It is so important to understand that despite a mental illness there are still many things you can do with your life. I honestly feel that many people, especially if they are under 60, can recover from a mental health diagnosis and live a full life. Often, success starts with small steps. Here are six simple, key things you can do now to improve your mental health.
1. Get a hobby to lift your mood and improve your mental health.
People with chronic illnesses often have a lot of time on their hands and it seems such a waste to spend all that potential doing something passive like watching TV. A good hobby is one where you can challenge yourself, learn, and grow as a person. Early on in my adulthood, my illness prevented me from working, but it didn’t prevent me from reading. I like to think I gave myself an education by reading textbooks and watching university course videos from the library. I found there were many ways to overcome my depression and other symptoms by finding books that were fun to read. Some people may enjoy biographies of film stars or rock legends. At one point, as an adult, I read my entire childhood collection of Archie Comic Digests. It helped lift me out of a funk. Another time, when I was restless and impatient because of medication, I read short stories.
There are so many hobbies a person can engage in, such as creating art or making and decorating greeting cards by hand that you can later take to a flea market or farmer’s market to sell. My sister gets a great deal of joy out of making jewelry with beads. The idea is to find something that reaches you in whatever mood you may be in and possibly distracts you from your situation and gets you through. I have gotten a lot of joy out of military miniatures, putting planes together, painting them, and applying stickers. I have friends who have done similar models and hung them from their ceilings with thread. This hobby sparked me to learn all I could about planes and I even flew gliders and small planes for a short time because of this hobby. As you advance in knowledge, you can start to reach out to others with similar interests. You could join a book club, enter your models into competitions, and make dioramas by posing your miniatures and taking pictures. Then you can find websites and Facebook groups that discuss your hobbies.
2. Make a job out of getting proper exercise and maintaining a healthy diet.
I was into yoga for a while. I was amazed at how the practitioners of this endeavor were so strong, fit, and had almost perfect, sculpted physiques. I also found that it worked well with other physical activities I liked to engage in, including swimming. The gentle, powerful yoga stretches helped me to swim faster and further and helped prevent sore muscles.
Although I personally suggest a more rounded activity that exercises your upper-body muscles as well, walking is also great. If you can jog, wonderful! I used to jog but had no coaching and pushed myself too hard, resulting in knee injuries. Walking to me is a great alternative. When I started taking longer walks, I used to bring a radio or mp3 player, but after a while, I learned I enjoyed walking in silence. It really went well with another hobby I have, which is photography. I started out with a full camera slung around my neck, then as cell phone cameras improved and I learned more about editing and composition of photos, I found my cell phone camera did just fine. At the end of a walk, I would take the time to post my photos to social media websites. This helped me meet a few people who had similar interests and I learned a lot.
The important thing to remember is that you never know where an activity will take you. Learn a little about the physical activity and take any concerns you might have to your MD before you start any strenuous activity, and give it an honest try.
One of my main reasons for engaging in so many physical activities was that I wanted to lose weight. I soon learned that diet was equally important to my physical activity in achieving this. I have a cousin who once lost a great deal of weight by switching to an organic diet. I don’t suggest drastic steps like this, without consulting a dietician, but everyone can benefit from having a proper balance of fruits and vegetables. Many days I don’t eat meat though I am not a vegetarian or vegan and I enjoy meat. I have simply found that fruits and vegetables are an easy way of bypassing some of the fats and other unhealthy ingredients in meat.
Again, seek out cooking groups online. Do some google searching on healthy eating and subscribe to some email groups. I am sad to say that I let my poor diet get the best of me and at 47 I was diagnosed with type two diabetes. I have gotten a lot of great advice and healthy recipes from online sources delivered to my inbox daily. It can be very hard for people with poor mental health to stay physically fit and have a proper diet, but I promise you it will be worth it, and once you get past the adjustment phase of your new, healthier lifestyle, you won’t feel you are missing out on anything.
3. Write about your mental health journey and keep a symptom journal.
Putting pen to paper in many ways can lead to better mental health. One of the first ways this can work is by keeping a journal. In a class that I teach in a psychiatric hospital, journaling is always the first thing I talk to new students about. A journal is different than a diary. In a journal you are not asked to write each day about the day’s events, you are free to write about your thoughts and feelings, what things or people are contributing to your happiness, and what things or people are taking away from it. I suggest trying an exercise known as free writing where you close your eyes and just write, just let out your thoughts and emotions in no specific order. After you write a few lines or half a page you can look back and see what you wrote and write out how those words were significant.
A journal can also be a tool to monitor your progress toward your goals. Your goals could have to do with your hobbies. You may want to make and sell 20 greeting cards in a month, or you may want to work your way up to walking for three one-hour sessions a week and swimming for another two. There really are no rules or expectations for writing a journal, and it is yours, not to be read by anyone.
Another way putting pen to paper can help you is when you see your MD or your psychiatrist. All too often people think about what they want to talk to their doctor about but forget or get distracted when they get to their office. If you write down what issues you want to deal with, and what medications you might want to be changed or want more information about, you can give it to your doctor when you see them.
Another way putting pen to paper can help you with your mental health is by getting a calendar, even a free one from a bank or pharmacy, and writing down all your plans and appointments on it. You can take one step further if you have a lot of things to put down by getting a pocket agenda book, but I find even with my three jobs, a regular wall calendar does just fine. Then when someone calls you and wants to arrange to meet or to set up an appointment, you know when you’re available and you can plan your days so you can get the extra rest you may need by going to bed early, or know the exact day you need to go to the pharmacy or for groceries. Organizing your life helps you get more done and avoids the danger of losing touch with your treatment team. Even the best doctor in town can’t help you if you can’t make your appointments.
4. Build more relationships for support, and possibly even a romantic partnership.
One of the things often talked about in 12-step groups and joked about in the Sandra Bullock movie “28 Days” is that you may need to learn to nurture relationships by using a three-step plan. Relationships are very important when you are in the recovery phase of a mental health difficulty. They are important for everyone, but when you have a mental illness, you may have lost friends due to stigma or a long hospital visit, or even just let too much time lapse since contacting a friend. I can recall some very lonely days when I would sit in my apartment and look through the phone book for anyone I knew who I had lost touch with and who I could call and just have a normal conversation with. This is part of the reason why I feel people should consider living in a supportive group home for a while after leaving a hospital because it is a lot easier to make friends when you are around others daily who either also have a mental illness or are trained to deal with someone who has a mental illness.
For those who seem to keep losing friends and never seem to have partner relationships that work out, first get a plant. Learn how to properly take care of the plant, and when you have had it a while and it is doing OK, take a step up to having a pet. When I was younger, I jumped over having a plant and got a gerbil, which really brought me a lot of joy. I also gained a lot of understanding and compassion for animals, which later helped when I interacted with more people. As the theory goes, once you have had a pet for a while and it is healthy, then you can start to consider having a romantic partner relationship. Of course, it is OK to have friends before this process, but you could be surprised at how much you learn from having a plant and a pet.
5. Get involved in community activities that can help improve your mental health.
Starting to do more things to become an accepted part of your community can greatly enhance your mental health. My community is many things. It is the group of people I work with at the hospital and at the Schizophrenia Society. It is the people I interact with daily on social media, and it is the people who live in my neighborhood. A few years back I started getting involved in my community newspaper. It was a fun paper to read, it always talked about people I knew and things that were happening in the area. I started writing for them and it was easy, I didn’t have to work hard at all, but I got my name out and learned a lot about the people I shared space with.
Later, I wrote stories and did photography for the paper. One of the best parts of being a part of the paper was that there were frequent volunteer appreciation events. One was a pizza party at a local restaurant, all paid for, and I got to meet a young woman who later became my Member of the Legislative Assembly. Another time they had a fundraiser, and I was hired to take photos of the event. It was the most fun I had all that year. One of the people I met was the Chief of Police who asked me to bring my books to his office so he could purchase them. I never felt more appreciated or respected. But community goes a lot further than that. It comes from taking the time to make friends with people and showing that you care. It can be achieved by volunteering, attending a local church, and getting involved. It can also be taking part in things like a community league or going to cooking classes. One way of finding out about these types of gatherings is to read the events calendar in the newspaper, usually found in the classifieds section.
6. Connect with and take full advantage of the mental health resources in your area.
Sadly, many local resources run by charities or mental health clinics aren’t well advertised. I haphazardly became involved with The Schizophrenia Society many years ago. I started by going to meetings called “Unsung Heroes” where we would play bingo or board games. It was a relief to be around people who had gone through having voices, delusions, and paranoia and had survived. I made some genuine friends there, but later I learned they had a lot more to offer, including a course in wellness that gave me a lot of knowledge about my illness and overcoming it. They had guest speakers come to the branch office to talk about finances or medications or types of therapy. They even offered me a very rewarding part-time job as a peer support worker and community education presenter.
There are many agencies like The Schizophrenia Society, including some funded by the government. For example, the Canadian Mental Health Association, which funds a magazine written by people with mental illnesses among many other services across the country, and in the USA The National Institute for Mental Health has a vast website, does research, and gives out information to people with mental health issues.
A little time at the pool, a short walk with a friend or family member each day. Walk to the grocery store if you can, and then you can reward yourself with a few hours of TV or a fruit smoothie from your blender. But keep trying to reach new goals. When I started walking, I was a smoker and could barely walk a mile with my elderly father. I worked my way up to being smoke-free and walking six miles a day but realized that was too much and cut down to three. After getting into shape, I was able to work some well-paid jobs. With my writing, I started out just keeping a journal and trying to write short stories when I felt inspired and now, 30 years down the road, I have written 12 books.
There may be setbacks, there may be times when your medication or mood causes you to need inpatient treatment. When you have setbacks, remind yourself they are just temporary. Take the time you need to heal and when you get back in the swing of things, you may just find that with all you learned, you bounce back a lot easier than when you were younger and weren’t able to put aside your problems like you’ve learned to do now.
Leif Gregersen is an author of fiction and non-fiction, and has published 12 books, of which 4 are poetry collections, 3 are short story collections, 2 are short novels, and 2 are memoirs of his life experience with mental illness.