When we enter therapy or other mental health treatment, we don’t always know what to expect. As a mental health clinician and as a person who has also walked through her own mental health recovery, there are a number of things I (and I believe most mental health providers I know) wish the individuals we meet with knew. These are five of those things.
1. We Care About Your Well-Being and Healing
It might be tricky to think that a person who is paid to provide mental health care to you would also genuinely care about your well-being and healing. This said, myself and most providers I know do genuinely care. We are happy to see your accomplishments and saddened by your hurting. Many of us spent our own time and money seeking out training and resources that we hope will give us better tools to help you. We want you to reach your dreams.
2. Sometimes We Have to Make Tough Choices
If you are at risk to harm yourself or others, we may be ethically and legally obligated to take steps to ensure your safety and the safety of others such as helping you to hospital. Similarly, if specific facts are shared with us regarding children, we are often required to take steps to ensure their safety such as reaching out to Child Protective Services. We do not like to overstep your wishes and do not want to damage your trust. This is just what we have to do.
We understand that seeking help can be a scary step for people and appreciate the bravery it takes for you to do that. We also recognize that the things you share with us likely shame, worry, scare and/or anger you. That’s OK. Living with a mental health condition, surviving trauma, dealing with grief, and any number of other challenges that bring a person to therapy do not make that person “crazy.” I personally have yet to meet a “crazy” client.
4. Many of Us Have Been There
Although we are not likely to talk to you about our own journeys (therapy is your time), many of us entered the mental health field after fighting our own battles and wanting to help others. We may know first hand how it feels to have a panic attack or experience depression, or we have close family/friends who do. At the very least, most of us integrate the same wellness tools and skills we teach you into our own lives.
We can’t help you if you aren’t here. In the same direction, if you do not feel therapy is helping or do not feel that we are helping you, we want to know that! It might be tempting to stop attending sessions to avoid the “break-up” style conversation that therapy just isn’t working. However, if you are able to attend and voice those concerns we may be able to address these or help you find a therapist who better gels with you.
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Sometimes they are seen in a positive light, other times they are viewed negatively. Sometimes they are not acknowledged at all.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about labels. It seems like a bit of a random thing to think about, but I am often a little random like that. So, why all the thoughts about labels? Let me explain.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One thing that continues to be a difficulty with mental health is the stigma of having a mental illness (perceived or otherwise). For me, I used to believe that having a mental illness meant I had a label I couldn’t shake; a label that defined me, that made me feel less. Inferior. Broken.
I still struggle with this thought. I still struggle with the labels. More often than not, I shy away from the topic altogether, because I’m ashamed. Ashamed I can’t control it, that I can’t overcome it; that it’s a part of me, no matter how I try to escape it.
But it’s not all of me. It doesn’t define me. It just … is.
So, what’s all the fuss about labels anyway?
The truth is, labels are an essential part of life.
Think for a moment, what would a trip to the supermarket be like without labels? How would a doctor know how to treat you if you didn’t have a label for a particular illness? I believe the problem with labels is more in the way we perceive them than in the label itself.
What do I mean by that?
A label that states “strawberry jam” tells me the most basic information about the contents of that particular item. It tells me the general flavor, but not how it will taste specifically. It doesn’t tell me how it will smell when I open the lid, how thick or runny it will be, how many pieces of strawberry will be in it, or how it will feel when it touches my tongue. When you really think about it, it doesn’t tell me a lot at all. But it tells me enough to give me a very general idea.
In this same way, the label “generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)” doesn’t really tell you a lot about me. It tells you I’m anxious, but not what that means to me. How do I experience anxiety? Does my heart race? Do I sweat? Feel dizzy? How does it make me feel? What are my triggers?
The experience of GAD is unique to each person, just as each person is unique. While there are certain commonalities, these manifest and are displayed differently by each person with this particular label.
This is true, I believe, of every condition. My daughter has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). How she experiences the world is vastly different from another person with ASD. Yet, there are commonalities in their experience.
So, while the label tells me some basic information, it does not tell me the whole story. It doesn’t define a person, but rather make me aware that I need to find out what that label means for that person.
We are all a unique combination of our experiences, our genetics, our labels.
The truth about labels is that they are a guide, necessary for finding our way in the world. It is up to us to ensure that we don’t form judgments based on assumptions and perceptions associated with particular labels.
You don’t think I notice the things you do to help me deal with my mental health, but I do.
I notice the way you never keep me on the phone long or you text before you call me because you know I have anxiety and I can’t stay on the phone very long. I notice the way you never seem to mind if I just listen and don’t talk much because words are hard for me sometimes.
I notice when you’ve crept into my room at night, whether it’s just to make sure I’m OK even though the pup is at my feet (or on the pillow next to me) or to sneak in and hold me for a while. Mostly because you either never shut the door tight after I had it shut or you shut the door tight after I opened it a crack.
I notice how even though you’re in excruciating pain, you’ll still do the things you’ve asked me to do for a week now because I’m in one of those moods where I just can’t get out of bed. Or, if I can, all I do is watch documentaries or reruns of sports games and events I’ve recorded. I notice when you bring me a drink without my asking, or when you pop in to ask if I’m hungry, or when you bring in my dinner plate and say “I’ll be back in a little bit to get this” because you know I haven’t eaten all day.
I notice how, even if it’s half done, you still tell me I did a good job or it looks nice — if only to make sure my feelings of worthlessness or that I could’ve done better aren’t validated like my mind wants them to be.
I notice when you buy my favorite snacks, or when you pick a cheap item off of my Amazon list and send it to me without telling, or how you don’t get mad if I tune out of a story you’re telling because my brain is going places and loses focus. I notice when you fight back with me when I get angry, to remind me that right now I’m not in control but it’s OK.
I notice when you snuggle up to me and give me a lick, not because you necessarily want to kiss me, but because you know I need it.
I notice when you drop the occasional message, or send a text, or reply to me on Twitter with either one reason or no reason at all to remind me I’m loved and I’m noticed and you’re here.
Every single thing you do for me, day in and day out, night after night, despite dealing with your own illnesses and your own feelings and your own problems, or in the case of my fur-babies when you just want to curl up or play with a stuffy or chew on your bone; I notice them. I know I don’t always put that into words or show it through my actions, but I see them and I appreciate them.
I love them, I appreciate you more than I can put into words for doing them, and I love you.
In just 12 more weeks, I will finish my university experience and I’ll be taking away three important lessons:
1. Health comes before achievement.
2. Life should be done with others.
3. Always know how to get help.
Getting into university is a big achievement for anyone and should be celebrated, but sometimes those achievements don’t make you feel the way you expected them to.
I always wanted to do better. I wanted to be “good enough” and to achieve something great, but nothing was ever good enough. I managed to pass every essay, exam and placement but entered into my third and final year even more self-critical, fearful and unkind to myself. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough, regardless of how much I had overcome in order to get there.
Finding myself sat in front of a mental health worker after yet another breakdown felt like the beginning of the end to everything I had worked towards. I didn’t feel good enough to make it through the degree. I wasn’t strong enough, resilient enough, smart enough … I just wasn’t enough. But whilst I felt like I wasn’t enough, I learned some of the most valuable lessons:
Health comes before essays, exams, placements, jobs etc.
If you really want to graduate from university, you will get there. Maybe it won’t be this year or the next, but it’ll only happen if you learn to put your health first.
If you need to take time out here and there to make sure you make it through your course, then take that time out. There is no shame in caring for yourself, only strength.
You’ll get to where you want to be in the time frame that’s set out just for you.
2. Life should be done with others.
As a nursing student, it’s not uncommon to not see your cohort over a number of months. Bumping into a friend led to a conversation about how lonely university can be. It is so important to meet new people and to share the experiences with them. Sharing the best and difficult times with others sometimes makes it all a little less overwhelming, and makes life a much less lonely experience.
Following on from the point above, we aren’t meant to do life alone. Sometimes we just need the help of someone else — it’s totally OK and totally natural. Bringing things into the light is where change and healing begin. Take time to know how to get help, whether it’s through your tutor, lecturers, doctor or university support services.
So I really want to share the songs that understand me — the songs I feel when I’m having a bad moment, whether it can escalate quickly or just end in a tick. They’re a little bit mixed with romantic stuff, but I hope some of this helps you in any way.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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People are important. Reaching out is important. A text can save a life. Today I am grateful for my friends.
For years, I was convinced I needed to deal with everything on my own — that my problems were mine alone, and letting people in was the worst possible thing I could do for them, and for me. Depression convinces you that you are worthless — worth less than everybody else — so what right do you have to inflict yourself on other people? Who are you to ask for anything from anyone?
I personally find it very difficult to ask for help with anything. I think this is true for a lot of people. We live in a world where admitting weakness very often results in a loss of respect from those around us. People take advantage. Survival of the fittest has created a culture of fear: fear of honesty; fear of judgment; fear of being seen a less than. In some cases, even physical illness is seen as a personal weakness. But there is a particular feeling of superiority when it comes mental health problems. Born out of a lack of understanding, perhaps. Well, I’d like to think.
To a large extent, mental illness is invisible. People struggle in silence, develop coping mechanisms — some healthy, some not. So unless someone reaches crisis point, the people around them are very unlikely to know there is a problem. And if your only experience of mental health problems is seeing someone in crisis, it all becomes a bit big and scary. But what if we were all more honest about our daily struggles? What if admitting to anxiety was no more remarkable than telling people you had a headache? Are we ready for that? Do we even have the language necessary to have these discussions? It’s hard to say things, articulate things, that people have a limited understanding of.
But it is important to talk. Whether it’s sending a text, messaging on social media sites, leaving a comment on a blog, meeting up for a coffee and a chat or sending a good old-fashioned letter. These are things that can help. It’s important to reach out, to let people in. It may seem scary. You may stare at that send button for ages before working up the courage to press it. But believe me, it’s amazing the weight that lifts afterward. Just knowing someone else knows can make a huge difference to how much strength you have to cope with difficult situations.
So, I guess what I’m saying is this: if you know someone who’s having a hard time, contact them. Let them know they’re not alone. And if you’re struggling, I know it’s hard sometimes to see anything outside yourself. But people are there. And want to help. A text could be the first step.