This weekend I was at a work conference about autism for my new job (which is as a side note the best job ever), and I was once again struck by something that other people have noticed before: curb cut effect. The basic concept is that many things that disability advocates push for actually help more people than just those who are disabled. People in wheelchairs pushed for those areas on curbs that have a little ramp instead of the sharp curb so that they could make it from street to sidewalk easily. It ended up helping people from parents pushing strollers to the elderly, even though no one imagined that it would help anyone but people in wheelchairs.
I have an anxiety disorder, which is a big part of why I’m a fidgeter and a finger picker. When I don’t have something to fidget with I often end up ripping at the skin around my nails until I bleed, sometimes without realizing it. As part of the merchandise at the conference there were tons of little fidget toys, things like tangles, silly putty, and other small things you can play with to keep your hands busy. They’re incredibly popular and helpful for people with autism who need sensory input or have trouble focusing. And although I am nowhere near the autism spectrum (I’m more on the overly emotional end of things) I jumped at them and got a couple that didn’t leave my hands the whole weekend. They helped with my anxiety and left my fingers fully intact after a long weekend of difficult socializing.
Over the weekend I spent a lot of time around people who had learned to communicate in a very straightforward manner, and found that I could better understand social cues. There were also a lot of precautions to keep things relatively quiet and calm on the sensory spectrum so that those who were sensitive could stay around and be comfortable. And let me tell you it was absolutely fantastic.
The curb cut effect doesn’t just apply to physical disabilities. It applies to mental illness and mental disabilities as well. This is something that is widely ignored, but could be incredibly helpful for mental health advocates to keep in the forefront of their mind as a way of reducing stigma. One great example is therapy. Most people assume that making therapy widely available, covered by insurance, and easy to access is good for people with depression or mental illness. It turns out it’s probably actually great for just about everyone, since almost every human being needs some support for their mental health at some time in their life, and no person comes fully equipped with emotional skills. These are things we all need to learn, and therapy can help with that.
The more we keep in mind that therapy is something that helps everyone, but that some people might get more out of it than others, the more we can lessen stigma. It changes therapy from something exclusively for “crazy” people and into something that all healthy people do. (Disclaimer: not everyone has to go to therapy and therapy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be helpful for people in all kinds of situations.)
Even things that seem far more specialized, like social skills training or fidgets or even just asking the people you’re with about their sensory preferences, can help tons of people who might have a little anxiety or body issues or social anxiety. But for some reason those things are only available if there’s a complete breakdown.
I think the curb cut effect can teach us a lot about preventing problems, and if we apply it to mental health it might go a long way towards giving people the tools to take care of their own mental health before something snowballs into a bad place. Mental health tools should be available to everyone.