By Gill Seaton-Jardine Counsellor/Psychotherapist
You have probably been waiting a very long time for a diagnosis. During that time you may have been battling with numerous questions regarding how you have been feeling. Why do I feel so down? Why do I feel so anxious? Why do I feel so confused? Sadly, whilst the profile of mental health has certainly been raised in recent times, it is still very difficult to get the help needed from the mental health services within a comfortable time frame. Indeed, the actual raising of the profile has perhaps made it even more difficult as the number of people dealing with mental health issues has also been raised. It is, of course, a good thing to raise, and to continue to raise the profile but perhaps what we, as users of the services, need to do is to start to think about our own role in terms of our mental health.
As with our physical health, we need to be thinking about this before there is a problem. So what do we do to take care of our physical health in advance of illness? This probably seems fairly obvious but we’ll look at some of the factors because there is a tendency not to think about these things while we are well. We have our diet to consider – many of us know what makes a healthy diet and some of us adhere to it, but many don’t. It does seem extremely unfair that chocolate, or in fact many things containing sugar, are not part of a healthy diet but there we are – nobody said it would be easy! Our body needs rest – a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. The body needs regular, appropriate exercise to encourage good circulation, strong bones, healthy muscle tissue etc. The other thing we have is a warning system in our brains which tells us if there is a problem e.g. pain where there is an injury, a feeling of being unwell if there is an infection or a virus, nausea if we have eaten something that doesn’t agree with us, and a host of other feelings telling us there is something not quite right. When we get these signals, we act appropriately by resting, taking medication, drinking water and only if we cannot deal with it ourselves, we may speak to a GP, who, in turn, may refer us to a specialist if indicated. Perhaps the most important part of the above is the part that says. ‘if we cannot deal with it ourselves’ – this reminds us that we do have resources, within ourselves, to do something about physical health problems – so what about mental health problems? Do we have resources to handle this too?
Let’s have a look at how we look after our mental health, or, indeed do we look after our mental health? One of the huge differences between physical and mental health problems is how evident they are. If someone has a bad arm, they may wear a sling telling you that there is something wrong and you will take care not to bump into it. If someone has a stomach upset, they may vomit making it obvious, if someone has a sore throat, they may lose their voice. These are all simple examples of evidencing physical health problems but how do we ‘see’ mental health problems? We may see someone cry, well, we all cry – perhaps they are having a bad day. We may experience another person worrying, well, we all worry sometimes – how can we know if it is normal human emotion or something more serious than that? The fact is that we all experience a range of emotions, this is part of day to day life and emotions can help us deal with ‘life’, the difficulty comes when they become exaggerated causing inappropriate responses. So, what can we do about this? Is there anything we can do or are we just to be victims with no power to improve circumstances?
Perhaps at this point I should mention the two broad categories of mental illness, that is neurosis and psychosis. This is important as it makes a huge difference to the individual’s ability to help themselves with the challenge of mental illness. Perhaps the way to think of the difference for the purpose of this piece if that with neurosis, there is still awareness of what is real and what is fantasy. Examples of neurotic conditions are phobias, depression and generalised anxiety disorder. With psychotic illness, there can be a loss of awareness of the difference between fantasy and reality. An example of this would be schizophrenia.
So, what can we do to look after our mental health? I do believe that we have choices and we need not necessarily be victims of our circumstances. The first thing here is to be aware that you have both physical and mental health to consider. Firstly, just as with physical health, a good diet, good sleep patterns and an awareness of how you are feeling will start to take care of your mental health helping to prepare you for whatever shows up. We all have life events to deal with such as weddings, house move, job change, loss of a family member, birth of a child. These are times when we are all put under unusual strain and we may experience extreme emotion feeling that we will never feel better, that we might never get over what has happened. It may be at this point that we try to consult the GP hoping for an referral to the mental health services. What are we hoping for here? Are we looking for some advice about how we are feeling? Perhaps but will we feel satisfied with just some advice? We may do but I suspect we may want more than that – a diagnosis and some medication possibly. So why do we want a diagnosis? We know how we are feeling even if we don’t know why. We may be able to relate our feelings to a particular event or we may not know why we are feeling this way – two very different situations. If we have lost a loved one, of course we are feeling sad and down. Loss is so hard to take. The world seems to have turned upside down for you and yet it also seems to carry on as if nothing has happened. Perhaps we don’t need a diagnosis as such – we do know what has caused the feelings so what can we do to help during this very difficult time? Reaching out to other loved ones may help, or reaching out to friends giving you an opportunity to cry and talk about that special person and how you miss them. In this case time needs to pass to lessen the pain – perhaps what you can do to help yourself is accept that and work on telling yourself that it will get better. This might sound tough but things don’t stay the same, not good or bad and the support of loved ones will help you at this time. The fact is that grief is a reality and needs acknowledging in order to work with it and get through it.
We have just looked at an example where a life event has probably triggered the reaction but what about where there is no obvious life event, where the feelings seem to come from nowhere and there is no apparent explanation. This can be very hard and tends to lead to questioning like ‘what is wrong with me?’, ‘why do I feel like this?. Other people in your circle might be asking ‘what is wrong with you?’ and you feel you should be able to tell them but you can’t because you don’t know yourself. It is harder to talk to family and friends because it is so hard to understand leaving you feeling isolated and unsure where to seek help. Feelings and emotions are very hard to understand. They cannot be explained by logic or intellect which can make you feel powerless to do anything about them. The truth is they have to be acknowledged first and then accepted. We all go through a range of feelings in our lives, both good and bad and there are numerous different causes of them. We need to feel our feelings. If you are happy, enjoy that feeling, embrace it and recognise that is it a reflection of you at this moment. It is the same with more negative feelings e.g. anger. We can feel very angry about something but we know that anger will settle and that we will move on from it, sometimes without a satisfactory resolution. If we can accept that sometimes we will feel good and sometimes we won’t feel so good, we can learn to tolerate those different feelings and manage them when they come to call – even if we can’t necessarily explain them. In this way we can manage our mental health and learn when we need to seek professional help.
Once again, if we seek professional help, what are we looking for? We may be offered medication or talking therapies – both obviously can be very helpful, but where does that leave us? A diagnosis can inform us that we cannot deal with our mental health without external support. This can leave us believing that we cannot take care of ourselves. Is this a good thing? There are clearly times when we need this help and support but I don’t think we should be limited by a diagnosis as there are plenty of times and circumstances where we do have the internal resources, if only we believe in ourselves, and our expertise, in managing our own lives.
Managing your mental health is essential to stay well and functioning in your day to day life. There will be challenges along the way but I firmly believe that you have the inbuilt, bespoke resources to deal with them in most cases. Of course you need to seek help sometimes and you may be given a diagnosis and relevant treatment. My point here is not to let that diagnosis limit you, don’t let it define you – there is so much more to you than that diagnosis. I guess the answer to my title question is what can you do about it by using the power and resources within you?