Getting help for mental illness – stigmas and fears; it’s about time that I write an article about this. I genuinely don’t know why I haven’t yet because it’s so important and my personal experience is likely to be very pertinent for you.
Stigmas and fears are often major reasons for people to decide against getting treatment for mental illness even when they could hugely benefit from it. There’s no candy coating it; this stigma, while thankfully reducing, is still ever present. It’s unfair, prejudicial, isolating, demeaning and potentially dehumanizing. If you think I’m exaggerating I assure you that I’m not. Have you ever heard; “he’s schizophrenic, better be careful because he’s probably violent.”? or “she’s just crazy don’t listen to her.”? Yeah. And it’s not just that! Ignorance, lack of understanding and insensitivity all come into play. Mental illness has, for many, become a new and somewhat comical adjective to describe others and even a person speaking about themselves. I’ve noticed this mainly with people around my age; a little younger and a little older, but I don’t know about other age groups. It can’t be good either…
Examples: “He’s so bipolar”, “you look anorexic” (when the person is just naturally slim), or “Oh my God my OCD is so bad”, “My boyfriend / girlfriend / other left me, I’m so depressed” or “I have so much homework I’m gonna kill myself”.
DON’T even get me started on the t-shirts. Just don’t. Now have you ever heard someone say “she’s so diabetic” or, “he’s so shaky, he must totally have Parkinson’s”? Me neither. And jokes about cancer? That’s a HUGE cultural taboo! No one would dare…(except pond scum I suppose). But suicide? Oh that’s fine…Well in case people didn’t know, cancer and suicide are both…what’s the word? Oh yeah I remember … FATAL!
If you sense hints of resentment and cynicism, you’re not wrong. I’m working myself up just by writing this. However I do want to take a moment to acknowledge the fact that many people don’t actually mean harm with their comments. We tend to fear what we don’t understand and we’ve seen unhelpful depictions in various forms of media. Hearsay is also a frequent propagator of misinformation about anything, and this is just another example. In other words what we need is better education and more accurate portrayals of mental illness so as to break the barrier of stigma and bring important facts to light.
A Caution Against Isolation
The purpose of my rant is actually how it pertains to us. Specifically, you. Now’s not the time to change the world while you’re going through the deepest points of a mental illness. What matters right now is that we don’t buy into false perceptions and end up staying in the shadows while suffering. Trust me, I was so afraid of people finding out…so afraid of people looking at me differently. I was both afraid of being put down / criticized and I was afraid of being looked at like a delicate and breakable object. I didn’t tell my parents for a long time, and even when they knew what was happening I hid many many things. At the end of high school when stuff really hit the fan, I isolated myself from the friend group that I had finally managed to be happy in. It was the first time that I was with good friends that could laugh together, do projects with and not feel subtly and continuously put down in such a way as to eat away at my self-esteem. I isolated myself and the only non-family person who knew what was happening was Aaron. We were together like glue and without him there, I was a ghost. We disappeared to empty areas where he could calm me down and I could cry without being seen. I can only imagine if I had isolated myself from him, but that actually did happen a bit during the summer right before College. I isolated myself from my parents and Aaron and had the most miserable and lonely time. Then in College he walked me to my classes and was right there when I was done. Making new friends was impossible and keeping in touch with old friends, including my best friend who was at another College, lessened to non-existence. Why am I sharing this? Because now I know that my friends would not have judged me. (My best friends, anyway.) And I should have explained the situation to my parents much better. In other words in this case I was the one who put up the barriers and I caution you against that. Let people in, because the more you retreat into the shadows the worse it becomes. There are people you can talk to, so wait for them to be the ones to prove how they take what you explain, before pushing them away.
Long story short, it’s better to give people the benefit of the doubt unless you already know the person has a distorted view on mental illness. Above all, don’t let the lack of understanding or negative comments you may encounter make you even more separated from the world. I know how easy it is to let that happen while in the throes of mental illness, but sometimes doing the direct opposite of what you want to do goes a long way.
Change YOUR Perceptions
Let’s admit it. There are those who believe that having a mental illness means that the person is weak. Some believe that it’s an excuse for poor performance at work, school, etc. Many believe that mental illness will never touch them. Some might go so far as to say that depression (for example), is not in their vocabulary. Suicide is also often severely misunderstood; viewed as selfish, sinful, unthinkable…(I’m not at all saying that suicide is a viable option that should be ‘accepted’, for lack of a better term, but I’m saying that it should be understood. How do we help people and prevent it if we don’t talk about it properly? I could go on, but it’s not necessary because my point is to shield yourself from those beliefs. Accept that they are out there but never believe them to apply to yourself! Having a mental illness isn’t weak; it’s a complex process of genetics, heredity, biological differences and chemical imbalances. It’s a combination of those along with behavioural, sociocultural, psychodynamic and humanistic factors. It’s NOT an excuse for poor performance! That would be like saying someone with a cast and a broken leg is using that as an excuse to not play a sport for goodness sake! As for mental illness not touching them? “In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.” “By age 40, about 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness.” Click to read more stats if you’d like, and click here to read 10 debunked myths regarding mental illness. I think it’s crucial for everyone to understand so I highly recommend a look. Long story short, while bull…manure abounds, stay true to what you know is the truth. And if you don’t know…ask! (Look it up on a reliable source, of course.) One more thing I have to add is that mental illness is non discriminating. It touches all age groups, tax brackets, etc.
Debunking Your Roadblocks of Stigmas and Fears with Getting Help for Mental Illness
Remind yourself of the following when you don’t think you deserve help. (Again, this was me for years.)
- You are not weak, and everybody needs and deserves help in one way or another.
- Asking help from family or friends isn’t selfish, and someday the roles will be reversed and you’ll be the one helping someone else.
- Getting help can change your life! Yes, some illnesses are long-term, but with new skills, habits, proper management and a deep understanding of yourself, living a happy and fulfilling life is not a pipe dream! Now I’m not going to say that therapy and medications are a total cure, but they are a key platform. With that you can build and build until your house is structurally sound again. With proper desire and effort and the implementation of changes, you can definitely turn a corner! Look at me for example…I’m not where I was 3-4 months ago. I’m not where I was years ago. I may struggle with my bipolar and other things the rest of my life, but I have faith that it will become so manageable later that I may barely notice.
- You are NOT beyond help! It’s never too late, but the earlier the better! Don’t wait for things to get even worse…trust me. My eating disorder could have been addressed much earlier which would have eliminated the exponential growth of my perceptions and ridged beliefs / rules!
- Ok here’s a big one. I’m constantly affected by it and it kept me from seeking help and made me feel guilty for receiving help: The notion of “I’m not bad / struggling enough to deserve help. Others need help more than I do and I would be a waste of time.” NO NO NO! This is FALSE! If you’re in pain, you’re not functioning the way you used to, a cloud has taken over your mind and you’re scared, you deserve help! If you hate yourself and/or your body, distrust your mind, lose control, hurt yourself, think about suicide…you deserve help! If your emotions are on a terrible rollercoaster and happiness and hope have left your life…YOU DESERVE HELP! Suffering / bad circumstances also affect people to different degrees and I have the strong belief that pain should never ever be compared. This links in to not letting certain comments get to you. Comments like; “You think you have it so hard? Look at people in _______.” and “Starving people would be desperate to have this food and you’re just starving yourself on purpose.” “Grow up and deal with it, everyone else has to and you’re not special.” My very simple advice to this, even though it cuts like a knife, is to IGNORE IT. Build up your inner defence so as to let these harmful comments bounce off of you. If you have anger, resentment or frustration, (like I do at this point) point out that you’d like to see them walk in your shoes before they say such demeaning and minimizing comments. (I’m not endorsing yelling of course, but I am at a point where I stand up for myself a little more and by ‘fighting’ back a bit it reminds me not take those remarks to heart.
What to Expect
Getting help for a mental illness is never easy. We already discussed how stigma is a large barrier, but now I’d like to cover some fears and concerns about treatment so that you know what to expect. I’ve been in and out of the system for so long that I have a fair bit of experience, but remember that I’m in Quebec, Canada and things can vary. (Especially if you’re a neighbour from the South.)
If this is your first time seeking help, it can be very daunting. If it’s too much to handle ask someone you trust to help you find a practitioner who can really help. You can also look online to find psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists. If you’re stuck, going to a CLSC or an equivalent is an excellent start. They will direct you to the proper services. You can also speak to your family doctor. They can find resources for you and can even prescribe psychiatric medication. Worse comes to worst, going to the nearest hospital and speaking to the psychiatrist on shift can get you started.
Your First Therapy Session:
It’s going to be scary; nerve wracking even. The key is to remind yourself that you’re on the road to gaining control of your life back! You are seeking out help, and are ready to put effort in. This is a huge thing to pat yourself on the back for. You may be in a waiting room, waiting for the practitioner to walk in and guide you to their office. Take deep breaths and try to focus on your goal. When you sit down, (not usually on a leather couch by the way) try to be comfortable. Most professionals will begin by asking; “how are you, what’s been going on?” This is a vague question and quite hard to answer for a newbie to therapy. Opening up to a stranger about emotions you may not even have words for is intimidating to say the least. My advice? Start talking. It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you begin.
You can expect some of the following questions, but you can also answer some while you explain your situation. (This list is not exhaustive and they all require further discussion.)
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- How long have you been feeling like this?
- Do you feel empty, sad, hopeless, tired…?
- Do you feel the above but also feel incredibly euphoric sometimes? (Embarking on lots of projects, needing less sleep, having fast thoughts…)
- Do you drink alcohol or use any other substances?
- If you do, how much and how often? Is anybody concerned about your use of these substances?
- Are you frequently very anxious about everything, or specific situations, being around people…?
- Are you close with your family, and have good friends? Have you talked to anyone about how you feel?
- Have you been thinking about death or suicide?
- Have you self-harmed or attempted suicide in the past?
- Do you have a family history of mental illness?
- Have you gained or lost a significant amount of weight recently?
- How is your appetite?
- Are you preoccupied with your weight? Do you weigh yourself frequently, restrict calories, eliminate food groups / avoid specific food?
- Do you make yourself throw up after eating? Is it after a binge of eating and not being able to stop?
- Do you eat to feel better? Use it to feel less depressed, less empty…?
- Have people around you noticed that you’re acting differently? Do they think you have a problem? Did they encourage you to get help?
- How was your childhood? Were you a happy kid? How was your relationship with your parents? Were you bullied?
- Are your parents together or divorced? Do they argue and fight a lot?
- Are you or someone in your home experiencing physical abuse?
- Was there a trauma in your childhood?
- Have you / are you experiencing sexual assault or another form of abuse either physical or verbal?
- Has anything traumatic happened to you that you still dwell on, have flashbacks, try not to think about?
- Do certain things trigger you?
This would be a super long list and these questions aren’t all going to be addressed in one session! Just be honest, admit it when you don’t know or don’t remember and speak up when you’re too uncomfortable to talk about something at this particular time. (There will always be tissues…just in case.)
- If you have a hard time remembering difficulties, thoughts, events, triggers, emotions, etc., and / or have trouble explaining yourself in sessions, feel free to write things down. No one will be against this, in fact most will appreciate the effort you’re putting in and will respect what works best for you. (If they’re against it or something, this is a warning flag.)
- Prepare to feel threatened in therapy. Part of therapy is learning how to change your thoughts and perceptions, and this means that your therapist will be challenging certain distorted views. If you feel angry or defensive, it’s perfectly normal and you can liken it to growing pains. Sort of.
- The option of group therapy may be offered to you. I was terrified because I do have social anxiety, but I’ve had helpful group experiences nonetheless that opened my mind, helped me understand and get to meet really amazing people who I could relate to.
- If you’re not very comfortable with the approach, attitude or anything else about the person you’re working with, give them a bit of time. A few sessions is enough to know if you have a good ‘fit’ or not. If you find this to be the case, please don’t stay with that therapist for months like I did because you’re too anxious / afraid to stop your sessions. We are the clients after all, and we have every right to seek a better fit…this is our health! Just remember, there are many other practitioners so please don’t give up on getting help due to one bad experience. I’ve had enough bad therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses and even my family doctor, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with 2 excellent psychologists who are compassionate, caring, generous, supportive and encouraging, all while challenging me and guiding me towards discovering my own answers. I’ve encountered many people who went the extra-mile, regardless of their field in psychology. When you meet the bad, just remember that once you find the good one or good team, you’ll see and feel the difference. It’s well worth searching and waiting for! It can feel like talking to a friend that won’t have the emotional reactions that family and friends do. This is a HUGE plus.
- Don’t hide things from your therapist; it only hinders your progress. I was too ashamed to speak about certain things for literally years until I bit the bullet and realized that it was a relief to have finally said it aloud.
- Confidentiality. When you speak with a therapist in your first session they’re likely to explain this but I’ll give you a preview. (This applies to Canada.) If you’re an adult, everything you say is absolutely confidential. They can’t talk to your family, S.O. or even another practitioner unless you give the go ahead, which you can withdraw at any time by the way. The only time they will break confidentiality is when ‘duty to warn’ comes in. If you say that you are planning suicide or planning to hurt another person, they can and will disclose it. They’re not going to be shouting from the rooftops, but they will inform the necessary people. They will not disclose anything however to anyone who doesn’t absolutely need to know. Just remember that all of this is for your own safety and the safety of others. If you are having thoughts of suicide or are planning suicide, don’t hide it and go home. Seriously…say it. You probably won’t want to, but please, let them help you! No one wants to see harm come to you.
That’s all for today, but next time I’ll cover hospitalization for mental illness and what happens after a suicide attempt. I hope this article on getting help for mental illness – stigmas and fears can help and encourage you to seek out the support you need and deserve! I’m with you, and I’ll check back in very soon!
If you could use a reminder to not give up hope, you may find this article on Refusing Hopelessness helpful and encouraging!
Part 2 is now out and ready to read here.