In honour of Mental Health Awareness Month, which started in America as long ago as 1949, I wanted to write something pertinent to this year’s theme: “Life with a mental illness”. Although we tend to think of neurology, psychiatry and psychology as fields that are still in their infancy, I find it staggering that there is such wide-spread stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health. I remember all too clearly someone very close to me saying to a friend suffering from drug-induced psychosis with paranoid delusions: “Come on, you’re an intelligent guy, surely you can logic your way out of this”. The fact that people I respect and love are capable of thinking in this way deeply concerns me.
Living with a mental illness is not something that people choose. There is no magic wand that can fix it. Telling people to ‘snap out of it’ often does nothing but diminish their self-esteem further, as they will berate themselves for not being able to do this. What is more, insecurities, low self-worth and negative thought patterns can become deeply ingrained, even where there is no discernible reason for why a person is suffering. They might be financially secure, popular, and in good health, but this does not make it ok to tell them that their pain isn’t real. And please, don’t tell them starving children in Africa or war victims are worse off. This might be true, but would you say this if they had broken their leg? What these people need is your support and acceptance. They need to know they are loved and that the pain they feel is not their fault. In fact they need it more than someone with a broken leg, because not only does the mind take longer to heal, it is also far more intimately connected with our sense of self.
Overcoming mental illnesses is often a long process which requires a multi-faceted approach. Self-esteem and mental resilience can be improved through therapy, medication, or simply by gradually coming to terms with and accepting who we are, but it doesn’t happen over night. Patience is essential, especially during any set-backs, because, as with physical ailments, healing is not always linear.
From my own experiences of anxiety and depression, I would say the greatest challenge is finding the strength and self-awareness to break out of negative thought cycles. I have spent a long time investigating coping strategies for this, and I would like to share one of them with you:
It’s not happening now
Rumination is a common symptom of depression and anxiety. Often I have found myself obsessing over something that has happened in the past for hours on end. I would get increasingly angry and hurt by reliving every detail of what happened and imagining that in the future this pattern would continue ad infinitum. I could recall every word and emotion so vividly that it was almost as though it was happening now, in the present. Now when this happens I try to use the coping strategy it’s not happening now to remind myself that it is old pain. Nothing bad is happening to me now. It has already happened and I have already survived it.
This does not mean I can “logic” away how I feel, or prevent the feelings from returning. It is simply a way of giving myself love, acceptance and patience in that moment. It is a coping strategy. And if sometimes it doesn’t work, that is ok too. Mental well-being is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.