MacEachron, a psychologist in private practice in New York City who specializes in a unique niche — the needs of twice-exceptional individuals. Twice exceptionality is the co-occurrence of high intelligence and a disability or weakness in an area such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or any other mental health challenge. Dr. Devon focuses on identifying strengths and interests and developing talents as a top priority, supplemented by support in areas of challenge important for the individual to pursue their goals. The emphasis is on the positive and how to work with ones abilities, rather than focusing solely on trying to fix what’s wrong — ones disabilities.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have an MBA and worked in business and government in my 20’s and 30’s. Then my children came along and everything changed. Our son and daughter are very bright, but struggled due to a host of challenges including dyslexia and ADHD. In the process of trying to get them the help they needed I realized that very few professionals in mental health and education had any idea what to do to help these atypical learners. As I couldn’t rely on the experts, I had to try to become one myself. So I read everything I could and before I knew it I was back in school for a PhD. Misdiagnosis is rampant in this area, so I decided to focus on diagnostic assessment. I am very passionate about recognizing the strengths such individuals have, as this is often overlooked yet can pave the pathway to their success and happiness.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
This makes no sense at all! Why should the health of one’s body be o.k. to talk about but the health of one’s brain and feelings not be? I believe stigma may arise in part from a primitive fear response where what is perceived as atypical is seen as a threat. So — a solution is to explain and familiarize everyone with these differences. To bring them out into the open. To normalize atypicality. It helps a lot when famous people come “out of the closet” and become role models. I feel another contributing factor to stigma can be the misguided belief that mental health is self-inflicted. That it’s somehow the person’s fault and that they should just “buck up” and try harder to “get better.” When we’re talking about neurodiverse individuals who have autism or ADHD or dyslexia, their brains are literally wired differently from “neurotypical” brains. There’s nothing self-inflicted about that.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
Well because I can only help 40 or 50 families a year in private practice, I got active on social media to spread the word. I blog and tweet about twice exceptional learners, learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger’s, and the importance of emphasizing strengths and interests. This took a pivot last summer when my daughter asked me to do an opinion piece on a mental health topic for NowThis News, where she works as a producer. I decided to focus on neurodiversity — as a concept and as a growing social movement. Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences among people should be recognized and respected just the same as any other form of human variation. However, under the medical model of mental health neurological differences like autism or ADHD are usually seen solely as “dysfunctional,” “disorders,” and “disabilities.” In the rush to provide treatments focused on “curing” these conditions there is too little attention given to enabling people with neurologically “different” minds to be accepted for themselves, to articulate what they want, and to helping them discover and grow their strengths. The idea resonated and the video went viral with over 29 million views. It’s been shared across many different kinds of disability groups and translated into several languages. Hundreds of people have written to me to ask how they can help further the movement. I’ve been talking with corporate diversity departments, university professors writing manuals for how to teach diverse students, and spent a delightful afternoon with a neurodiverse theatre director from Australia on a grant to explore how theatre can be more accepting of neurodiversity in the audience and in theatre production.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
There are many individual stories of people I have had the privilege of working with or gotten to know. People who were misunderstood as children, and felt they were dumb or “broken.” But when they finally discovered or were shown their strengths, blossomed into their best selves.
The neurodiversity movement initiative grew naturally out of my work with diverse children. I feel so strongly that we need to open people’s minds to the beautiful diversity of our human brains. And also open the minds of the very people whose minds are different to self-acceptance and pride.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
I’ll speak to what I know best here, which is twice exceptionality and neurodiversity. Individuals who are neurodiverse and in a comfortable place can help by “coming out” and speaking out. Neurodiverse individuals who are more vulnerable should seek to build a positive support network and consider embracing the aspects of their differences that can work for them, while addressing those that don’t. I’m not a Pollyanna — I appreciate that there’s a lot of pain and suffering that comes with neurological differences and disorders. We can’t ignore that and it needs to be addressed. Society needs to stop stigmatizing and truly accept people who are different, valuing them for contributing their unique perspectives. To not fear the different. We also need, as a society, to deliberately create schools, programs, and career opportunities in which neurologically diverse individuals can thrive. I’d ask the government to fund these schools and programs. We’re wasting such valuable resources by not doing so. I believe that the kind of “out of the box” and divergent thinking typical of neurodiverse individuals may hold the key to solving societies biggest problems. We desperately need people who see things differently to change the world.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. Gandhi said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” That would be my number one personal mental health booster. I wasn’t always focused on giving back. In my 20’s I got an MBA and worked as an investment banker, where it was all about making money. I enjoyed the work, but felt like something was missing. I tried to fill the emptiness by buying things (classic investment banker behavior). I found that provided very short term boosts of mood, but no real life satisfaction.
2. A second strategy that’s important to me is doing work I find interesting and intellectually challenging. I get bored easily and was never happy doing a routine task over and over again. I learned that by working at McDonalds as a teen. I find the brain and thinking to be immensely interesting and complex. And working with differently wired and neurodiverse people challenges me to figure out the complexities of some really fascinating and unique people. Also, I just I love quirky people! Normal is boring.
3. I’ve cultivated a sense of optimism and not dwelling on life’s negatives over the years. This has been a conscious effort. I don’t ignore the bad things that something can be done about, but I try to not let myself ruminate on the bad things I can’t fix. Like the things I should have said or done, but didn’t. Lousy weather. Something someone said that hurt my feelings. My mantra is to let it go. Work on what I can fix, not what I can’t. Meditation has helped with this.
4. Having close relationships with others is of critical importance. We humans are social beings. My family and close friends make me feel I’m not on this life path all alone. I was shy as a child, and would describe myself as an introvert today. But I still need people — maybe not a whole lot of people at a crowded party, but a few good friends to talk to. And hugs.
5. Openness to change and adventure keeps me young at heart. I started to notice in my 40’s that some people seemed to have settled already into a routine life and fixed views. They stopped growing and allowing themselves to be surprised by life or to have their opinions changed. I won’t let that happen to me and intend to still be open to change and adventure in my 90’s. My husband and I moved our family to New Delhi for four years — that was quite an adventure! It wasn’t always pleasant, but the richness of experience could not be beat. Our children are better people as a result, and so are we.
6. Of course I need to add eating right and exercising in here as critical to mental wellness. Our body and brain are integrally connected.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The podcasts I love are Making Sense with Sam Harris because it challenges and informs me, and Tilt Parenting with Debbie Reber and Mind Matters with Emily Kircher-Morris, because they’re about parenting differently wired children and how to enrich the lives of gifted and twice-exceptional children and adults.
Books that inspire me include: Neurodiversity by Thomas Armstrong; Neurotribes by Steve Silberman; The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock and Fernette Eide, Mindset by Carol Dweck, Drive by Daniel Pink, The Way I see It by Temple Grandin, and Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success & Failure by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. What these books share is a positive psychology focus on the strengths side of the equation and the importance of developing a growth mindset focused on developing one’s intrinsic interests and talents.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!