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9 Ways to Cope with Having a Mental Illness

Get support, but don’t become your illness.

I’ve known I was on the spectrum since I was a kid. But it took until this year for me to understand that a lot of people will always treat me differently. I got fired from jobs. Kicked out of grad school. Most of the people I’ve been able to get close to have had some kind of mental illness themselves. I used to think I’d grow out of it, but now I know this is a permanent thing.

Going to autism support groups has helped tremendously. I don’t have to feel self-conscious in a whole room full of people who have problems changing focus. Most of us feel that need to say everything we’re thinking before someone changes the topic. The guy who likes movies can stop in the middle of a conversation to look up movie reviews on his iPhone and everyone’s totally cool with it.

But attaching yourself to your disability both excuses you from responsibility for your actions and preemptively shuts out other things that are more rewarding to focus on. There’s a fine line between accepting your limitations and letting them consume you. You owe it to yourself to figure out that balance.

Give something back to your community.

Flexible work tends to be best for people like us. You can freelance or find an employer who gives you clear instructions, a quiet workspace, and time off if you need it.

But if work is truly difficult, you shouldn’t feel guilty about trying to get disability. My boyfriend started getting SSDI years ago for autism and severe depression. He’s tried office work but he was overwhelmed by the hours. If you can get through most days okay, though, you might want to use your free time to do volunteer work. Maybe you could help other people with your disability. Your life might be harder than most people’s, but you’ll still feel better about your place in the world if you give something back to it.

Hold yourself accountable.

We still have to coexist with other people. Barring a depressive episode that gets out of control, we should make it a priority to do the things we’ve made ourselves accountable for. Not updating my blog doesn’t make me misunderstood; it makes me a flaky jerk. Yes, getting overwhelmed and losing track of my priorities is part of being on the spectrum. That doesn’t change the fact that the world doesn’t judge you on what you intended to do.

Also, don’t flake out on friends. Let them know in advance if you’re having a tough time and can’t make it that day. As a person who has trouble making friends I can’t stand it when someone I trust disrespects my time. It makes me feel unimportant to them. Most of us have issues with trust. We’d be hypocrites if we broke someone else’s.

Gain wisdom from your setbacks.

You don’t earn your right to sanctimony just by suffering. You have to learn from it. What have you learned about the human condition from scrutinizing it every day just to get by? What has rejection taught you?

There are people who become destructive after years of bad things happening to them. There are people who just sort of bumble along until they die. And there are people who might not get stronger exactly, but they do gain emotional knowledge that serves them well in other ways. Aim for that third one. You deserve it.

Don’t compare yourself with others.

And definitely don’t compare yourself to what you think you’d be like if you didn’t have a mental illness. Doing that just makes me depressed. Frankly, being depressed about having autism is worse than autism itself.

Remember that there are totally normal-seeming people who are crazier than you’ll ever be. They hold jobs and have plenty of friends, but when they go home they might beat their kids and drink themselves into oblivion and no one has any idea.On a less dramatic note, I’m sure you have some qualities that other people would love to have. Don’t compare your inner life to other people’s outer lives.

My therapist tells me to focus on the positives because that’s really the only option. It’s the only option to get through most things in life. You might feel like you have to become a more self-actualized human being than most people are to be worth more than your illness in the world’s eyes. But that’s all right. It gives you something to work toward. It’s a goal that everyone should have anyway.

9 Ways to Cope with Having a Mental Illness

Gwendolyn Kansen

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APA Reference
Kansen, G. (2018). 9 Ways to Cope with Having a Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.