Being mindful of mental illness

photo credit: jessicahtam via photopin cc

There’s a lot of mental illness stigma in New Zealand. From the friend or family member who tells you just to ‘get over it’, to the many little ways that living with a mental illness in an unsupportive environment slowly erodes at you. Whenever I see a new campaign set out to help inform and educate people about mental illness I am heartened, but often end up feeling a tad disappointed. Campaigns tend to focus on depression, but other forms of mental illness are still so very rarely discussed.

The kind of depression that gets funding and celebrity campaigns tends to be episodic depression.

The kind of depression that gets funding and celebrity campaigns tends to be episodic depression. I guess its appeal is that it can hit absolutely anyone and it’s treatable. If you have an episode of depression you can get out the other end and have it be over. It’s got to be very appealing to have your campaign finish with a happy ending, especially if you get to put a respected celebrity face to it. This is great, and I’m happy that campaigns like this exist, but they aren’t structured to talk about anything other than episodic depression, and so they don’t do much to raise awareness for other kinds of mental illness. They still lead into the idea that mental illness is the thing you should completely recover from, and that complete recovery is your only option.

I have clinical anxiety. My brain is wired this way and will always be a bit funny about certain things. I am prone to having flare-ups and relapses, and intense situations (especially social situations) can provoke my condition. I am currently choosing to function without medication specifically for my anxiety, as I’ve found treatments for my PCOS helps with the worst of my symptoms. This is a choice I make that is currently right for me, but this may change in the future.

I’ve had periods of depression on the top of my anxiety, but the anxiety is there through everything.

I’ve had periods of depression on the top of my anxiety, but the anxiety is there through everything. I honestly thought it was just how everyone went through the world until I was finally diagnosed at 19. Knowing that this was a thing my brain did and would likely always do was a bit of a shock, but it has ended up opening a lot more doors than it has closed. I now know what behaviours I needed to watch for, monitor and how to manage my warning signs. This lets me live in a much happier space than otherwise.

I was lucky enough to see a good psychologist, who helped give me the tools that get me through my daily life. Now, even when things get tough for me, I can open this mental toolbox and use any of the tools I find inside there. I’m sharing a few of my tools here with you today, in case they might be useful to others.

I’d like to state that I am not in any way a qualified psychotherapist and the information I provide is as a sufferer and support person of others. If you have mental health concerns please take them to a professional first, as everyone is different and needs different things. Please also keep in mind these are my own personal tips that help me, and that other people need different things.

Be mindful of warning signs

My anxiety operates around an all or nothing thought pattern. If something doesn’t go quite as I expected I might think something like: “This didn’t go exactly as I imagined, therefore I am a dreadful person everyone hates”. This poisonous thinking sets off a chain reaction that in bad cases could lead to a panic attack. Often it leaves me feeling deeply uneasy and wary, unable to enjoy anything at all until the feeling passes, which can take hours or days. Often I’ll completely forget what the initial trigger was and be left only with this heightened sense of worry, it’s exhausting.

After a lot of practice I easily recognise my warning signs

After a lot of practice I easily recognise my warning signs and can create my very own counter-serum using the power of my own brain. By recognising the hostile thought as an anxiety warning sign, I can work to dissolve it and neutralise the harmful effects. The way I do this is based off Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It feels stupid at first, but reinforcing positive memories and pathways helps to cement them, and helps to counter or overwrite the negative pathway trying to worm its way in. Changing the thoughts influences changes in feelings with enough practice.

As an example, I’d counter “I’m a dreadful person everyone hates” with “I get along well with good people” and think about the friends I’d had positive interactions with lately, and how awesome they are. They have time for me, so I must be at the very least tolerable. Thinking like this is usually enough to stop the anxiety spiral from revving up, especially if each thought has its own specialised counter-serum.

Forgive failures and setbacks

In particularly stressful times I quite often miss my warning signs and end up in an anxiety or depression spiral. Some days become completely unrecoverable. But hey, it’s hard to stay on top of your game all the time. Once I’ve slipped I make sure to instantly forgive myself for doing so. Just like that, forgiven. I wouldn’t be critical someone for slipping, so I shouldn’t give myself a hard time either.

Forgiveness for being human and for having a mental illness goes a long way to me feeling like I can pick myself up again. There’s a voice inside me that demands I perform at 100% optimal capacity every minute of every day. By telling this voice that no, it’s okay to be at 40% right now is comforting and makes my recovery easier.

Look back often

I make sure to always look back to check how I’m coping with how I’ve coped in the past. It’s not always better, but the overall trend seems to have stabilised for me in the last few years. Even though I am relatively stable, I still find it useful to look back to when I wasn’t coping well to help reinforce how much I have improved since those times.

Rewards

When I feel like I’ve done something well, I like to reward myself. Usually it’s something small, like a nice meal, a fancy drink or even just some time playing a new game. It’s nice to give myself a little acknowledgement at getting through something that I’d otherwise find intimidating.

Self care

When discussing mental health within the context of cognitive behavioural therapy, there’s a model made of three parts: thoughts, feelings, and physical self. I consider self care to be the soothing ointment that you put on one or all three parts. Self care for me is escaping into video games or buying some lollies or soda and curling up in bed. Self care is of course an entirely personal thing, but it’s a thing to do to make your thoughts, feelings, or physical self feel better, even if only for a short time. Sometimes all you need is a small respite from the constant active self monitoring that comes with long-term mental illness.

Safety nets

Safety nets are important. They are the people in your life you can talk to about how your illness might be affecting you today. They might not completely understand, but they can still be supportive and helpful in other ways. The most important thing to remember is that relationships are two way streets. While the people around you will hopefully have time for you, it’s important that you respect them, their energy levels and ability to engage with you on your needs. Even completely neurotypical friends get worn out and need time to themselves. If someone can’t help you, don’t take it personally, just ask another person in your net. If your net is small, reach out to other support online, in centres or over the phone.

Everything’s okay

Seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s always worth saying. Things are okay. I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to okay and I have to do a lot of work to stay here, but it’s working. I feel like a person who has a lifelong condition but can manage it in a way that affords me a pretty great quality of life. I feel very fortunate.

If you need support and are unsure how to get it, below are some New Zealand-based support networks and organisations.

http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/ Mental Health Foundation
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Samaritans 0800 726 666 (Lower North Island, Christchurch & West Coast)
04 473 9739 (other regions)

[Moderator note: This post is about Jem’s personal experience and what works for her. You are welcome to talk about your own experiences, but please respect the lived experiences of others who may be in a different place to you.]

About Jem Yoshioka (5 Articles)
Jem Yoshioka is an illustrator and storyteller based in Wellington, New Zealand. A geek who loves video games and science fiction, Jem spends a lot of time engaged in geek culture, commenting and critiquing through a feminist lens. Once nicknamed ‘The Internet’, she can google for cat gifs better than you can. You can find her drawing, knitting or playing video games (sometimes attempting to do all three at once).

9 Comments on Being mindful of mental illness

  1. Rebecca Dodson // November 26, 2014 at 8:37 am //

    I agree with your post, so thanks Jem. I have PTSD from an accident as a child, and so I get what you mean. There is also lots of other damaging Mental Health Issues like Narcissism, Psychopaths and Sociopaths that make it harder for others to live with too. Drug and Alcohol issues, (Also hard to live around AND live with), Bi -Polar Schizophrenia etc etc so I do agree that there is limited awareness to not just what people like your self go through, but the effects of being around other more sinister and destructive mental health issues.
    I know that when my brain heads to an anxious state, I can make others really uncomfortable, yet you dont want to tell everyone as not everyone’s capable of understanding. We have a horrible dominant shame culture in New Zealand, hence the high levels of depression and suicide.
    Have to say that I think “normal” people with a heart and nerves could not be around with out either drugs and alcohol on a regular basis OR ending up with Anxiety condition like yours. Half the reason the worlds so unsafe is that so many people are not really present, and are numbed out on something or go along with the meanness and shaming. Im 44 and I have found a good place to be in the world, and just focus on how I want to live, and keep trying to be around really positive people. They do exist also!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. writehandedgirl // November 26, 2014 at 10:12 am //

    Thanks for this Jem. I’ve written a lot myself about my journey with depression and anxiety – some of which was inspired by encouragement and words from you.

    There’s a massive cost to the lack of understanding around mental health in New Zealand, both to those who suffer, to those who are trying to support them, and yes, to the economy. My friend Stacey Knott at the Nelson Mail has been writing a series on this – the latest one is here – http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/63505360/Mental-health-services-slated

    I wrote about the same thing last year when our lovely friend Bob Jones at the Herald wrote that infamous column referencing suicide. TW on this piece but it has some good analysis of funding. http://www.writehanded.org/blog/2013/12/17/what-is-the-cost/

    As I have said before, and Jem is saying now – one John Kirwan does not a fix make. For many of us, depression won’t be something we “recover” from, and campaigns that suggest we will can actually make things worse by reinforcing a sense of failure. Everyone will have good and bad patches, but it’s learning these coping and defence mechanisms, as Jem has listed, that will help in the longterm.

    It’s great that this sort of discussion is becoming more and more commonplace.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One Anonymous Bloke // November 26, 2014 at 11:06 am //

    Greater understanding of the way the brain works is going to help in ways we can only imagine. Take the recent discovery that “ghosts” can be induced in a laboratory: I have at least one friend who is considered a little “weird” by her peers because she “sees” people who aren’t there from time to time.

    Now this has gone from “weirdness” to a mundane bit of knowledge about the “temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex”. So much of the prejudice against mental health issues derives from the fear of the unknown.

    Well, the unknown just got a bit smaller 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • possibly, although it’s also possible that people will start to characterise the experience as ‘all on your head’ without moving to an attitude of support and acceptance. I think the real break through will be when a big chunk of the population allows people with mental health issues to be supported in their own experiences and definitions of what they experience without judgement or projecting their own ideas and fears. For some people the biomedical/neurological frame is very helpful, for others it’s a terrible imposition that undermines their mental health. We should be supporting people in what they need in their specific situation.

      btw, R. D. Laing’s pioneering work in the 50s looked at how people with psychosis type diagnoses had better outcomes when the content of ‘delusions’ was taken seriously rather than being written off as irrelevant expressions of a broken mind. It’s important that advances in neuroscience don’t override clinical gains made in other areas. If someone wants to relate with the ghosts they see as ‘real’ rather than as atypical or broken brain patterns, then if that improves their health or gives them stability, other people’s ideas shouldn’t undermine that.

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      • One Anonymous Bloke // November 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm //

        It’s the fact that otherwise (potentially) terrifying experiences can be explained by something “real” (ie: a common anomaly in the brain) that undermines the fear factor.

        Yeah, Laing was a pioneer.

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        • Yes, I got that. For some people the biomedical model explanation brings relief. For others it makes things worse. I’m suggesting that we develop a stance of acceptance for multiple realities and support people in what works for them.

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          • One Anonymous Bloke // November 26, 2014 at 2:42 pm //

            There’s a natural and inevitable tension between personal belief or coping systems and new evidence-based knowledge. Over time the latter tends to crowd out the former. I’m not judging that process, it’s just what happens.

            That doesn’t mean we toss out established goods – bedside manner, culturally appropriate practice, etc.

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          • Psychiatry in particular is not evidence based in the way you suggest. And what you are saying, that science will prove all else to be false and itself to be central, is actually really dangerous when it comes to mental health. I’ve spent a long time in the past listening to people from the psych survivor and anti-psychiatry movement, and it’s only by listening to those people at the true coal face can we understand that science doesn’t have the perogative to claim Truth. Psychiatry is a great case study for the limitations of the scientific method. Your statements are interesting, but they come from a specific world view that is not held by everyone, and if you want to apply that world view to everyone you are going to do damage. Science has always been value laden. The lack of honesty about that is the problem (not the fact that it is value laden).

            My apologies to people who have been helped by psychiatry, I’m not wanting to suggest it is a failure, just that it fails some people even where it is very helpful to others.

            Sorry to Jem too if this is too off topic. I really just want to support a myriad of approaches to mental health and think our beliefs about this are crucial.

            Like

  4. anarkaytie // November 28, 2014 at 9:29 am //

    Hey Jem, thanks for that post.

    I come from a family full of neuro-atypical types; one of my daughters is bi-polar, and due to issues around divorce and family violence, we’ve all been through counselling at one stage or another.
    Both CBT and psychiatry have been used at various stages, by various ones of my nearest & dearest; my very bright sister has experienced post-natal depression (and recovered, and values the counselling she received then), and we are the adult children of an alcoholic with a gambling addiction – so, lots going on in our family, and lots that never gets discussed openly.
    The best I can say is that I found networks who facilitate recovery for PTSD/abuse survivors to be my life-line at one point in my divorce, and that led me to being able to put my hand up for family counselling to help my children cope as primary school students.
    Services are patchy, and my ex was not keen on ‘psychobabble’, which did not endear him to any of the various counsellors that engaged with our family over the years.

    I learned enough from groups I had access to (including group counselling via Student Health on campus) to be able to be an effective advocate for others during my uni years – encouraging women who disclosed issues to me to seek (free) counselling, whether through Uni, Rape Crisis, or other appropriate agencies.

    Life isn’t always easy, and some of us are repeatedly abused, in different circumstances, by different people; being able to say “I need help now” can be fear-provoking in itself, but it is very worthwhile to do. We are all worth the effort it takes, to develop the tools and skills for mental health.

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