A Mental Health Primer

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And though I don’t have a Ph.D. or anything, after several years of mental health recovery and several diagnoses under my belt, I feel like I can pass on a pearl of wisdom or two. Here’s what I think are the most important things that you need to remember if a) you have a mental illness, b) you think you might have a mental illness, or c) if you love someone who has a mental illness. Living with mental illness is no small feat. And I need to be reminded of most of these things daily. So, consider this your reminder. And refer back as needed.

First of all, mental health is a spectrum. This, to me, is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING to remember about mental illness. People seem to think that mental illness is all or nothing. Black or white. Yes or no. Healthy or sick. It’s just not like that. You can have a touch of this, a smidge of that, and a dusting of the other. And just because you’re not a complete spaz, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the treatment options available to you, that work for you.

You don’t have to fit someone’s mold of what “anxious” or “depressed” is in order to get sympathy and understanding. You deserve to have your mental health be taken seriously, no matter what state it is in. Just because a certain treatment worked for your great aunt’s cousin doesn’t mean it will work for you. You have to know that’s ok. You and your doctor or therapist can decide what will help you.

It’s important to know that mental illness has a significant impact on your daily life. A lot of people say that “we all have our stuff.” As in, we all have mental issues, to a certain degree. And that’s very valid. The majority of people have a bit of social anxiety. Very few people feel comfortable talking to large groups of people. We all have some bit of introversion in us, using time alone to “recharge.” People get depressed. People get anxious. People eat too much, drink too much. But real mental illness, the type you should take seriously and seek help for, will impact your ability to live a normal life.

Maybe you have trouble getting out of bed. Maybe you don’t feel like showering. Maybe you don’t feel like eating. Maybe you eat too much. Maybe you don’t feel worthy to hang out with a certain group of people (though they have invited you to several times). Maybe you just plain don’t feel worthy. You don’t feel like you will be missed if you were to be gone (this is suicidal, you don’t have to be actively trying to kill yourself, or have attempted to kill yourself, in order to be considered suicidal).

If you are sleeping all day and not taking care of yourself and avoiding situations you are likely to enjoy because of the slight possibility that you won’t enjoy it and you’re doubting your own worth, then your mental health issues are having a direct and dire impact on your life. You cannot function normally under these circumstances. This is how it is different than just being “shy” or “sad.” This is not how a normal mind works. And you know that it is not how a normal mind works, you just don’t know how to change it. That is where treatment comes in.

If or when you need it, medication is a valid treatment for mental illness. Taking medication is not “taking the easy way out.” Taking medication is not weak or wrong, or a crutch, and it doesn’t take away from your authenticity. People who use medication for their mental illness are not drug addicts or “pill poppers.” And no, a walk in the woods is in no way a replacement for antidepressants. Stop this. I began taking medication as a last resort. Truly a last resort. I had turned it down for years. And finally, after my second stint in rehab, I finally caved and said sure, why not. And you know what? It worked. It was amazing. I felt better and my life got better. And I won’t be made to feel ashamed for that. Are there people taking Xanax who don’t really need it? Sure. But don’t let that stop you from taking medication, recommended by a medical doctor, that will help you get better.

Something that my current doctor says to me a lot is that recovery happens in a sawtooth pattern. Meaning, there are times of great success, upward movement, good thoughts and feelings, productivity. And then there are times where you feel less successful, not happy, very anxious, in a slump, not interested in doing things. And it’s normal. You are not failing, you are not going backwards, you are trying perfectly hard enough, and you needn’t give up. There will be ups and downs, just as there are for everyone. The idea is to learn to ride out the low times without letting them break you down.

A lot of the time, if I have a bad day, someone will ask me, “well, are you doing the work that you’re supposed to be doing?!” And, of course I am. Of course I am taking medication, journaling, going to therapy, going to meetings if I need them, doing something creative, getting out of the house. I’m walking the walk in addition to talking the talk, and just because you are having a bad day doesn’t mean you are not trying hard enough.

If you’re reading this because someone you love is suffering from a mental illness, something to consider is to stop making mental illness a punchline. You know how it has become passe to use the words “retarded” and “gay” to mean derogatory things? Consider how it would make someone feel if you organized your spice rack and told everyone how you’re “soooo OCD.” Or if you watch the last episode of your favorite show and then you’re “so depressed!” Or if you change your mind a thousand times about the couch you want to buy because you’re “so schizo.” Or my personal favorite, if you eat avocados every morning because you’re “totally addicted” to them. I mean really consider the message you’re sending when you say these things. It’s not fair to people who truly suffer to diminish their reality and their struggle in this way.

If you have a confirmed mental illness: Remember to take your medication. Remember to get out of the house for a little while each day. Remember your personal hygiene. Remember to visit your doctor and/or therapist. You are worthy and you matter.

If you suspect you may have a mental illness: Seek help. Find a therapist. Be completely honest with them. Know that it is possible for you to feel better. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t need help. Listen to your instincts.

If you know someone with a mental illness: Be as patient with them as you can. Know that they want to get better. Listen. Even if you don’t understand, just listen.

Mental health is just as important as physical health. And you would not tell someone with a physical ailment to “just go for a walk.” So, why do we do this? Why do we, as a society, downplay mental illness and mental health? Why do we stigmatize the perfectly legitimate treatments for mental illness? A healthy mind makes for a healthy person and a productive life. Mental illness is much more common than people think. One of my favorite quotes:

barrie