Does experiencing mental ill-health make you a stronger or weaker person?
For Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May 2021) and as part of our Men’s Wellbeing Matters campaign to encourage men to open up about their mental health, MFT client and supporter Chris looks both at scientific facts and his personal experience to challenge the common misconception that experiencing mental health issues is a sign of weakness.
“Roughly a quarter of the population experience a mental health condition in any one year to a greater or lesser extent. ‘Mental illness’ in this context is a general term that refers to a wide range of conditions which affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and ability to cope with the everyday demands of life. Therefore there’s millions of us in this boat and every year there more and more people who experience mental health challenges for the first time. It’s often the start of a rocky journey that lasts a lifetime; however given time and a little bit of effort it’s a journey that can get easier.
Mental health has been described as a continuum. Everyone is on it whether they admit to it or not; we’re all somewhere on the scale from wellness to ill health. Sometimes the difficult part is plotting exactly where you are on the continuum and determining if you need help. Fundamentally, we all experience events in life that can make us feel low, angry, stressed or scared. For the most part, negative thoughts and feelings come and go and we begin to move back towards the mentally healthy end of the continuum. However, for some of us, we can get stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts, feelings and unhelpful behaviours. If these feelings persist, they can develop into a more serious mental health condition. In this case, we experience mental ill–health when our difficulties start to get in the way of us living our lives.
I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened”- Mark Twain
I remember when I first experienced mental health difficulties. I was 19 at the time and fundamentally didn’t think there was anything wrong with me; it was everyone else! On reflection the evidence was against me; I was in hospital receiving acute care for my condition – something definitely wasn’t right. During my recovery I just wished it had never happened and wanted to partition it away and carry on with life in the same way as I had done before. This is not an uncommon approach and is analogous to how we might behave following any physical illness that we might experience. Take it steady for a bit then dive back in where we left off. However, mental ill-health survivors are rarely so lucky and this approach has its risks. By not taking the time to understand the conditions that led to the period of mental ill-health you are likely fated to the same happening again. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Some people are more susceptible to mental ill-health issues than others but it can affect us all. The level of susceptibility depends on three key factors:
1) Genetics. If you’ve got others in your family with a history of mental health difficulties that’s not a good start;
2) Biology – in particular the chemicals that control how your brain works – neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This is where medication seeks to help.
3) Your environment – are you working in a stressful job? Do you have family or relationship difficulties that press on your mind? Do you easily get caught up in conflict?
I’d also like to argue there’s a fourth element, it’s one that gives me hope and makes me feel like I have some control.
4) ‘thinking processes’ – how I choose to feel and respond to what is happening to me and for me. Ever noticed how different people respond differently to the same situation?
On this basis, half of the problem is what you’re born with – and is treatable with medication; the other half you can do things about yourself if you’re prepared to both challenge yourself and take time for some deep introspection. That should give you some hope.
After my first brush with mental ill-health I made a full recovery, but I didn’t engage with the condition or seek guidance and support to help me understand it better. I took the attitude that it was a one-off and wouldn’t happen again. Unfortunately, 2 years later it reared its ugly head again, then again 3 years after that. It took me to this point to realise that I needed to take things more seriously and accept that this was a condition that I will need to manage for life. I continued to take low dosages of medication to deal with the ‘biological’ element and realised that I needed to understand my triggers and early warning signs. Just doing these simple things, monitoring my own mental health and taking action to ‘get away’ when needed meant that I stayed well for over 10 years and was able to live a very normal life. I thought I had my condition solved, until it crept up on me last year.
I became unwell in the summer of 2020 requiring acute care again and it was evident that my rudimentary wellbeing plan needed some revisions. This time I was determined that some good was going to come from the experience. I embarked to get to know myself better, to understand more about the condition from a medical perspective, to seek out others that have been affected by the same condition and learn from their coping strategies. To this end I have:
1. Spent many hours working through intense emotions and tracking issues back to childhood by regular journaling;
2. Reading books about the condition written by medical practitioners, eg. The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide;
3. Reading books by others with lived experience of both anxiety and bipolar disorder, eg. An Unquiet Mind, OPEN: Why asking for help can save your life;
4. Attending training courses on my condition, recovery and wellbeing, eg those provided by the Recovery College;
5. Seeking help via a therapist to understand my thinking processes and change my perceptions around day-to-day to day activities that previously I’d found emotionally difficult;
6. Studying and changing my ways of working to become more effective and more efficient to address my feelings of overwhelment, eg. Productivity Ninja;
7. Developing wellbeing techniques such as meditation and mindfulness via apps, eg Headspace;
8. Actively seeking out wellbeing support via podcasts, eg. Practicing Human;
9. Seeking out others that have had similar experiences by reaching out to Mental Health First Aiders at work and getting involved with local charities like Mary Frances Trust;
10. Prioritising time for wellbeing and health activities in my schedule;
11. Reassessing my life goals and objectives with techniques from the Universal Laws of Attraction. I actually became more ambitious, not less!
I view my mental health very much as an ongoing project and I will continue to engage in all the above activities while I feel they are beneficial. I also take the view that because I’ve taken the time to study and engage with my condition that I’m now mentally stronger and more robust than I have been in the past. I can’t completely guarantee that I won’t have a serious incident again in the future, but by having put the work in and continuing to make wellbeing a feature of my life going forward I think it’s considerably less likely, and potentially less likely than someone who has never experienced mental health so far in their lives.
All of this, combined, means that I now feel much better in terms of my personal wellbeing than I have done for many years. There’s simply no comparison now to how I was feeling in January 2020, which was months before my condition deteriorated and I feel stronger and more able to cope with situations that may have challenged me from a wellbeing perspective in the past. Proof, you can get better from mental ill-health and with the right processes, support and understanding it becomes only part of who you are and ceases to define you.”
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