It’s Mental Health Awareness Month in the States. As the Bloggess pointed out, wouldn’t it be nice to only have to be aware of mental illness for a month a year? Yes, it would. For many people, though, it’s not that simple. On her blog, the Bloggess put a call out to people to share their experiences, and what they’ve learned that’s helped them. I think it’s a great idea, and part of something very important: we need to start talking about mental health. We need to remove the stigma about people discussing their own experiences with it. It removes one of the obstacles to people getting help- actually feeling able to say “I have a problem and it’s not going away”. She posted two questions for people to answer. Here are my answers. I hope they help someone.
How has mental illness affected you personally?
I’ve suffered from depression for a long time. I’ve been on antidepressants for the past 2 years, and have had to take them previously. I also suffer from anxiety, which is situational in origin. I’m one of the lucky ones. I know that compared to what others have to deal with, my own mental health issues aren’t nearly as bad. I once had to take- and by take I mean frogmarch- a severely, clinically depressed flatmate to A&E because they were planning to commit suicide, which I only found out about because I read their blog. I’ve been to therapy, read books.
I remember the first time I was prescribed antidepressants, it took me several weeks to start taking them. I sat looking at the packet of pills, and then at the dose sitting in my hand, for several minutes, knowing what it would mean if I started taking them. I didn’t come off them right the first time I took them, in part because the doctor I had at the time hadn’t given me any information about coming off them. He had, in fact, told me that I should take them for the rest of my life “to save my marriage” (they didn’t save it, thank goodness).
What did you learn from it that might help others?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is this: not all doctors are created equal. This is not to denigrate anyone who works in general practice, it’s a damned hard job. But some GPs are better than others. We all know this. With mental health issues, that goes triple. Some GPs are better at understanding and treating patients with mental health issues than others- just like some are better with kids, or with elderly relatives who don’t WANT to go into a home, or with minor surgical procedures. It’s just the way it is. But that does mean it’s worth it, if you’re looking for help, to try and find a doctor who’s good at helping people with depression, anxiety, addiction, or the illness you have.
The first doctor who prescribed me antidepressants was appalling. He had already made me feel guilty about physical illnesses (not kidding). He didn’t titrate my dose of antidepressants up. He prescribed me a sleeping pill to go with the antidepressants, and failed to tell me that the pill he prescribed me could be habit-forming. Ie, he didn’t tell me I risked becoming addicted to the pills he was giving me if I took them every day. He told me to take one every day. He showed no empathy, and little understanding of the situation.
The second doctor who prescribed me antidepressants was the complete opposite. She explained about titrating the dose of antidepressants up, told me I would need to take them for at least a year, and then there would be a slow process of coming off them. She made sure I felt comfortable about taking them, explaining that they were medicine to get me into the right headspace so that I could do the mental/therapy work I needed to do to get myself right. “Get yourself well so you can get yourself well”. She prescribed a sleeping pill but advised that I only take it when I had a sleep deficit to catch up on. She was practical and kind. She didn’t make me feel judged, or guilty.
Like I said, not all doctors are created equal. If you have the option to choose a doctor (which isn’t the case in the UK with the NHS, though you could try a different doctor in your surgery, or ask for a referral), then ask around, if you can. Maybe talk to a local mental health charity and see if they know of a good GP in your area. It really is worth it to go to someone who’s good with mental health.
Not all medicines are created equal either
And just like a particular antibiotic or painkiller may not work for you, and you need to take a different one, the same goes for antidepressants. I’ve had various friends struggle to get the right mix, or to find one that doesn’t have bad side effects. It can be a difficult process finding the right medicine to take- that’s why working with a doctor who’s good at this stuff is important. If the medication they prescribe isn’t working, go back and talk to them about it. They know their stuff. They can help.
Mental illness is just that- an illness
There’s no shame in seeking help. And there’s no shame in having a mental illness. It’s just a different organ- your brain- that has the issue. It took me a while to finally start taking antidepressants because I was ashamed of what it would mean. I know others who have suffered from depression who’ve got worse instead of better because they tried to think their way out of being sick. Yes, willpower has a role to play. But you can’t think your way out of being depressed or anxious (or out of any other mental health issue) any more than you can think your way out of having the flu, or a cold. It’s an illness. Get some kind of treatment.
If you have situational depression or anxiety, a therapist is really helpful
They can talk about what’s going on in your life and help you look at things in new ways. If your depression or anxiety is situational, a therapist can help you identify the triggers for it, and the reasons behind it. This is REALLY useful. Like doctors, not all therapists are the same. They also won’t be offended if you visit them and find they’re not the right person for you. If you don’t click with one therapist, keep looking. Finding the right one is worth the effort.
So that’s the main things I’ve learned. I hope they help someone out there.