If you live with a mental illness such as schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression, these six tips can help you maintain good mental health and progress in your recovery process.
It is my hope that writing about my experiences will open conversations about illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, and depression. I used to work with a woman who often said that in the 1960s, people never talked about cancer. It was a taboo topic, it was certain death, you just didn’t mention it in polite company. Then, as people talked more about cancer, there was more early detection and more lives were saved. More funding was raised for treatment and research, just by talking about something that was once taboo. This is something that I feel can one day happen with mental illnesses. Just today, I was giving a talk about mental health awareness to a high school class and my co-presenter asked the class how many of them had family members with a mental illness, and about 10 hands in a class of 30 went up. This tells me that people are now more ready to talk about mental health, and also that there are a lot more people out there who are suffering than we may realize, and discussing things like the following really can make a difference.
As you read the below suggestions, it is important to understand this is not an exhaustive list, but it may be helpful to look at these suggestions and write down more of your own that you can share with friends who have mental health issues. You can even participate in social media groups and ask them their opinions on anything that strikes you, how they feel about these, and some of your own suggestions on maintaining good mental health.
1. Never stop or change your medication without finding out all the facts and consulting with the doctor who handles your case.
Some years ago, I was living alone and hadn’t been ill in a very long time. I stopped going to see my psychiatrist and the negative thinking started to creep in. I started to think maybe I didn’t need a psychiatrist, that maybe I had a hormonal problem. I hadn’t been ill in such a long time, and I didn’t have anyone to correct me, so I decided my medications could be changed.
It started innocently enough, I just lowered the dose of one medication, but what I didn’t know was that the medication I lowered had to attain a certain level in my bloodstream to work. So, by cutting it in half, I made it totally useless. I got sicker than I had ever been and ended up going through the worst ordeal of my life, I had to be in the hospital for six long months. The irony was that when I went in, the doctors didn’t know if I had stopped taking my medications or if my medications had stopped working, so they had to start over from scratch. By the end of the six months, I was simply put back onto the same medication I was on before and I returned to being well again. But I had lost a big chunk of my life. Never change your meds without talking to a professional!
2. Find a counselor you can afford to help you talk through things that contribute to your mental health struggles.
Something not often mentioned in psychiatry is that it has been proven talk therapy alone is more effective than medication alone. This doesn’t mean you should stop taking your medications, but it does mean you should take medications and seek out a therapist. It can be expensive, but there are many alternatives for those on a low or fixed income. Many private psychologists or counselors will work on a sliding scale and some even offer a limited number of free sessions. I recently went through ten sessions of therapy and the compassion and life skills I was taught were so incredibly valuable. I had gone to some sessions before when my mother passed away. This was through a hospital chaplain who was qualified to counsel people and received a salary, so I didn’t have to pay a lot to access her services.
3. Nurture your relationships with family and friends to help maintain your mental health.
Some people feel bad that they don’t have many rewarding, solid friendships in their lives, but in truth, even some of the most mentally healthy people have only a few close friendships. What is different is that they step out of their comfort zone to maintain their friendships. In my case, I have one friend I have known for almost 40 years. I think about him a lot, and now and then he sends me an email or if he is close to where I live, we will meet for lunch. The friendship is so strong that it keeps going even though for the past five years or more we only see each other about once a year.
I am very lucky to have a cousin who is also a close friend. He and I talk on the phone almost every day. I still must set some boundaries with him; he knows if he calls and I am in the middle of writing something, he will have to wait for a while. What is important to me is that there is someone I can feel relaxed with, can joke with and who is part of my family.
I have a few other friends I talk to every day, including an ex-girlfriend who I haven’t seen romantically in almost 30 years. When I first moved into my new apartment, it was a big adjustment period for me because I had lived in a group home for 15 years and had really gotten used to having people around. She was nice enough to talk with me for hours each day on the phone. Other friends I only see in the neighborhood, and some friends I only see on Facebook. When I can though, I try to see my closer friends from Facebook whenever they are in my area, or I am in theirs.
My best friend right now is a fellow author who has taught me a great deal about the business of writing. He is Indigenous and is such a generous soul. He has taught me that whenever you see someone you should bring a gift for them. He is a very fun and unique person and has an 8-year-old son, so I often find myself being the recipient of Star Wars toys his son no longer plays with. I like having them around, and sometimes I even set them up to recreate scenes from the movies. It feels good to have a hobby I can share with my best friend and just have fun with, even though some may consider it a bit immature.
4. Consider getting a dog to keep you active and maintain good mental health.
Until just a few short years ago, I was a cat person. I loved cats, had a wonderful cat when I was a child, and always sort of thought dogs were barking, drooling, messy nuisances. Until my sister got two. Dogs take a fair bit of care, from vet bills to taking them for twice-daily walks, but they pay you back in love and loyalty.
A few summers ago, my sister wanted to go out of town and asked me if I wanted to come to Toronto to babysit her dogs. I didn’t know much about them, but was willing to learn, and I knew my sister’s dogs were very loving. I was almost overwhelmed by the things I had to do from feeding them right to disciplining them and keeping them off the furniture. One day it was sweltering hot in my sister’s house, and I went into the bedroom and locked the door. The dogs came and scratched and barked, scratched, and barked without relenting one little bit until I finally gave in and let them come in. The two of them, about 30-40 pounds each, cuddled up with me despite that I was already too hot as it was. But for them, it was all about unconditional love.
When I was a kid, I would always sleep better knowing my parents were just down the hall in case anything bad ever happened. With dogs nearby, I also have that feeling of protection, and at the very least a warning if there were ever intruders or the like. Therefore, I strongly recommend people with mental health issues get a dog. If you do get one, large or small, and you find it soothes you and you don’t ever want to be away from your dog, consider having your pet trained as a service animal so you can bring it everywhere, including stores and other high-stress areas.
5. Use meditation and relaxation techniques to make yourself more comfortable in your own skin.
I have always been fascinated with eastern religions, and the amazing thing is, the key element of eastern religions is something that is extremely good for your mental health. It is, of course, meditation. You may not go as far with it as in my case, where I went to a Tibetan Buddhist Monk and trained in meditation techniques, but whatever level you attain will help you with your daily life and positively impact your mental health.
First, meditation doesn’t need to be sitting on the floor, legs wrapped up like a pretzel, in a robe with your eyes closed. Meditation is more about clearing your mind and focusing on your breathing. The largest part of my own meditation practice is when I take a three-mile walk to a grocery store in the North end of my home city, and I simply think about my breathing, breathing in to a count of three, holding for a count of three, breathing out for a count of three, holding for a count of three and then repeating. It is called box breathing and it can be very soothing. When you combine it with focusing your thoughts, it is even more powerful. When I do sitting meditation, what I like to do is to count my breaths, in is one, out is two. I count to ten and then start over. But I rarely get to ten easily. The rule is, you keep your mind clear as you go, and if you start to notice thoughts distracting you or worries creeping up, you gently go back to one and start over.
Over time, you will learn to keep your mind clear, and it has been proven that when a person does a certain amount of meditation over time, it is so powerful that it can even reverse organic brain damage. For me, the most important part is that I can keep control over the bad memories I often have of my experiences being severely mentally ill.
6. Get connected with your local Speaker’s Bureau or become a member of a mental health agency that will hire you to help others.
I currently work for The Schizophrenia Society and am paid minimum wage to give community education presentations to various groups about mental health. In your area, you may be able to join a Speaker’s Bureau that will pay you to give similar talks. Once you feel you have control of your illness and have learned a lot of the tricks, tips, and ideas that help you get through, you stick to your treatment plan by helping others overcome their problems.
One organization that is across the US and Canada is called WRAP, or Wellness Recovery Action Plan. They show you how to overcome your mental illness and take control of it by carefully planning out what triggers you, what you can do when you feel triggered, and what to watch out for to know you are getting ill again. Then they go into detail about what treatments you do or do not want, and what hospital you want to be treated in as well as what doctors you want treating you. You take the first course, then if you do well and you feel up to it, there is an option of taking a second course to become a paid WRAP group facilitator. I found the training incredibly helpful and taking the course opened up a lot of new opportunities for me to teach other classes.
Facilitating and giving presentations may not be for everyone, but it can greatly benefit those who feel empowered by it. One of the good things is that even if you don’t become a speaker or group facilitator, you can still connect with social groups, support groups, and many agencies from the Schizophrenia Society to the National Institute for Mental Illness offer informational sessions. Learning all you can about your illness can be incredibly beneficial.
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