Some coping mechanisms for those touched by mental illness
The Herald Journal - 4/1/2017
A college student taking a test becomes lightheaded and sweaty, feels his throat tighten and his heart start to race, and starts feeling panicky! A woman can’t leave her house without repeatedly rechecking her oven, stove, iron, and everything else that could possibly start a fire while she’s gone — so she seldom goes anywhere. A young man tries to turn off a light and leave his room without counting and tapping on the wall a certain number of times, but his body won’t move until the ritual is completed. A teenage girl begins to have extremely troubling and uncontrollable thoughts that mock her morals, religious beliefs, and feelings of worth. A man spirals downward into sadness and despair so dark and heavy that nothing seems to help or matter anymore.
Hyper-anxiety. Obsessions. Compulsions. Paranoia. Hallucinations. Confusion. Mood swings. Depression. All are unnerving (and often overlapping) symptoms of some kind of abnormality or malfunctioning of the brain, referred to as brain disorders or mental illnesses. In a 2015 article by the American Psychiatric Association, it states that “mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion, or behavior (or a combination of these), and are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities” and that nearly one in five U.S. adults experiences some form of mental illness, with one in 24 having a serious one. And while they can occur at any age, most begin by age 24. Also, mental illness doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anyone — regardless of age, gender, social status, race, religion, sexual orientation, background, or whatever. We’ve come a long way in our knowledge and management of this, but we still have far to go in preventing, treating, and erasing the stigma associated with it.
I’ve learned a lot over the years, particularly through experiences with people I’ve known personally, about some of the difficulties those suffering with certain aspects of mental illness struggle with on a day-to-day basis, as well as the challenges they and their families face in trying to maintain a degree of normality in their lives and find the right kind of help.
According to a recent article in the Deseret News (3-26-17), only about 40 percent of people suffering from mental illness receive treatment — which usually involves some kind of medication along with talk therapy. (There’s even a new hands-on approach called equine-assisted psychotherapy, where people tackle their mental-health issues by “getting up close and personal” with some gentle horses!) There are many reasons, though, why people don’t seek or get adequate help, such as denial of the problem, embarrassment, belief that the person just needs to “toughen up,” lack of knowledgeable personnel and/or treatment options nearby, prior bad experiences with doctors or medication, or concerns about cost. And of course all mental-health practitioners and meds are not created equal, and it might require a lengthy process of trial and error before the right therapist and/or medication is found – which can be very expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating for people who are already struggling so much.
I remember once accompanying a young woman to an appointment with a mental-health counselor she’d felt rather uncomfortable with the first time, just to be supportive and maybe helpful in some way; but all-too-quickly I, too, was very disappointed with his indifferent attitude and the realization that he didn’t seem to have even looked at the paperwork she and her parents had so painstakingly filled out for him beforehand. I also don’t recall him giving her any real encouragement or suggestions, and when our time was up he simply wrote out a prescription for some medication she hadn’t tried yet, and we were done.
I’m sure it’s not easy to interact daily with people who have problems such as those associated with mental health issues, but what a blessing it is for someone who’s hurting to find a knowledgeable and compassionate doctor or therapist! They do exist, so I’d encourage anyone in a situation like this not to get discouraged or give up. (Bear River Mental Health, NAMI, the Family Institute of Northern Utah, crisis centers, etc. can also be helpful resources.)
It can be very hard on family members, especially parents, to deal with the interactions and caregiving of a person with a brain disorder, so it’s important that each person closely affected find coping mechanisms and have a life outside of their loved one’s illness. Some good suggestions for primary caregivers in particular are: 1.) Keep up-to-date, detailed records of healthcare professionals visited, medications and “alternative measures” tried, and the results of each. 2.) Write in a journal – both the good and bad stuff. 3.) Take one day at a time. Try not to worry about the future with all its uncertainties, nor dwell on the past and how things used to be. 4.) Take time for yourself and other family members, even if you have to occasionally recruit outside help. 5.) Talk about the current situation as openly as would be appropriate with other family members, and encourage their help and input. 6.)Recognize and accept your limitations. You can’t take away all the hurt or challenges your loved one is experiencing. 7.) Find things to be grateful for each day, no matter how small, and acknowledge even tiny signs of progress. 8.) Reach out to others who might need help or encouragement in some way, downplaying your own struggles for a while. 9.)Take care of yourself, and find ways to be physically and mentally active. 10.) Try to keep a sense of humor (laughter is always good medicine), and enjoy positive relationships with others as much as possible. 11.) Draw strength from spiritual sources if those things have been important to you in the past. (12.) Above all, never give up! Even if it seems that there’s no relief in sight, the help you need might be just one more idea, one more phone call, one more visit, or one more medication away. I’ve seen it happen.
Dena Rock is a retired school teacher involved in community volunteer opportunities and mental health issues.