If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you or the person you know may be wondering how to get well. Recently, I've identified five steps to recovery from mental illness.
Before I begin, I need to disclose that I am not a health care or psychiatric professional. I am a consumer - someone who suffers from several mental illnesses and is currently under treatment. What I have to share comes from my experiences on my journey to health. These five steps are sound and should be of benefit to anyone who struggles with mental illness.
One of the hardest things to do when you have a mental illness is to accept that you are ill and you need help. I lived in denial for years and it cost me a lot, including a marriage.
This step may take you a while. When you are diagnosed with a mental illness, one of the first reactions is one of anger, "Why me?"
If you are in denial, you will turn on the people around you and feel like they are conspiring against you. This reaction usually makes things worse.
Listen to those around you. If they love you, they don't mean you harm. They only want to help. So take their advice and seek help.
(2) Find a Good Health Care Provider
If you or someone close to you suspects that you have a mental illness, seek out a good health care provider. You DO NOT want to let your general practitioner treat you. I made this mistake and it severely hampered my recovery.
My wife took me to our family doctor. My family doctor did not have the capacity to make a proper diagnosis. I went in to her office with anger issues and battles with depression. She prescribed an anti-depressant. Initially, I was in denial, so after a week or so, I refused to take the medication. Nothing improved and my symptoms continued. My wife eventually left me.
Months after my wife left me, I was suffering from severe depression. My doctor prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant. This turned out to be a very bad thing.
Down the road, I was diagnosed as being bi-polar. Being bi-polar means that you have mood swings with greater amplitude than the general population. Bi-polar Disorder was more aptly named Manic Depression in the past. Symptoms include deep depression and periods of mania. Most people understand what depression is all about, mania, however, is often misunderstood.
A person in the throes of mania feels invincible. Every crazy thought makes sense. They might also find that they need little or no sleep.
When my general practitioner prescribed Zoloft for me, it took care of my depression, but my mania switched into a no-holds-barred mode and for nearly ten months I was flying higher than a kite. My thoughts were pure insanity. I felt like I could rule the world, except I had no plan to even rule my life.
I finally quit taking Zoloft and resumed to some normalcy with bouts of depression. Several months later, I had a traumatic event in my life and I had a nervous breakdown. I was taken to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist made the proper diagnosis and prescribed me medication. I took the medication, but felt no improvement. At my next psychiatric visit, he increased my dosage - still no help. The next appointment, he changed my medication. I no longer had highs and lows, but I felt completely lethargic, so I quit going to the psychiatrist and quit taking the medication.
For almost two years, I ran around in a semi-manic mode with occasional bouts of depression.
Then, I had several traumatic events in my life again and I developed a crippling anxiety disorder. My family decided I needed to move from Las Vegas to Cleveland to be close to them so they could offer me care.
I was hooked up with a psychiatrist in Cleveland through a state agency. Another round of medications were prescribed. I noticed little, if any, results.
On a routine follow-up psychiatric appointment, I answered some questions incorrectly and was forced to go to a psychiatric hospital. There, I was under the care of a team of professionals - a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a social worker. My activity was closely monitored and I was put on a new regimen of medications, which I am still on today. I can say that I have experienced noticeably positive results.
What I want you to take away from this step is that getting a proper diagnosis is critical and should only be done by a psychiatrist. Find a psychiatrist you like. If you are at odds with your doctor, you will have a harder time getting the right medication or complying with the treatment plan. Also, getting the right medication can take some time. What works for one person may not work for you. It's a process, so be patient.
It is in your best interest to be completely honest and open with your mental health provider. Secrets only cause problems that will surely surface down the road.
(3) Follow Your Treatment Plan
This is where a lot of mental patients fail. They do not follow their prescribed treatment plan and they don't see any progress. When I was in the psychiatric hospital, they drilled in our heads, "Take your meds."
The biggest reason people relapse and return to a mental facility is for not following their treatment plan.
Even if you think you are on the wrong medications, take them anyway; then report your feelings to your mental health care provider. Fully describe your symptoms or side effects. If you have been compliant with your treatment plan, your doctor is in a better position to make adjustments. If you're not taking your meds, then you put your doctor in a guessing game as to what to do next.
If you are experiencing severe side effects from your medication, get to your doctor as soon as possible. If you have suicidal thoughts, call 9-1-1 immediately.
Having comfort and confidence in your mental health provider is critical. So don't be afraid to get a second opinion if you are not happy with the first psychiatrist you come across. And TAKE YOUR MEDS!
A common problem that mental patients experience is when they feel better, they feel that they don't need their medications. It's easy and tempting to think, "I'm cured" and quit treatment. This is a big mistake. You should only quit your medications on the advice of your mental health care provider. As I mentioned earlier, the biggest reason people relapse is that they were not compliant with their treatment. So TAKE YOUR MEDS!
When I was a stand-up comedian in the 1990's I had a joke that went like this:
"I quit doing drugs. Yup. I quit doing drugs... I wanted a few years of being drug-free before I HAVE to take them."
Little did I know how prophetic that line would be.
(4) Find Support From Family or Friends
Recovery from mental illness is not a journey you want to do alone. All you need is one person that is capable of showing compassion and cares for you. Selecting the right people for support can be tricky.
My last wife did not have the capacity to understand my illness. She had no compassion for anything that did not jive with her view of the world. She used to tell me that "happiness is a choice and I choose to be happy. You need to, too."
There were times I would get depressed and start crying. She would tell me, "Just snap out of it." or "Get over it." When I tell this to my health care providers, their mouths drop open.
Telling someone who suffers from a mental illness to "Snap out of it" is tantamount to telling a person in a wheelchair to "Stop feeling sorry for yourself, so get up and walk." It's cruel and unsympathetic.
Fortunately, I have my sister. She has been a saint. She deals with me without judgment and only seeks to help. My brother seems to understand, but I think he's perplexed. From our conversations, I sense that he feels helpless and doesn't know exactly what to say. He tries, but I can't completely open up to him about everything.
I have one good friend here, who I went to high school with. He accepts me no matter what. I can talk freely about my maladies and he's there for me - offering encouragement and support.
I have another old comedy buddy who lives in Pittsburgh and he converses with me free of judgment or prejudice. He's also one of my strongest supporters when it comes to my writing.
I'm very cautious who I discuss my mental conditions with. You have to be protective of your mental health and the wrong people around you can have a very damaging impact on your recovery.
Gauge how the people around you react to you. If they are not in your court, you need to avoid them until you are doing better. Recovery is a fragile thing. It takes time to build security in the way you feel and you don't need some insensitive boob knocking you off course.
(5) Seek The Help of Groups
Support and correct information are integral to a successful recovery from mental illness. Most communities have a number of support groups. If you want some suggestions, read my post Recovery From Mental Illness Should Include Groups.
Groups offer an empathetic environment. Most of the attendees are consumers (those being treated for mental illness) or family members. You are completely safe there because everyone is like you - some are better off and some are worse.
At these groups, you can learn about other services available in your community, gain a better understanding of the process of recovery and make new friends who are completely empathetic to your situation.
I have purposely limited my outside activities to group meetings and only socialize with members from the recovery groups I attend and my few friends who get where I am. I have avoided traditional social situations, mainly because I don't want to answer a lot of questions, like: "Why did you move from Las Vegas to Cleveland? Where do you work? Where do you live? Why don't you meet us at a bar?
Four years ago, I chose sobriety as a way of life. I didn't have a problem. I just had a bad experience and decided that I did not enjoy alcohol in my life anymore. Going to bars is the most useless activity I can imagine right now. Plus, I don't want to meet new people and open myself up to what they might view as harmless social banter - to me their questions are a very uncomfortable inquisition.
A year ago, I came to Cleveland with the sole purpose of finding help, treatment and recovery from my mental illnesses. These are the five steps to recovery from mental illness that I follow. I hope the five steps to recovery from mental illness help you.
PS - My laptop battery died when I was writing this piece in the parking lot of the local library. I don't have Internet access where I live so I have to steal it from wherever I can. I went home, plugged in the laptop, watched some TV for two and a half hours and had some juice. Before I left the house to return to the library parking lot to finish this article, I TOOK MY MEDS. They should kick in by the time I get back and I'm hoping for a good night's sleep. I have my Recovery International meeting in the morning.
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