Hearing you have a mental illness can be difficult. Your mind can trick you into believing all sorts of things. Today, Hannah is challenging some of those myths.
It’s a confusing thing a mental illness diagnosis, and if you’ve recently received one, you may be flailing with different and conflicting thoughts about how to deal with this life event. Whether being diagnosed is a recent thing or whether you’re reading this to weed out some misbeliefs that you’ve accumulated along the way, here are some simple tips and focus points to help you make sense.
5 things not to believe about your mental illness diagnosis.
- That this label fundamentally changes who you are.
- That this label is unchanging and for life.
- That you can’t make a difference
- That your mental health is somehow separate from you
- That your mental illness is unusual
So far, so ordinary, right? You’ve probably heard these before. But have you really taken them on board? I’ve got a take on this that will help you get these messages right into your core. Read on.
Things not to believe:
1. That this label fundamentally changes who you are.
No, it doesn’t. You are the same person you were before your label. However you chose to relate to it, whether that is to refute it, to argue with it, to feel relief, to feel there is an answer, you are the same person. However, as human beings we are constantly in a state of evolution, and we are never finished. It doesn’t help to think of our identity as sudden shifts or jars, rather it’s more constructive to think of it as something that is in state of continual development.
The analogy I find most helpful here is some wise words a friend shared with me when I had a big shift in my identity coming up, that of becoming a mother. In my pregnancy, I became quite anxious about whether being a mum was going to fundamentally change me. She said that it would be another part to my identity, that I would carry on being a sister, friend, wife, neighbour, but that I would also be a mum.
She also said, and this is the bit that stuck with me, that identity shifts take time to process and I might need to give the new identity of being a mum extra space and time in my life to reflect on until it took its rightful place in the whole picture of who I am. Now I think of being a mum as just being part of what I do, but not the whole thing. It is one lens through which I can be seen, but it doesn’t take up the whole vision.
To a large extent mental illness is about being seen – it’s not possible to diagnose yourself. If someone else has seen you in this way, it is up to you how you choose to process this vision of yourself. Hopefully you can do it with kindness and self compassion. It doesn’t change who you are.
2. That this label is unchanging and for life.
Again – no it isn’t. First, recovery is possible. Second, when you do recover, and you will, you will have learnt skills in managing your mental health that make you more equipped to deal with the mental health side of life than an average person who has never had the experience you have.
It may say on your record, as it does on mine – ‘bipolar’ – for life. That’s just the documentation. What most matters is how I choose to live with skill and relate to that descriptor. When I was first diagnosed, I made life limiting decisions on that basis to do with my career choices and my relationship choices. I don’t make these any more. I wish I’d had someone to challenge me at the time to stop me making them then. However, living with my diagnosis the way I have has led me to make some really fulfilling choices too. This leads me onto the next point.
3. That you can’t make a difference
This is the core of the argument. You can make a difference. This is an opportunity to learn a whole new set of life skills. It isn’t your ability that will determine whether you will learn them, it is your attitude. The skills you will learn are unique to you, only you know what your mental health needs. You can build them up from a patchwork of advice, good memories, and techniques that you pick up over a lifetime. You may find yourself passing them on, and that can be part of your gift to the world.
When I was first diagnosed, I remember a really significant moment of waking up in the morning depressed and angry. I was staring at this blank wall in front of me, both literally and metaphorically – the wall beside my bed. I swore a promise to myself – that whatever happened and however bad it got, I would somehow find a way to make this experience useful. If I couldn’t – well, it would be a total waste of the most precious resource I have, and that is TIME. I couldn’t see how I would do it, but that was the promise I made.
You can make a difference to your diagnosis, to your capacity to deal with it with the skill, artistry and innate talent that you have inside you. Believe it.
4. That your mental health is somehow separate from you
I promised you a special take on mental health that would help you really take this stuff on board, here it is. Your mental health is a part of you, not an object. Just because you have been diagnosed, you are not an object to be observed by others. The key to recovery is to observe your whole self with compassion and accept and care for the person you see.
We recognise that if someone has a fundamental life event in their physical health, like a stroke or cancer, there will be mental health implications. We seem to have a harder time taking on board that having a mental illness diagnosis is a fundamental life event.
These implications are to do with our expectations of stigma, discrimination, self stigma and shame. These expectations can trigger a range of very primal emotions from anger, guilt, shame, fear, all of which cause a fight or flight reaction, which can exacerbate the mental health condition. No, your mental health label is not separate from you, it is part of the warp and weft out of which you weave your life experience. If we can treat these fundamental and primal emotional drives with compassion and acceptance, we are well on the way to recovery.
One of the keys to doing this is observation and acceptance. I have always kept a journal. I have also always made films to tell my own mental health story and encourage others to do the same. In 2015, I combined these two passions to create an app, Mental Snapp, which is a way to easily experience the therapeutic benefits of telling your story on film using video diaries. Mental Snapp is free to download on the App Store. Our users say it helps them be kind to themselves and to build their confidence. It’s a great way to learn your patterns, accept your emotions and move them forward.
Give Mental Snapp a go – tell me how you find it – and I encourage you to observe and learn from the emotions you have surrounding your mental health condition. They are the key to managing it effectively. You don’t have to treat yourself or your mental health as an object, you can befriend yourself. You can do it.
5. That your mental illness is unusual
You are no more unusual or different than the other 7 billion individuals on this planet. You are a child of the universe, as the poem goes. There is no separation from the mass of humanity by an observing glass, or a one way mirror, or a microscope. There is an inherent wrongness in the process of diagnosis, that holds that the observer, or the doctor, is neutral, that the observed, or the patient, is isolated in the moment of diagnosis away from their context, their family, their friends. It’s like being held under the microscope. This experience can leave people to come away with their identity in pieces. This is wrong and it is injust. It is built into the history of psychiatry. It will take more than a generation to change it. Change it we will. It cannot go on.
In the meantime, rather than simply rail against systems, let’s change them with our pure dignity of spirit. No, your mental illness is not unusual. It will in time connect you to more people and at a more fundamental level than you ever expect, if you can use it to build relationship and share the lessons it teaches you. Your mental illness is not unusual, it does not separate you from humanity.
You, on the other hand, are more than unusual. You are unique, and you have a unique opportunity to give to the world. Here is that poem.
“…Nurture strength of spirit to shield you from misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
― Max Ehrmann, Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life
Hannah Chamberlain is a mental health film maker, story teller and campaigner of 20 years standing. She is the founder of video diary app Mental Snapp, which she designed after realising that her story telling and film making had helped her get over her own self stigma, and as a way for others to do the same by telling their own stories using the power of film.
Mental Snapp is looking for people to be involved in user testing and feeding back on our exciting new version. If you’d like to be involved, please email our product manager, Wendy on [email protected].
If you’d like to write a guest post, I’d love to have you! Take a look at this page for all the information and details you need.