Spock was officially confirmed to be part of neurodivergent community in the latest season of Star Trek: Discovery. But what did this revelation about the fan favorite character say about mental health?
In Star Trek: Discovery’s second season, Star Trek’s most enduring character Spock was revealed to have L’tak Terai, a Vulcan version of dsylexia.
The idea that Spock is neurodivergent is far from new.
In fact, there’s even a fantastic film exploring the connection called Please Stand By, where an autistic Trekkie finds a kindred spirit in Spock.
Spock has long shown signs of being neurodivergent. He approached challenges with logic, yet still fought to understand and control his still clearly-existent emotions. He often appeared to have a lack of empathy: he had heightened sensitive to loud noises, was unable to understand certain human societal norms, and appeared socially isolated. Yet, he was also a deep thinker, detail oriented, was clearly intelligent, and had a great sense of fascination and wonder for discovery.
With Star Trek: Discovery showing us a pre-The Original Series Spock, it made perfect sense to make this layer of Spock’s character explicit, to allow the franchise known for showing the diversity of life a chance to finally give literal representation to the neurodivergent community. Just doing one search through the Star Trek fandoms show that many neurodivergent Trekkies were happy to finally see themselves explicitly in their favorite character.
However, the revelation allows the show the ability to not only discuss the neurodivergent community, but, in typical Star Trek fashion, Discovery used Spock as an alien metaphor to dissect how minorities face greater challenges when it comes to mental health issues.
Mental Health stigma is “the negative reaction that the general population has to people with mental illness. Self-stigma is the prejudice which people with mental illness turn against themselves.”
Basically, those who have mental health issues are seen in a negative light. They may face ridicule or even discrimination in numerous areas. Self-stigma is when people internalize these messages, seeing their mental health issues as something to be hated. This also leads many to eschew seeking treatment or help, for fear of having to reveal it to others and face this stigma, or feeling a sense of hopelessness.
When we first meet Spock in Discovery, he clearly sees his L’tak Terai as a hindrance. He thinks he that it makes him less worthy as a Vulcan, something that he must overcome. Spock harbors a lot of self-stigma. And this makes sense, especially because it was so clearly drilled into him as a child as a deficit.
As a half-human child on Vulcan, Spock is a minority on the planet. We learn that the Vulcan’s blame his L’tak Terai on the fact that he has a human mother and human DNA.
Minorities often face the bigoted belief that they are more likely to have mental issues simply due to their status as a minority. This is a byproduct of the Eugenics movement, a largely debunked “set of beliefs and practices that aimed to improve the genetic quality of a human population by excluding (through a variety of morally criticized means) certain genetic groups judged to be inferior, and promoting other genetic groups judged to be superior.”
It’s also worth noting that the danger of Eugenics ideas have been a recurring theme on Star Trek. Characters like Khan, the most explicit, used as discussion about the what it means or doesn’t mean, to be genetically superior to others.
So Spock often had to face an entire society telling him that it was his fault that he suffered from this “deficiency”. We see this in Star Trek: Discovery, but also more directly in Star Trek 2009 with the Vulcan academy scene. While this took place in the Kelvin universe, a similar if not identical version of events is implied to have occurred in Star Trek’s prime time universe on Discovery. It’s no wonder that Spock grew up to have internalized self-hatred of his human half and his supposed mental deficiencies. In the United States, numerous studies have shown that mental health stigma and self-stigma is higher in minority groups.
While Discovery showcases the prejudce Spock faces, it also fights back against these damaging stigmas, stereotypes and discrimination. Over the course of the season, we see the characters around Spock and Spock himself begin to re-contextualize how he views the world. Initially, Spock’s father Sarek believes that Spock’s Vulcan training was what helped “cure” him of L’tak Terai, feeding into the idea that by eliminating the human, or as Vulcan’s see it, undesirable part of himself, Spock somehow becomes more worthy and is able to beat mental health issues. Yet, Spock’s mother Amanda corrects Sarak, revealing that it was her love and support that he couldn’t find anywhere else on Vulcan that helped Spock get a better understanding of how he viewed the world.
Amanda didn’t cure Spock, but worked to try to make him understand that how he existed was wrong or unusual.
This is reienforced throughout the season. Michael Burnham, Spock’s adoptive sister underscores this when she says that Spock’s mixture of logic and emotion is exactly what makes him beautiful.
Despite seeing his confusing mix of logic and emotion as an issue, it’s Spock’s exact way of seeing the world that makes Spock the only person that “The Red Angel” aka Dr. Garbrielle Burnham (Michael’s mother), can reach out to to try to save the universe from Control. Without his specific way of seeing the universe, that very universe may have been doomed from the start.
Discovery’s season ends on a hopeful note, showing us a Spock who has come to find a balance and acceptance in his life of who he is. He no longer wants to run from who he is, but understands that it’s exactly who he causes him to be endlessly fascinating.
Dealing with this type of self-stigma is a lifelong process. And the societal pressures don’t go away when one reaches adulthood. We see in The Original Series and feature films that Spock still struggles with finding who he is, as well as facing discrimination from Vulcan society.