5 Ways to Cope with a Diagnosis of Mental Illness

Hearing a diagnosis of mental illness can be heartbreaking for many. Some people feel relief at finally having a name to put to their issues, where others may become angry or afraid because they have a disorder to cope with.

However, a diagnosis is important because it means that you can move on to treatment. Doctors can use their experience with similar diagnoses to construct a personalized plan to address disorders, and advise you about future health risks. Most importantly, insurance companies will have a reason to apply aid now that they have a name for the condition.

cope
Credit to flickr.com user ccarlstead. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

But what do you do with a diagnosis once you have one?

1. Learn

First, learn about your diagnosis. Ask your doctor to recommend books or websites, like nami.org, the official site of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Once you learn the basics, like what the symptoms of your illness are, you can transition to learning about treatments and what you can do to help your recovery.

2. Find Doctors

Next, create a treatment team. Ideally, you’d have a therapist and a psychiatrist–or nurse practitioner–who can prescribe medication for you. Presumably you already have one, if you have a diagnosis. But make sure your team is rounded out. There are low-cost options for mental health services out there. Try looking into support groups offered by local NAMI chapters or ant your local library. Ask your doctors if they offer sliding scale fees based on income. If you’re near a university, see if they have a graduate program for psychology, where a therapist-in-training can take you on as a client. Here’s a list of 406 free or low-cost clinics in Washington state, 138 of which offer mental health services.

3. Journal

Writing down your troubles is a proven way to start addressing them. If you have concerns about your diagnosis, write them down so you can bring them up with your doctors later. Scribble down what you plan to do as a result of this diagnosis, whether it be sharing your condition with loved ones or keeping it close to your chest. Figure out whether you need to adjust your treatment team, regarding whether or not you’re relating to the people responsible for your care.

4. Find a Team You

Team You, a term taken from the delightful blog Captain Awkward, is a term used to describe the supportive, unbiased people in your life like counselors, psychiatrists, parents, reliable sitters, religious figures, and friends who may or may not have kids of their own. This assistance is invaluable to a person dealing with a diagnosis of mental illness. Unfortunately, collecting a solid Team You takes time. If you’re a parent, then hopefully you have parent friends—ideally ones who you are comfortable explaining your struggle to. Attend groups from Meetup.com or local libraries. Try out classes, and take notes on your classmates as well as the subject material. Toddler groups are excellent places to search for potential allies, too.

5. Hold Yourself Accountable

Once you have a treatment team and a Team You in place, don’t flake out on them. Attend your doctor’s appointments and take your meds. Keep updating your journal regularly with shifts in your moods, so you can find out if the treatment plan you’ve been given is working. Keep up with your friends and allies.

A diagnosis of mental illness isn’t a life sentence. Many people can and do recover completely from their disorders, and more severe mental conditions can be managed. Help is out there. You are worth exploring every avenue of care.

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8 Myths About Mental Illness

Mental illness is widely misunderstood by the general public. People who suffer from mental disorders can find that many myths surround their condition. These misconceptions contribute to stigma, making it more difficult to seek treatment and manage disorders. We’d like to dispel some of these fictions.

1. People Can Use Willpower to Recover

While there is no definite cure-all for mental illness, it definitely can’t be treated by willpower alone. People can’t just “snap out of it.” If only managing a condition were that easy! Conversely, treatment such as medication, psychotherapy, and Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) actually works. Scientists are frequently discovering new advances in treatment, and with them, sufferers of mental illness can manage their disorders and lead healthy, productive lives.

2. Mentally Ill People Can’t Work

myth.jpg
Credit to flickr.com user Cat Branchman. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Nope, this is bogus as well. People with mental disorders can and do contribute to the workplace and home. Most of the time, the mentally ill are excellent at “covering” for their illnesses, which basically means that they can successfully pretend that all is well. They can be so good at covering, friends and family don’t even recognize that the disordered are mentally ill.

3. It’s Just Bad Parenting

No, no, no. The causes of mental illness are varied, including genetics, physiological changes, and environmental stressors. Neglect and unusual stress in the home tend to exacerbate underlying conditions which have biological causes. It’s not the parent’s fault that a child develops mental illnesses. Which leads us into our next point…

4. Children Can’t Be Mentally Ill

Children make up a great percentage of the mentally ill. More than half of all mental illnesses show up before a child turns fourteen, and three-quarters of them appear before the age of twenty-four. Even very young children can demonstrate symptoms of mental disorders.

5. Mentally Ill People Are Violent

Dead wrong. Suffers of mental illness make up a meager 3-5% of the incidences of violent acts in society. Hollywood has a terrible habit of stereotyping the mentally ill as violent, from Norman Bates in Psycho to Jim Carrey’s character in Me, Myself, and Irene. In fact, disordered people are ten times more likely to experience violence than the general population.

6. Mental Illnesses are Uncommon

This is absolutely not the case. One in five adult Americans endure mental illnesses each year. Roughly six percent of the population suffers from a debilitating disorder. You’re not alone if you have a mental health problem.

7. Most Mentally Ill People are White

Actually, most mentally ill people are minorities. African Americans are the most at-risk group, vulnerable to mental disorders such as depression due to increased stress from economic disadvantages.

8. People Can Recover With Drugs Alone

Medications and ECT are only part of the equation. The rest is talk therapy, which most people prefer to use rather than drugs, and peer support groups. These latter strategies try to lessen the effect of environmental stressors, which can trigger or exacerbate underlying conditions.

These myths are damaging to the mentally ill. By educating yourself about mental disorders, and spreading the truth about them, you can help combat dangerous misconceptions which stigmatize sufferers of mental health issues.

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Nature vs. Nurture: The Causes of Bipolar Disorder

What causes bipolar disorder? Scientists aren’t actually sure, but are taking into consideration several risk factors, such as genes, brain structure, and environmental causes.

Genes

doctor
Credit to flickr.com user CIFOR. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Genetic studies of twins have shown promising results with regards to bipolar disorder. According to a a study by Berit Kerner, “The heritability of bipolar disorder based on concordance rates for bipolar disorder in twin studies has been estimated to be between 60% and 80%.” However, if one identical twin develops Bipolar I, the rate of the other twin developing it is roughly 40%, compared to fraternal twins at 5%. Parents have a 10 to 15% chance to pass bipolar disorder to their children if one parent has the disorder, compared to 30 to 40% if both do. This means genetics play a crucial role in the transmission of bipolar disorder.

Brain Structure

Recent evidence suggests that the structure of the brain may contribute to people developing bipolar disorder. MRI studies have found the over-activation of the amygdala, which processes memory, helps decision-making, and controls emotional reactions. People who are manic showed decreased activity in the interior frontal cortex, which assists problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and impulse control. Certain psychiatric medications work on neurotransmitters, suggesting that these messenger chemicals play a significant role in the function of bipolar disorder, but no one knows how exactly they’re responsible.

Environmental Factors

Stress is a significant predictor of bipolar disorder in people who are susceptible to the disease. Life events such as childbirth, trauma, job loss, or grief over a death in the family may trigger a mood episode. My mania and subsequent psychosis was set off by the birth of my first child, Nolan, but my second child’s birth did not trigger anything. However, substance abuse, hormonal issues, and altered health habits can also spark the illness.

Many factors set in motion the development of bipolar disorder. With more research, scientists will discover the roots of the disease, and possibly be able to prevent it in the future.

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Bipolar? You Can Survive This Holiday Season, part II

This is part two of a two-part series.
Part I | Part II

In the first post in this series, I covered a little bit about how to survive the holiday series when you’re manic. To recap: avoid alcohol, don’t take on too many projects, and try to relax. Now we’ll take a look at…

What to Do if You’re Depressed

Take care of yourself. That’s the core of all the advice I can give on this topic, but it’s the hardest to follow when you’re drowning. But amidst all this merriment, the temptation to give in to your loneliness and hide away from the world will be powerful indeed.

So if you’re invited to parties, prepare to go to at least one. Eat one of your favorite foods beforehand. Shower. Drink a glass of water. Once there, avoid alcohol, especially if you’re on medications. If you’re intimidated, play with your kids until they wear you out. Then talk to the adults.

They’ll probably ask you about mundane things, like your work or your kids or your hobbies. They might comment about how they haven’t seen you much, or even inquire about that project you were so passionate about before.

Credited to flickr user sluzzelîn.  Used with permission.
Credited to flickr user sluzzelîn. Used with permission.

This kind of small talk is normal. It’s what we’re all trained to ask about. They’re not judging you for abandoning projects or even picking up on any guilt you may have about not being a “good enough” parent. They may not even realize that you’re forcing yourself to stand there.

So keep your answers brief and to the point:
“Yeah, I’ve been a bit out of it lately. How are you?”
“Sue turned five this year. They grow up so fast, don’t they? How are your kids doing?”

If you’re overwhelmed, bow out of these conversations. Or don’t; you can apologize later. Just get away. It’s okay to run. Find a corner of the house which you can designate as your own and hide there for ten minutes. Breathe. Then come out again, and have a glass of water before meeting anyone else.

If you’re spending this holiday season alone, I’m so sorry. Some options for you may include attending a local church service or atheistic/agnostic gathering. Cities frequently host free holiday events. If you have the time, volunteer at a food bank or animal shelter, or kick your feet up at home and play games. Eat comfort foods. And if you can afford a road trip, go!

Above all, do not let yourself remain isolated. Feeling alone in a crowd might be easier than being alone in a bedroom. Please keep in mind that while everyone may look joyous on the outside, it’s a seasonal thing. Like the flu. The New Year’s hangover will come soon enough.

How do stay afloat during the holidays?

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Are You “Covering” For Your Illnesses?

Credit to flickr user christine zenino.  Used with permission.
Credit to flickr user christine zenino. Used with permission.

Covering is a unique trick-of-the-trade known to anyone who has been chronically ill–mentally or otherwise. It is the art of straightening ones shoulders and schooling ones features to show that, no, really, we’re fine, so please don’t fire us or ask us to explain what’s going on. In short, we’re actors donning the mask of normalcy.

The first psychiatrist I met with outside of the mental hospital called it my “manic happy cheerleader face.” Julia Kovach touches on the subject in her post Being Bipolar, where she describes reactions to her diagnosis:

And because people don’t understand what they can’t see and sometimes say stupid things; like I look so normal that I must be mistaken. I guess I don’t act crazy enough. Ha ha. And if they should get a glimpse? They run. Fast and far.

The brilliant Ari Flynn, who suffers from chronic depression and on whose blog I first heard the term, offers a more complete description:

Telling your friends to treat you like everything’s normal is equivalent to playing a never-ending round of the Elephant Game (don’t think of an elephant — whoops, you lose!), so the only way for you to avoid that particular soul-sucking bog is to learn how to control how much information other people get about your internal state. It’s something nobody ever really talks about, but the bipolars and chronic depressives are all nodding to themselves — do it long enough, and you get very, very good at it. You have to; it’s a survival skill.

After a while it gets to the point where being able to cosplay as a functional human being is the only thing you feel like you can do even kind of right.

They are absolutely right. It is easier to pretend everything is fine than to explain why you had to limp to the shower due to fibromyalgia or why you bought $700 worth of chocolate in one go. Anything you say is by no means the complete picture, and often won’t alleviate your pain. The ability to cover is a hard-learned skill, due to fear of stigma, rejection, or unwillingness to overwhelm other people with your own suffering.

Additionally, this role is draining to play. We all have different strengths and weakness, but constantly monitoring speech and behavior is exhausting for anyone. Under stress, the performance breaks down. With regards to mood episodes, the lack of self-awareness during mania and the lack of grooming during depression are strong indicators that the mask is slipping.

Celebrities like Stephen Fry and Brooke Shields have started paving the way for discussions about mental illnesses. The more we all talk about bipolar to those who have it and those who don’t, the more people may understand and stick around. Building a community of peers is the best way to counteract this strenuous protective mechanism.

You’re not alone in hiding, so why not surround yourself with people who understand that burden?

When do you find that you cover the most?

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How Privilege Affects Mental Healthcare

Like many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m taking a hard look at what I should be grateful for. When I was young, my family was largely feast or famine. We survived multiple job losses, costly illnesses, and bankruptcies. In my teens, all seven of us lived in a trailer no bigger than 750 sq. ft. And I was always hungry.

Now, I am steeped in obscene amounts of privilege. I am white, and I hold two college degrees. Among other things, this means I have an easier time getting and taking medication. My nursing and Latin classes specifically enable me to understand medical terminology and the effects of medications on my body and brain. I am a very insistent advocate for my health.

I am also married to a partner with a steady, middle-class job, which means my anxiety about ending up homeless or going hungry now is largely irrational. We’ve only been married for five years, but he not only held my hand when I committed myself, but he puts up with my mood episodes today. We could still get divorced, as have so many others with bipolar. But we haven’t yet. We are very awkward when people ask about our married life, because we usually exist in a different bubble than they do.

Insurance Card
Credit to flickr photographer mtsofan. Used with permission.

My partner’s job has insurance. I can—and will—write a post on this benefit alone, because without it, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I’d be dead. My hospitalization four years ago cost $6638.61—and was completely covered. I was flabbergasted. We were newlyweds at the time, and would have been put into debt. Due to growing up having Medicaid or sometimes nothing at all, the feeling is still surreal.

Speaking of jobs, I am lucky enough to be self-employed while writing my book, which means I can have as many panic attacks as I need to have without getting fired.

I’ve been in therapy for years. I’ve also changed psychiatrists five times until I found one I liked. This process of doctor-finding is actually quite common, but we could afford the doctor’s visits, the pills, and the frequent blood draws to check for liver or thyroid damage, which means I was willing to invest in my health. And my nightly cocktail of medication—found through years of trial and error—actually works. There are side effects, of course, but as I understand it, they could be significantly worse.

And finally, I was able to keep my infant despite someone threatening to report me to Child Protective Services during my psychotic break.

Is my mental illness severe? Of course. But I am lucky, to an unrealistic extent. If I wasn’t covered by my partner’s insurance, I would have had go to work immediately after my breakdown to cover costs. If I hadn’t married him when I did, I would be living with my parents, homeless, or dead—and likely one of the latter. There are so many ifs, which terrifies me.

Mental stability—which should be a basic human right—is achieved only by those who can afford it.

Homeless and cold.
Credit to flickr photographer Ed Yourdon. Used with permission.

A disproportionate amount of the homeless are returning veterans, the mentally ill, or both. Would that more shelters could provide a secure environment and treatment for any atypical brain chemistries or traumas that they may have! I would happily part with my tax dollars to ensure that more people with schizophrenia have a chance to sleep in a warm bed rather than under a bridge. Ideally, they’d also have help moving on to more permanent housing and work.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas warm my heart, but not just because I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. The generous outpouring of help around this time is mind-boggling. But I feel I have a responsibility to use my privilege year-round to help others who are less fortunate. First, I’ll keep in mind how much I have.

What struggles have you survived? And what privileges may have helped you through them?

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