If you are emerging from a period of mental distress, the most important thing to remember is that you are the key person on the treatment team.
Although other people can give you advice, encouragement, recommendations and even love, the ultimate person in charge of helping you get better is you. There are practical, doable, affordable steps you can take to work on your recovery. By regularly following these steps, you can regain stability and get on with life.
1) Remind yourself that you are not alone
At some point in their lives, fully 20% of Americans report that they have symptoms of mental illness. That’s one-in-five people! Sometimes life hands out more stress than a person can bear. Sometimes a person’s coping skills aren’t up to the task of coping. And sometimes mental health issues seem to descend out of the blue. Whatever the case, mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Yes, there may be some people in your life who won’t understand or who will blame you, or who will say things that are insensitive or unhelpful. But most people will only want to help.
2) Pay attention to your body as well as your mind
What looks like mental illness isn’t always in a person’s head. If you are feeling uncomfortable in your own skin; if you are feeling emotionally fragile; if you are experiencing or re-experiencing symptoms of what you know to be mental illness – see your medical doctor first. Thyroid disorders, heart problems, even vitamin deficiencies can create symptoms that resemble mental illness. Make sure you are physically healthy before you decide you have a psychological problem. If you find out you are medically fine but you still feel distressed, then it’s time to talk to a mental health professional.
3) Take care of your body — even when (especially when) you don’t feel like it
Some people say they will take care of themselves once they feel better. It really doesn’t work that way. You will begin to feel better if you pay attention to self-care. Your mind needs a healthy body if you are to recover. Eat regular healthy meals. Limit caffeine and sugar. If you don’t feel like cooking, order take-out or stock up on frozen dinners that just require a zap in the microwave. Get enough sleep (which often means staying off screens after dinner time). Go for walks or exercise in another way that appeals to you. Take a shower and get dressed in clean clothes every day even if it feels like a lot of useless effort. If you treat yourself as if you are someone worth treating well, you will start to believe it.
4) If your doctor prescribes medication, take it as prescribed
Make sure you understand what the doctor thinks your medicine will do for you as well as the possible side-effects.
Don’t improvise. Take only the medicine you have been given, at the right dosage, at the prescribed times. Pay attention to whether you should take your medicine on an empty stomach or with food. Ask your doctor if there are foods or over-the-counter medications or supplements you should avoid. And, by all means, stay away from alcohol and recreational drugs!
If your medicine makes you uncomfortable in any way, talk to your doctor about it. Don’t just quit. Many psychiatric drugs need to be curtailed gradually, not abruptly, if you are to stay safe. Your doctor may recommend a change in dosage or a change in medication.
5) Go to therapy
The treatment of choice for most disorders is a combination of medication (at least for awhile) and talk therapy. A therapist will provide you support and encouragement. Regular participation in your therapy will help you figure out how to better help yourself — but only if you take it seriously. A therapist is not a mindreader. A therapist only has what you tell him or her to work with. For therapy to be effective, you need to dig in and share your thoughts and feelings and to be willing to think carefully about ideas and suggestions your therapist makes.
If you don’t think the therapy is helping you or you don’t like your therapist’s approach, don’t just quit. Talk about it. These are the discussions that often lead to the most important new information about what is happening or how best to help.
6) Reach out to others
Isolating (not talking to or spending time with others) may be tempting but it won’t help you. People do need people. Call a supportive friend or family member just to talk now and then. Join an online forum or support group. If you can’t find someone to talk to when you need to, call a warm-line or hotline. Once you are feeling even a little up to it, get involved in a charity or cause. Doing things with others for others is the best way to build your own self-esteem.
Recovery from mental illness sometimes does happen like magic, with symptoms disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. But that’s really, really rare. Most of the time, recovery takes active treatment. But your professional helpers can only do so much. They need you to be an interested and active member of the team. By committing yourself to self-help as well as other-help, you can regain your stability — and your happiness — much more quickly.