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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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What do we do when someone feels hopeless?

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I do not want to be here anymore.

That heartbreaking phrase is something no one wants to hear. Even more so, that is a feeling no one desires to experience. So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? Do we engage in a conversation and provide support, or do we ignore it to protect ourselves? The answer to this simple question is a key component to suicide prevention.

Let us explore 4 scenarios.

Fran feels hopeless. Fran grew up in a world where everyone told her to “grow up”, “suck it up”, “build a bridge and get over it”, “stop being a baby”, etc. thus, Fran suppresses all of her feelings. Anytime she has reached out for support in the past, Fran felt like she was gaslighted and invalidated. As a result, Fran is afraid to feel, and even more terrified to speak up about it. Fran’s mind is now in control of her every thought. She thinks about dying all of the time, when she is walking, when she is eating, when she is driving, and when she is sleeping. Fran wants to give in to her hopeless thoughts, but she chooses to reach out for support one last time, in hopes that someone extends a hand back to her. Fran decides to open up about her hopeless thoughts. She shares with a confidant that she is profoundly struggling and having thoughts of suicide.

In scenario 1, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts out of fear. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “Do not say that! Do you know what that would do to me?” Fran immediately shuts down and feels like no one understands her. Fran interprets the response as the loved one does not care about Fran but only about themselves. As a result, Fran decides suicide is the only answer, because no one truly cares about her to provide the support she was begging for.

In scenario 2, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by blowing her off. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “You are being dramatic, stop trying to get attention.” Fran interprets the gaslighting as confirmation that suicide is the only answer because in the moment she needed it most, no one cared to truly listen and understand, instead they chose to belittle her feelings.

In scenario 3, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by listening and providing a shoulder to cry on. For the first time, Fran feels like maybe her life is worth living, maybe she is loved and needed more than she realized, maybe she is not the burden she felt like she was. Fran appreciates the support and views it as a sign to keep going. However, when the loved one does not follow up again, Fran starts to question if she has a support system, and the thoughts begin to worsen.

In scenario 4, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by actively listening, repeating validating statements, asking non-judgmental open-ended questions when appropriate, and providing support. The loved one even offers to help Fran find resources that are available, if Fran is comfortable with the hands-on support. A few days after the conversation, Fran’s loved one follows up by checking in and reassuring Fran that they are there if and when she needs support, someone to talk to, or help in finding resources. Fran feels loved, safe, and not alone for the first time in a long time.

Let’s Review.

I understand it can be extremely difficult to engage in conversations about suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts); however, as these 4 scenarios show, our reaction when someone reaches out is an essential part of prevention. I understand that in the moment, it can be hard to know the proper way to react and respond. I understand that no one may have educated you on mental health conditions, depression, or suicidal ideation so you are uncomfortable around the topic. I understand that it can be terrifying to hear a loved one feels hopeless, and you did not know. I understand that there is a stigma on all thing’s mental health, and you were never provided the tools and resources you needed to learn the right way to approach the conversation. However, we have to start doing better.

That heartbreaking phrase that no one wants to hear is something many people around you are thinking and feeling daily. In fact, there are people who are so close to the edge that they can only think about how much they do not want to be here. If they reach out, if they find the strength and courage within themselves to speak up, I ask of you, please do not gaslight them and please do not invalidate them. Take them seriously at their word, actively listen to them, show them you care, and support them in a way that makes you both feel comfortable and safe. You do not have to act as their therapist, but you can connect them to a Crisis Hotline or to a therapist. You do not have to sit with them all day everyday to “watch” them, but you can sit with them now and follow up. You do not have to “save” them, but you can assure them that they are not alone in this.

You cannot save someone, they can only save themselves, BUT you can let them know that they ae not in this alone. You can be a source of love and comfort. You can be a reminder that everything eventually will be okay. Even in scenario 4, you cannot save Fran, but because you offered the support she needed, you made her feel like there was a reason to keep going. The thoughts did not suddenly disappear, and Fran was not healed immediately, which is why scenario 3 did not work. Following up is a key part of prevention and support.

So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? We listen. We validate. We support. We show empathy. We follow up. We provide a safe space. We let them know that although they have every single right to feel what they are feeling, they are seen, they are heard, they are loved, they are worthy of this life, and they are more than enough. Even more than that, we make sure they know that they are not alone. When someone’s life is hanging on by a thread, our response can save their life or push them over the edge.

And remember, not everyone will feel comfortable opening up and reaching out for support, especially if they were gaslighted and invalidated in the past. Do not be scared to reach out and check in with your loved ones frequently. Be a consistent reminder in their life that they are not alone, and that you are there for them.

I will leave you with this, when someone is drowning and they reach their hand out for support, are you going to push them down, ignore them as they drown, throw a life raft and walk away, or reach out your hand and pull them back into safety?