3 Life Lessons I Learned on a Psych Ward

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It’s been more than three years since my life nearly ended. For the longest time, I thought my week on the psych ward was pointless. I saw it as a frustrating waste of time.

Now, I can recognize the value of what we did during those days.

As a first-timer on the psych ward, it appeared we were focusing on basic things like eating right, getting plenty of rest and talking with a professional. In retrospect, I see that we were working on a much deeper level. We were engaging with a community of people with similar struggles and similar goals, setting boundaries and learning about self-compassion.

Here were my three biggest takeaways:

1. Boundaries.

The biggest part of self-care during my time on the ward was disconnecting from outside distractions and detractors. Before my suicide attempt, I was addicted to connection: phone, text, email, social media, blogging, radio. You name it, I was there. I had no clue what boundaries were or how they applied to my life.

On the psych ward, we couldn’t have our cell phones and had specific times when we could made phone calls to our approved “safe people.” We were only allowed to engage with our support system during those days. They were teaching us to reconnect with our true self.

In my 20s, I thought I needed to be 100 percent accessible 100 percent of the time. Because I had no boundaries, I had built walls that separated me from my family. I allowed the ever-present distraction of busyness to keep me from the ones who matter most. But in my time on the psych ward and in the years of therapy that have followed, I have learned that boundaries protect us all and help point us in the direction of things that truly matter.

2. Respect bad days.

In one particular community session, I learned when emotions go up, rational thinking goes down. This was part of my problem. In the past, when the really bad days showed up, I would engage anyone willing to listen, digging at old wounds instead of dealing with the actual cause of the pain. I would vent, shout and cry, but failed to seek practical steps to work through my problems.

After my time on the psych ward, I learned timing is not the most important piece of the recovery pie. Sometimes, in order to get help, I first need to feel better. I also need to work through my problems in a safe place, where my emotions are protected and respected. Five minutes after someone hurts me or an external stimulus triggers an internal response may not be the best time to work through my feelings. I may need a little time and space to breathe and feel better. Allowing my emotions to come down and my rational thinking to increase is often the smartest move I can make. Once that happens, I can prepare to work through the issue.

3. Self-compassion.

In the safety of community on the psych ward, I also learned the value of self-compassion. Folks with mental illness tend to be extremely compassionate toward others, but we often do not show ourselves the same grace. But I believe self-compassion is absolutely necessary to have a whole, healthy life. We must be kind to others, and we must also be kind to ourselves. As a part of my recovery, I’m working through Brené Brown’s teachings, learning to speak to myself the same way I would speak to someone I love. It is making a big difference in healing my own shame.

I never realized just how important self-care actually is until I reached the end of myself. What about you? Do you have a safe community you engage with? Are you leaning to find the balance between creating boundaries and building walls? Learning to say “no” is a powerful tool in caring for yourself. Learning to value your own mental health brings a great sense of wholeness, making you a much better contributor, in any community.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow this journey on I Am Steve Austin. Click here to sign up for his free “Manifesto for Hard Days.”

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Why I Don't Find This Political Meme About Mental Health Care Funny

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I recently saw the following meme on Facebook, shared by individuals who I truly respect and find to be supportive:

Image shows Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Text says, "I hope Bernie Sanders is elected president, so all the people who support Trump get the mental health care they so desperately need."

But the message I received from it is anything but. As an individual who suffers from several mental illnesses, I felt not only unsupported, but hurt by these individuals who spread it so lightly, laughing along the way. I’m hurt because I’ve seen memes like this for years now. I have watched the media use mental illness to make sense of mass shootings, bad politics and just bad people.

The reality is different. The reality is that individuals suffering from mental health illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violent attacks than commit them. And I believe memes like this make it that much harder for us to seek help when we absolutely need it.

My sophomore year of college, I remember having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the night, going from stable to suicidal in mere minutes as post-traumatic stress disorder entered my life. I remember the days after, where the only thing that kept me alive was the fact that I didn’t have the time to kill myself. And I remember that for weeks, I didn’t seek help. I didn’t tell a single person, as I planned and planned and fell deeper and deeper into the suicidal ideation.

I didn’t seek help because this was around the time of the Boston Marathon bombings. Before it was known the bombers were Muslim (because that fact changes the media’s narrative), I heard people talking about mental illness, as if that explained it all. I didn’t seek help because I was afraid of a stigma that would label me as violent, despite the fact that I’ve never been in a fight in my life. And when the bombers were identified as Muslim, this deterred me further — I feared someone would put Muslim and mental illness together and I would be labeled as a terrorist and killed. I’ve never been afraid of dying, but the fear of being labeled dangerous, that was too much. I wanted to leave without leaving behind any kind of damage, and that would not have been possible with that label.

Eventually I reached out. Two therapists later and months of treatment finally got me back, but never throughout it all did I ever want to harm anyone other than myself. Most of us that suffer don’t; we’re self-destructive for the most part and wish no one else harm. But then you have memes like this one floating around, and you wonder if there’s something wrong with you. It deepens the stigma that’s already grasping our throats.

We, as a society, seem to throw the term “mental health” on anything bad with the world, and as a society we use that term synonymously with mental illness. Having a mental illness doesn’t make someone more likely to vote for who you consider a “bad” candidate. We’ve just created a world where it’s easier to stigmatize it rather than to admit we each suffer in different ways.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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21 Ways to Be a Good Friend for Someone With a Mental Illness

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Friendships can be vital for getting through the hard times life inevitably throws at us. If you need to cry, laugh or forget about your worries for a little while, friends are an important support system. For those who live with mental illnesses, this social support can be especially important. Friends keep us grounded and can provide the connection we need to remind us we’re worth having around.

We asked people in our community who live with mental illnesses to tell us what makes a good friend. If you’re a friend of someone who has a mental illness, their answer might provide some insight.

Here’s what they told us: 

1. “Give me a hug and let me vent. Sometimes that’s the best thing someone can do.” — Abigayle Petty

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2. “Just treat me the way you did before I became ill.” — Denise Cochrane

3. “Don’t tell me to put my big girl panties, but do tell me you support me and love me anyway.” — Andrea Heer

4. “Just calling to ask how I’m doing means a great deal.” — Winona O’Reilly

5. “Don’t confuse my humor, joy, wit or intelligence as symptoms of my illness.” — Rebecca Chamaa

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6. “Listen, provide support and understanding. Don’t be judgmental.” — Denise Marie Wilder

7. “Ask me what I need, and give time when the answer is ‘I don’t know.’” — Beth Ann Morhardt

8. “Help destigmatize. Be mindful of your language choices, privately and publicly.” — Sarah Clark

9. “Please be willing to try and ride the waves with me. Just meet me where I’m at… whether I’m up or down, don’t leave me.” — Miranda Tymoschuk

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10. “My husband is a prime example. He gives me space to have my small freak outs, but is always there when I cling to him. It’s all about what they need and want at the time. It makes a huge difference” — Marcus Wattson

11. “The biggest support for me is to be validated. Let me know it’s OK to feel this way. I’ll be here for you and promise not to fix you, but to support you.” — Melissa Fryburger-Long

12. “Come to my side to help. Social media is great, but good old fashioned face time is what I need. Pull me out of my cave and keep me moving!” — Michelle Balck

13.Don’t try to ‘fix’ me — that’s my job. But encouragement and moral support? That is what I need most.” — Selena Marie Wilson 

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14. “I would say just be there. Listen. You don’t necessarily need to understand, but being open minded is always a plus. And comfort, give hugs, let me cry even if it sounds ridiculous. What I’m crying about isn’t ridiculous to me.” — Nikki Ronnenberg

15. “I know that standing by watching someone suffer can be a lot to handle, but the best thing a friend can do is to keep being my friend and not let the mental illness come between us.” — Kimberly Edwards

16. “Educate yourself. You don’t need to understand everything or even why it’s happening, but a little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to support. Don’t shut down when I talk about the dark parts; I already feel bad enough. And reassure me you’ll be there at the end.” — Paige Alyssa O’Connor

17.Understand that sometimes I can’t hang out, but not because I don’t want to. Accept that it’s in fact an illness and I’m not making an excuse.” — Shannon Trevino

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18. “My friends are great because nothing fazes them. When I return home from months in the hospital, they treat me like I’ve never been away.” — Jenny Bridger

19. “Continue to be my friend, and be there for me. Recognize I might need more support, or space, or just someone to listen and be present with me, but that ultimately knowing you’re there and having your friendship is the best support. The difficult feelings will pass — remind me of that — but most of all be there, listen and remind me that our friendship will still be there after a difficult time.” — Lucy Ingram

20. “Tell me I’m not a burden to you. Because I feel like I’m dragging you down with me when I pick up the phone and say I’m hurting, struggling or need some one to reach out to.” — MK Knight

21. “I love when I can laugh with my friends. For a while I forget all about my depression and anxiety.” — MK Knight

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*Answers have been edited and shortened for brevity.

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3 Things the Church Can Do for People With Mental Illness

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It’s no secret at this point I suffer from bipolar disorder and anxiety. The reason I’m so open about it is because that’s the only way we’re ever going to break the stigma of mental illness (and trust me, there’s still a stigma). But having a mental illness is only a part of who I am.

I also love the church. I love the idea of a universal group of people coming together in mutual love of God, Jesus and other people. The church should be a safe place, where every broken person is welcomed and healing can begin. But I’ve heard a lot of stories of the church hurting people with mental illness. In reaction to these stories, not all of which are my own experience, here’s a list of things the church can do to help those who live with a mental illness.

1. Talk about it.

In my experience, the church has a terrible habit of not talking about things. Mental illness is no exception. When I was first diagnosed, I thought I was one of the only people I knew who suffered from bipolar disorder. This silence creates a culture of shame and fear around mental illness. It makes people feel like they are alone, and that they have no one to talk to.

However, when I started getting honest about my struggles, other people were honest with me. Believe me, there are more people than you would think, within the church, who have a mental illness. And it would make them feel much safer if they knew that the church was a safe place to talk about it.

This doesn’t just mean people with mental illnesses need to talk about them. It’s everyone’s responsibility to begin healthy conversations about it. Maybe this means hosting a workshop to teach people Mental Health First Aid. Maybe this means the pastor preaches about mental illness. Maybe this means collectively learning more about mental illnesses and debunking myths. Whatever it looks like, it is so important that the church begins a conversation on mental illness.

2. Ask people how you can help.

So someone at your church opens up about having a mental illness. What next? Ask them how you can help. And accept if they don’t have an answer right away. Let them know they can come to you in a time of need and that you’ll be there for them. Don’t push a person’s illness to the side and pretend like it doesn’t exist. A mental illness can be a huge part of someone’s life.

3. Challenge the stigma.

This one is a little harder, but still necessary. The church, as a group of people, needs to directly challenge the stigma they see and hear. Whether that’s speaking out against a friend’s distasteful joke, taking to social media to challenge the media’s portrayal of mental illness, or researching these illnesses to have a better idea of what it’s really like to live with them, it’s the church’s job to stand up for those who are hurting.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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16 Things People With Mental Illness Want to Tell the Next President

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When the next U.S. president gets inaugurated next January, he or she will have an agenda and a vision for what our country needs. While there are plenty of issues to go around, mental health is rarely considered a “hot button” issue. In fact, it seems to only be brought up in the political sphere after a tragic shooting — leaving most of the 43.8 million Americans who live with a mental illness out of the conversation.

To get that conversation going, we asked people in our Mighty community living with mental illnesses to tell us one message they have for the next U.S. president.

Here’s what they want the future president to know:

1. “You have a powerful voice. Use your voice for good, not to perpetuate stigma and hate. Mental illness is not just a talking point or shorthand to insult people. Your opponent is not mentally ill for disagreeing with you. A flip-flopper is not bipolar. Mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans. Your public. The people who you have taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend. Preserve us. Protect us. Defend us. All of us. Fund research. Fund programs. Get Americans the help we need, whether we have insurance or money or not. This is a matter of life and death. Save American lives. Make mental illness a priority.” — Danielle Hark

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2. “Healthcare is a human right. Mental health issues are health issues and coverage for mental heath treatment needs to be included when we talk about healthcare.” — Kim Shilakes

3. “Stop using people with mental illness as a scapegoat when it comes to gun violence. We are much more likely to be the victims of violence.” — Sonia Faith

4. “The mental health system is extremely broken and needs a lot of care right now. Cheaper providers, medications, better hospitals, more research and more education for the entire nation. There is so much stigma attached to mental illness because people don’t understand it. And this won’t change unless people in the government step up.” — Kimberly Labine

5. “Mental health needs to be viewed as equally important as physical health.” — Sherrie Tyler

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6. “It’s time to stop shoving mental illness into a dark closet — it’s time to actively end the stigma and give sufferers opportunities to get the best help they can. It’s not a joking matter, never has been.” — Ashley David Stevens

7. “If you care about citizens living with mental illness and want to help the state of mental health in America, please stop using stigmatizing language. Calling someone “crazy” or explicitly stating they have a mental illness contributes to the problems we all want to solve. People don’t seek help as much when mental illness is equated with being a bad person. Our conditions are serious health issues, not the butt of jokes.” — Nicole Campbell

8. “Please make mental healthcare and medication affordable! I had to forego my psych appointment and thereby my psych meds this month because I just don’t have enough money. I don’t qualify for benefits, but I don’t make enough money to buy insurance, so everything is self-pay. Due to this disaster, I may end up hospitalized.” — Terrie Karp

9. “Don’t wait until the next tragedy to talk about mental health and mental illness.” — Allison DeLuca

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10. “The majority of those with mental illness do not want to be a burden on society; we want to be productive members of society. But if we can’t work due to our issues, we rely on the system to get us stable again. Please understand that if there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, it affects the whole body. But when we get the help to heal our brains, the body usually follows suit.” — Dena Rigby

11. “Mental illness should not have to be whispered about or talked about behind closed doors. It is an illness like any physical illness, and we deserve to be treated as such. Please help us in our daily fight instead of making things harder by ignoring us!” — Caitlin Hoechst

12. “When you talk about diversity and bringing people together, don’t forget about people with disabilties or mental illnesses. It makes me feel unimportant.” — Kristie Carlsen

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13. “Mental health needs more funds for training for the police, parents, teachers and public agencies to help prevent tragedies.” — Montgomery Diaz

14. “People shouldn’t have to end up in prison to get treatment! Get this system right once and for all!” — Stephanie Aveytia

15. “I matter.” — Jenna Swearingen Hatfield

16. “Stand up and show people that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.” — Celina Pulenskey

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*Answers have been edited and shortened for brevity.

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To My Friend Having a Bad Mental Health Day

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Hi there,

I see that you’re having one of those days. Hard to get out of bed. Difficult to concentrate. Painful to smile. 

I’ve been there.

Mary getting ready for her 1-year multiple sclerosis check-up and MRI
Mary getting ready for her 1-year multiple sclerosis check-up and MRI

Moving through the fog of self-doubt and maybe self-chastisement, the day slows, and all those nagging thoughts are given room to bloom — Why am I not happy? Why can’t I move? Why do I feel stuck? Am I the only one?

Maybe you’ve had downer days before, or maybe this is a new reality.  It hurts either way. 

The hardest thing to see is the way out. The second hardest thing to understand is that this is not permanent. 

Each of us may be served tricky mental health days differently — the sensations and severity may vary widely — but don’t let yourself believe you don’t deserve to feel better. There are ways. The mind is a beautiful puzzle of neurotransmitters, synapses, hormones and messages of all sorts being sent around, all trying to work in harmony. There are tools available to help our beautiful minds thrive, and to reach that seemly elusive state of happiness or stability.

Sometimes searching so hard to get out of the darkness, we forget about the ways little rays of light could come to meet us, such as through music or meditation. Meditation helped lead me to shed fears. Sometimes even a new sleep schedule can help; sleep affects hormones, and hormones affect how we feel. And if insomnia is as much of a problem for you as it was for me, let me say again — meditation. But you can find other little things that work for you.

When we’re stuck in the quicksand of a down day, everything is hard. I know. Gentle lifestyle changes may not be “cures,” but let’s not worry about “cures” right now. Let’s just look for ways to get your light shining again. Even for one hour of one day. Because you deserve it. 

And please, please believe me when I say — there will be light. It’s there. And I’ll stay with you until we get there.   

I know, fellow warrior, that it’s just all so much. But you are definitely not alone. Let’s lean on each other, sharing in the joys and in the pain. We are in this together — stumbling through the dark, finding a way to shine.

Love,
Mary

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What helps you feel better on your “down days”? Share it with the community, and maybe you’ll help bring a little light to someone else’s day!

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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