I never really thought much about mental illness until I was 20 years old. That’s when mental illness turned my world upside down and I’ve never been the same.
Growing up, my parents didn’t talk about mental illness a whole lot – save for the occasional mention of addiction, which ran in our family. And I didn’t formally learn about mental disorders until I took a psychology class as an elective during my senior year of high school. I took the class because it seemed interesting, albeit irrelevant to me personally. It did occur to me that I might have mild social anxiety as a teenager, but it wasn’t a huge concern at that point – more a minor annoyance.
It didn’t take long, though, for my mental health to nosedive. By age 20, I started noticing symptoms of depression and had begun engaging in disordered eating behaviors. And by 21, I had major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and purging disorder (an eating disorder), which eventually morphed into anorexia.
I’m 31 now, and I’ve spent the past decade learning to cope with and heal from these disorders and their effects on my life. Today, I want to share with you some tools and resources that have helped and continue to help me heal. My hope is that my suggestions can help you or someone you love because, chances are, you will be affected directly or indirectly by mental illness at some point in your life.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 18.9% of all US adults will experience some form of mental illness (defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder ranging from mild to severe) in any given year, and 4.5% will have a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with major life activities.
Sadly, these numbers are even higher for teenagers. The NIMH estimates that 49.5% of adolescents ages 13-18 live with some form of mental disorder and 22.2% have severe impairment as a result. That means nearly half of all high school students in the US struggle with mental illness. (All NIMH estimates cited here were from 2017.)
I don’t tell you this to upset you. I tell you this to empower you because you, as an adult, have an opportunity – a responsibility – to model good mental health care for the youth in your life.
This does not mean you have to pretend to be ok, if you struggle with mental illness. This also doesn’t mean you need to pretend to struggle, if you don’t. It simply means you take care of your mental health regardless, and you avoid stigmatizing mental illness by having open and honest conversations about it.
So how can you care for your mental health? The following three strategies have all helped me, but please understand this is a huge topic with many factors. I can’t and won’t presume that my suggestions will be effective or necessary for all mental illnesses. I also can’t cover the entire scope of each strategy here, but will do my best to point you in the right direction. If you or someone you love needs help sorting through your current circumstances, I’ve provided links to additional resources at the end of this post.
I write about self-care quite frequently and for good reason: self-care is essential to your overall wellbeing. I’m even going to go out on a limb here and say it may be your most important contribution to society.
Sure, raising kind, healthy and responsible children or pursuing your life’s work or volunteering your time or being a good neighbor are all important contributions. But you can’t do those things, or at least do them well, if you don’t take care of yourself.
And taking care of yourself is so much more than massages and naps (although, I highly recommend both!). Self-care is also forgiving yourself and setting boundaries. It’s opening the mail and making doctor’s appointments. It’s treating yourself and it’s meeting your basic needs.
In my online course, Get Growing, I define self-care as taking loving action towards your body and mind. Which, of course, means self-care might look different for you than me, and it might also look different from day to day or even hour to hour. What feels loving to you right now, might not feel loving to you tomorrow. And what feelings loving to me, might never feeling loving to you.
For example, I like to read as a form of self-care. Books help me cope with life’s ups and downs and are a welcome distraction from my worries. But you might not like to read, and that’s fine.
Good self-care is highly individualized and requires you to be in tune with the needs of your own body and mind, which is an incredibly helpful skill when dealing with any sort of mental illness. After all, self-care practices are often just healthy coping mechanisms.
I started seeing a therapist for the first time a little over a year after developing symptoms of an eating disorder. She specialized in eating disorder recovery, and was able to help me uncover some of the roots of my disorder and begin to heal. Since then, I’ve seen a handful of different therapists based on where I was living (I’ve moved a lot!) and what my mental health needs were at various times over the past decade.
Let me be clear, though, you do not need to have a mental illness to go to therapy. As I mentioned earlier, therapy is an opportunity for you to take care of your mental health regardless of illness. It’s a safe place to learn more about yourself, to process life events and accompanying emotions, and to blossom into your best, truest self.
I do want to mention, however, that not all therapists are created equal. As with any profession, you can run into professionals who are doing more harm than good. If you start seeing a therapist and for any reason feel uneasy, I want you to know it’s ok to move on and find a new therapist. There’s a difference between uncomfortable and uneasy. Sometimes therapy is hard and uncomfortable topics are discussed, but it should not make you feel physically or emotionally unsafe in any way.
Also keep in mind there are many different styles of therapy, and you have to find what works for you. I’ve stopped seeing therapists, not because they were bad people, but because they weren’t right for me. We just didn’t click and that’s ok, too.
To find a therapist in your area, I encourage you to utilize the resources at the bottom of this post. And if therapy seems financially out of reach, look for therapists who offer “sliding scale.” This means the therapist is willing to work with you on the cost. You can also contact your insurance company, if you have behavioral health coverage, to obtain a list of therapists that accept your particular insurance.
Taking medication for mental illness is one of the most stigmatized aspects of mental health care, despite the fact that for some people it is an absolute necessity for healthy functioning.
Psychiatric medication is not a necessity for me personally, but I have taken medication in the past to help me through particularly tough seasons of life. Certain medications were very helpful in managing my mental illness symptoms and others were not helpful at all. Like with therapy, I had to feel out each medication and find what worked for me.
All bodies are different. Some people experience chronic side effects due to medication and, therefore, opt out all together. Other people experience virtually no side effects and find medication beneficial in managing their symptoms. While others may find that despite experiencing side effects from medication, the benefits to their mental health are paramount.
Whatever your particular experience is, it is valid. If you currently take or have taken medication in the past, there is no shame in that. You’re not weak for taking medicine. You’re actually pretty brave. You’re also brave if you’ve chosen to forgo medication in lieu of alternatives such as natural supplements or healthy coping mechanisms.
Regardless of what choice you’ve made, please understand that not all who suffer from mental illness have access to medications and/or are able to function without them. Always remember that access and choice are privileges, so keep your judgements in check.
If you are considering psychiatric medication, I highly recommend working in conjunction with both your primary care doctor and a psychiatrist. It’s important to get a full picture of your physical and mental state and to rule out the possibility that an underlying medical condition or disease is causing your symptoms.
I’ve been living with mental illness for just over a decade now. Some days are harder than others. Some days getting out of bed and taking a shower feel like climbing a mountain. Some days I find myself trembling for no discernible reason. Some nights I’m plagued with insomnia.
But every day, I get up and I keep going. I lean into my self-care, hard. I go to therapy and do the work of learning and growing. I stay open to other treatments, such as medication, as needed. And, most importantly, I talk about and share my personal experience with mental illness, so others don’t have to suffer alone.
Mental Health Resources
Psychology Today: Find A Therapist
SAMHSA (substance abuse or mental health): Treatment Services Locator
SAMHSA Hotline (treatment referrals): 1-800-662-4357
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line (US): text HOME to 741741
Crisis Text Line (UK): text HOME to 85258
Crisis Text Line (Canada): text HOME to 686868
The Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQ Youth): 1-866-488-7386
NEDA Helpline (eating disorder support): 1-800-931-2237