How do you advocate for your mental health?

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When it comes to your mental health, be tenacious. Advocate for yourself. Find support systems and treatment options that work for YOU.

One thing I have come to realize, through my own journey and hearing the stories of others, is a lack of assertion. When it comes to our mental health, we often take a long time to reach out for support. At first, we tend to ignore our symptoms. Then, we question if they are real or in our heads. Next, we compare ourselves to others. Then, we deny any potential conditions. And, finally, after the symptoms and/or condition have overwhelmed us, we reach out for support.

Why do we wait so long to receive treatment that we deserve? Think about it. When your arm starts hurting, especially after a trauma, do you wait years to get an x-ray? When your vision starts to worsen, do you wait years to get glasses? When you have a cavity, do you wait years to get a filling? When you have a headache, do you wait years to take medication? When you live with a heart condition, do you wait years to go to the cardiologist? Yet, when you live with a mental health condition or you are facing poor mental health symptoms, why do you take years to see a doctor?

Then, once we see a professional, we often assume they know everything. Mental health is a tricky field because it is an invisible illness. The doctors, therapists, and / or counselors do not see a picture of your brain that clearly shows a proper diagnosis that results in a specific treatment plan. Because the professionals are not experiencing the symptoms first-hand and cannot see what is going on inside your mind, mental health diagnoses can become a guessing game.

One of the most common misconceptions I have experienced within the mental health community is this idea that your first diagnosis or your first prescription medication or your first therapist is going to be the right one. What many people do not know is that it can take an average of up to 10 years to receive the right diagnosis. Many people do not know that the average person tries more than one medication before finding the right one for their mind and body. Many people, also, do not know that it can take an average of up to 5 therapists to find the right match.

So, if it can be extremely difficult to receive the right diagnosis and treatment plan, what should I do?

Get curious about your mental health diagnosis and treatment plan; and ASK ANY AND ALL QUESTIONS THAT YOU HAVE.

Be tenacious. Research your symptoms and educate yourself on various mental health conditions that relate to your symptoms. Reach out to others who are experiencing similar symptoms and find out what they have tried. Then, create a list of questions to ask the mental health care professional.

Do not be afraid to be “annoying” by asking too many questions. It is your mental health; you can ask as many questions as you would like to. If you do not understand a diagnosis or a symptom, ask the doctor to explain it to you. Ask questions about the medication being prescribed and what side effects to look out for. Ask about alternate treatment options and next steps. Ask what you can do in addition to taking the prescribed medication and / or attending therapy.

Furthermore, do not be afraid to ask what external or internal factors can be affecting your mental health. Have you checked your vitamin and hormone levels recently? Are you exposed to hazardous / toxic chemicals? Do you live in an area of high pollution? Does your home have mold? Advocating for yourself is not only sharing your symptoms, but also asking questions that help you and the doctor get a full picture.

Mental health care professionals are humans, just like us, they may make mistakes or overlook certain symptoms. They do not physically or mentally experience what you are experiencing; therefore, it is difficult for them to know everything about what is going on. By researching and asking questions, you can learn more about what they are thinking and collaborate on the best treatment plan.

Understand that the first medication you try may not be the right one.

Everyone’s body is different. Therefore, everyone’s body reacts differently to medications. If prescribed medication, be sure to understand that the first medication may not be the right one for you. And understand that it does not always mean that no medication will work for you. It simply means, this time around, the medication prescribed was not the right fit.

It is also important to remember that just because the medication prescribed to you works for someone else with the same mental health condition, it does not mean that it will definitely work for you. As noted previously, everyone’s body reacts differently.

However, when you start to experience side effects, especially severe side effects that make you uncomfortable, tell your doctor right away. You do not have to wait it out, because the doctor prescribed it. Call your doctor and share your concerns. It may be a normal reaction as the body adjusts or it may be a sign that the wrong medication was prescribed. Advocating for yourself by consulting your doctor will help you explore your options.

Lastly, look at therapy like you look at dating. You may not find your match the first time around, but the perfect match is out there.

Every therapist is different. From energy to method of practice to personal experience to specialty, every therapist brings a different approach and perspective to the table. It may take time to find a therapist that matches your specific needs.

When you are searching for a therapist, do not be afraid to ask questions. What do you specialize in? What approach do you use (ex. holistic, biofeedback, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy)? What is your availability? Ask however many questions you would like, within the appropriate boundaries. You are going to therapy for you. You are the consumer; you are allowed to be selective in your approach.  

When you finally choose a therapist, if you do not feel like the connection is right, look for a new therapist. You do not have to stick with the same one, even if you have been going to them for years. It is okay to change therapists, just like it is okay to change phones.

I, in my searches, use the 3-appointment rule. I go to the same therapist 3 times before deciding if they are the right fit for me. At the first appointment, I am usually nervous, and the therapist knows nothing about me. It tends to feel a little awkward. Plus, the appointment tends to be more of a focus on history rather than my current situation. During the second appointment, I tend to be more relaxed, and the therapist has a general understanding of my background, therefore, we dive a little deeper into my history and current situation. Then, by the third appointment, I have a good idea of the approach the therapist uses and if it feels right for me. This 3-appointment rule has worked out well for me; however, it may not work for everyone. An important part of advocating for yourself is exploring what you are looking for in support and understanding how long it takes you to get a good feel for those part of your support system.

All in all, remember to always speak up. Ask questions. Do not let people patronize you or invalidate you. You deserve to be heard and educated on what you are experiencing. The mental health care system can feel complicated, but you deserve the right support that works for you. Never stop advocating for yourself and your mental health.

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