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Promoting neurodiversity to address the global mental health crisis

Dr Josephine Go Jefferies delves into the transformative potential of neurodiversity in mental health and marketing strategies.

1 September 2023

Our goal in a world grappling with a mental health crisis, is to destigmatise and normalise the conversation around mental differences. Embracing the concept of neurodiversity, our research looks at how our newly developed segmentation tool can help organisations to revolutionise their marketing and communications strategies by prioritising their teams’ and customers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health and neurodiversity

In 2013, the World Health Organization launched a global mental health action plan in response to a mental health crisis which has worsened since the pandemic. The plan recommends ‘whole-of-society’ approaches to prevent mental illness. Neurodiversity is not a mental illness, but stigmatisation of mental differences can lead to mental illness. Awareness of neurodiversity is growing, but there is little research into how neurodiverse people can participate in the mental health conversation.

Newcastle University Business School has developed a segmentation tool based on a study of people affected by neurodiversity in some way. The aim is to assist in marketing and communications strategies around the mental health conversation. The conclusions could:

  • make poor mental health more visible in society and the workplace
  • help companies re-evaluate how they market products and services to neurodivergent people
  • support employers to improve the wellbeing of neurodivergent staff

Josephine Go Jefferies, project lead, says:

“It would be great if we could think about mental illness as affecting everyone either directly or indirectly, and that means finding solutions to prevent them are universally relevant.”

One in four people experience mental illness in their lifetime. This may be due to grief, trauma, or illness associated with different life stages like ageing, pregnancy or menopause.

It is estimated that 70% of people who need help for mental illnesses are untreated, potentially due to fear of stigma from being labelled as mentally ill.

The concept of neurodiversity may help to normalise mental differences and reduce reluctance to seek help early.

Through growing awareness of neurodiversity, we could be moving towards a more caring and supportive society.

“Neurodiversity recognises the differences in individual brain function affecting behaviour. It includes neurological conditions such as autism, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are estimated to affect 20% of the UK adult population.”

Dr Go Jefferies continues: “Neurodiverse individuals bring many strengths to the workplace. What if businesses could be part of the mental health solution by destigmatising mental differences and supporting people to flourish even when they are experiencing difficulties?

“We wanted to explore how businesses strategically target, recruit and support neurodiverse workforces and customers, and how this could improve competitive advantage.

“We were also keen to highlight how a better understanding of neurodiversity and its benefits could help to reduce stigma affecting people with a range of neurological conditions.”

Online conversations

Dr Go Jefferies and her colleague and co-author of the study, Dr Wasim Ahmed, analysed Twitter data over three months, comprising 300+ online conversations made up of 71,553 tweets with the hashtag #neurodiversity.

She explains: “The conversations were varied. Some highlighted role models, traits and symptoms, others were negative and highlighted stigmas. Only a few global business leaders tweeted positively about how neurodiverse people could be an asset to companies. Some companies, particularly those in the creative industry, tweeted that there were positive reasons for employing neurodiverse people because they can bring fresh ideas and increase corporate productivity.”

Five perspectives on neurodiversity

From the research, the authors identified five perspectives on neurodiversity according to how threatened people felt by the term neurodiversity, ie whether they felt talking about neurodiversity would improve the mental health conversation or would make their current situation worse. The five segments are:

  1. Scouted talents – who emerge when a business views neurodiversity positively. These people are targeted by neurodiverse-aware businesses to achieve strategic objectives including competitiveness, diversity and inclusion.
  2. Masked crusaders – identify as neurodiverse but are hidden in the workforce and market because they fear disclosure risks being misunderstood. They believe everyone’s brain works differently and use activism to change society.
  3. Activism inclineds – might be neurodiverse, or are allies – parents, partners or children of those who are. They are aware of problems experienced by neurodiverse people and are sympathetic to the aims of a neurodiversity movement calling for social change, but are uncertain how to achieve it.
  4. Castaways – interested in conditions covered by neurodiversity but are otherwise disengaged with the topic.
  5. Healthists – feel threatened by the neurodiversity label because it doesn’t include people with more severe conditions and diverts attention and resources away from those most in need of help.

The research presented some useful findings for businesses, neurodiversity activists, neurodivergent people and the medical profession.

Dr Go Jefferies explains: “Businesses that raise awareness of neurodiversity can improve their teams’ and customers’ mental health and wellbeing.

“Businesses could use our classifications to explore how they are addressing people affected by neurodiversity and their use of appropriate language and messaging. This could lead to further investigation of how they treat neurodivergent workers and how they are marketing their products and services. After all, one in five people display neurodiverse traits: a significant proportion of a company’s potential customer base.

“Our study shows that using Twitter provides insights into experiences of potentially nonverbal, misunderstood consumers to help identify new markets for specialist products and services.”

Utilising the findings

The research also highlighted how important it is for businesses to consider neurodiversity when hiring.

Dr Go Jefferies said: “Businesses should think about how they create job adverts, how they treat neurodiverse people in interviews and how they get the best out of them once recruited. Employers also need to re-evaluate work practices in light of neurodiversity.

“Employers could rethink workspaces and flexible working as they could impact the mental health of neurodiverse workers who may prefer flexible, hybrid working, or adapting the structure of the office environment.”

The study could also help healthcare professionals to re-evaluate how they communicate.

Dr Go Jefferies suggested: “Health services are resource constrained and people are feeling unsupported. Health experts have highlighted increased demand for ADHD services, but the current provision is inadequate. There are also insufficient experienced clinicians to give the right care to those in need. It could be costly for individuals, workplaces and the economy if people struggle to be accurately diagnosed and treated.

Increasingly, ADHD and autism are being viewed as a gift rather than a disorder, but much more work needs to be done. Can we collectively prevent the occurrence of serious mental illness by accepting neurodiversity as a social norm?

Businesses that raise awareness of neurodiversity can improve their teams’ and customers’ mental health and wellbeing. Businesses could use our classifications to explore how they are addressing people affected by neurodiversity and their use of appropriate language and messaging.


by Dr Josephine Go Jefferies - Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Newcastle University Business School


Article originally published in Reach magazine, September 2023