“Your problems are so serious that even therapy can’t help you!” a psychiatrist said to me in 2009. He emphasized to me that trying to get therapy would be pointless. According to him, I didn’t seem to have a chance of recovery.
I started to have problems with my mental health in 2001. Gradually things got worse. I ended up on multiple medications and eventually on a disability pension.
When I met the psychiatrist who deemed me hopeless, I had no idea that only five years later, in 2014, I would learn something that would change the trajectory of my life.
And little did I know that only a few years after that life-changing event, I’d get emails from people thanking me. They were grateful to me for creating content that helped them see their “hopeless” situation in a new way.
It is also amazing to get feedback from podcast listeners. “It feels therapeutic to listen to how you think and talk about mental health issues.” Comments like that fill me with gratitude for everything I have experienced.
I have learned a lot on my life journey, and I’d like to share some of these lessons in this post.
Life Lessons About Mental Health Problems
Mental health is a central theme in my life. Especially in the last few years, these questions have been troubling me:
Why are mental health problems so common nowadays?
Why do the problems persist even though people get evidence-based treatment?
Before I share some thoughts about that, let me share a bit about my life journey.
It is not an unusual story. The specific events in other people’s lives can be different. Yet often there are common elements in the lives of people who experience mental health issues.
I was bullied at school. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t think I was worth much. I was good at school, and I liked to learn. I wanted to get good grades, especially after realizing as a teenager that I wanted to study psychology at the university.
At the end of high school, I met a man. He was ten years older than me and had a very different worldview. We ended up together, nonetheless. I believed I had no choice; I would have to be with pretty much anyone who approved of me as their girlfriend.
Soon after we started to spend time together, I got depressed. I was accepted to the University of Jyväskylä to study psychology in 2002. We moved into the same apartment.
I was very motivated to study, but my well-being kept deteriorating. The relationship with this man was complicated.
I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for the first time in 2004. I kept going back many times between 2004-2007, and I had to quit my studies at the university.
“You have a chemical imbalance in your brain. You need medication to correct the problem in your brain.”
I believed them. I took the medication and continued feeling bad – year in and year out.
Everything stayed the same until I got a phone call from an old acquaintance. He told me he had separated from his girlfriend. “The situation became so intolerable that we couldn’t continue together,” he said.
I cried after that phone call. I realized that that’s what I had to do. I had to find the courage to get a divorce. I had to do it if I was going to climb back to life from the depths of despair I had sunk into over the previous six years or so.
Six months after that phone call, I moved out and signed the divorce papers. I still had problems, and getting a divorce certainly wasn’t a magic pill that turned my life around. Nonetheless, I think it says a lot that I didn’t need to go to a psychiatric ward after that.
Experiences Turning into Epiphanies
So, why are mental health problems so common nowadays? And why do the problems persist even though people get treatment?
I have created the image you see above to illustrate some of the answers to these questions.
There is a human being in the inner circle — you, me, or any individual.
In that middle circle is our daily life. That is where our relationships, home, neighborhood, and job, among other things, are located.
In the outer circle, there’s the world. It represents the broader context of our lives. It includes politics, culture, mainstream worldview, and mainstream beliefs about what it means to be human.
Usually, the treatment efforts focus on a person, as if they are separate from this bigger picture.
I believe that is one of the reasons mental health problems persist in our life.
Usually, treatment means giving the person psychoactive drugs.
There are plenty of reasons psychiatric drugs can worsen the situation, but that is out of the scope of this blog post.
It is common for people to begin to perceive their problems as part of who they are.
I believe that is one of the consequences of tackling mental health issues by focusing on an individual.
“I have these problems. I have these symptoms. I got this diagnostic label because I have this disorder. I am abnormal.”
This is the story I heard many times in the past. The reason for my problems was in my brain, they explained: “You need to take these medications.”
Nobody seemed interested in my relationship with this man. No one seemed to wonder if some of my experiences could explain why I was feeling so depressed. It is easy to get stuck on this explanation that something is wrong with a person’s brain if we don’t look at the larger picture. We must consider other things that affect our well-being.
The distress is real. The explanations are up for question. ~ Dr. Lucy Johnstone
Skills vs. Characteristics
There are more empowering ways to look at mental health issues. One of my favorite ways is to think about human life’s struggles in acquiring new skills. Let me unpack this point of view.
I have noticed that we often mistake skills for characteristics.
According to Cambridge Dictionary the definition of characteristic is: “a typical or noticeable quality of someone or something.”
And the definition of a skill is: “an ability to do an activity or job well, especially because you have practiced it.”
Many of us mistake skills for characteristics. This often happens especially when observing someone else being skillful at something. Many of us assume that it is a natural ability and they’ve been born with it.
Perhaps they are relaxed, or they express themselves clearly. They may have excellent social skills.
“It’s easy for you because you are naturally good at that!”
We may not recognize that their “natural ability” can be a skill they have learned and practiced, and that is how they have become so good at it. They may have had a great teacher, or they were very interested in a particular topic and practiced it.
Let’s think about tools for a second. Think about tools like a hammer. When someone wants to build things, and they have practiced using the tools, they can create something remarkable. Their skills allow them to make something much more impressive than someone who has yet to practice as much.
Or who perhaps hasn’t even tried because they think, “I am not the kind of person who can…”
Skills are a tool as well.
There are tools we can learn to use to help us feel better. Tools that help us improve our mental well-being. I wouldn’t be here, writing this post, had I not learned new skills that helped me.
At the beginning of this blog post, I mentioned that in 2014, I learned something that changed the trajectory of my life.
At that time, I didn’t know I could change my feelings or thoughts. I was at the mercy of others and whatever happened on any given day. Things outside my control affected whether I had a good or bad day or if I was feeling calm or nervous.
One of the things that has helped me was learning how to use my mind so that it works as an ally for me instead of an enemy. Before 2014, I didn’t know that was something I could learn.
Skills and Circles of Life
Remember the image above? You can also use this as a map when thinking about skills.
In each of these circles, it is possible to identify skills that can make life easier.
The inner circle could include skills like:
- Recognizing your needs
- Identifying and expressing your emotions
- The ability to relate to your thoughts and feelings in a helpful way
Self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-knowledge are also helpful skills within this circle.
In the middle circle, you could locate the communication and listening skills or skills to set and express your boundaries.
And in the outer circle, one of the essential things is to understand that the world has changed a lot.
The world has changed tremendously, especially in the last few decades, but our bodies have not. Our living environment and daily life have changed, but our “operational system,” the reactions of our bodies, etc., have not changed.
We have developed into a different kind of world as a species. Think about our modern living environment with all the distractions everywhere. There are news headlines all over the internet coming at you all the time. There is social media and notifications on people’s phones popping up constantly.
Unsurprisingly, many of us aren’t feeling well in today’s fast-paced world. This is exhausting to our brains.
It is essential to take a look at this bigger picture. Otherwise, we can get trapped into thinking of mental health as an individual’s problem that they can do nothing about.
So, when you seem to be stuck, or you have a problem or a recurring challenge in your life, ask yourself if there is a skill that could be useful to you.
Remember that we can learn new skills to support our well-being. One of the essential skills is the ability to recognize when our life circumstances aren’t supporting our well-being. That is important so that we don’t get stuck in unhealthy situations that assume we are abnormal and have a disorder when, in fact, we are having an understandable reaction to harmful circumstances.
Making Sense of “Symptoms” and Circumstances
Psychiatric diagnoses are common. Many people don’t get better even though they do receive treatment.
Problems that have more to do with our lifestyle or relationship issues don’t get attention. People stay in unhealthy situations while waiting for professionals to find a treatment that cures their so-called disorder.
I think it is sad that many people accept the diagnosis to be a part of their identity. People are told they have disorders. That implies that they are abnormal. Their understandable struggles are interpreted as symptoms of disorders.
Here is what I suggest:
Before we say someone is abnormal and has a psychiatric disorder, what if we look closely at what has happened to them?
What if their reactions and so-called “symptoms” make sense when considering their life history or current circumstances?
Are their circumstances supporting the well-being of a human? Many people think symptoms are meaningless signs of disorders. What if their symptoms have something important to tell them? What if some of their symptoms are coping strategies, an attempt to deal with difficult experiences they have faced?
This also applies to symptoms often perceived to be on the more “serious” end of the spectrum, like hearing voices. I suggest watching Dr. Eleanor Longden’s lecture on hearing voices.
Instead of using the term “disorder,” I prefer the terms used by Sami Timimi, a consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry and a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln, UK.
In his excellent book Insane Medicine: How the Mental Health Industry Creates Damaging Treatment Traps and How You Can Escape Them, he explains:
“’Normal’ and ‘disordered’ are subjective and problematic terms. In practice we create rather than discover a disorder by the way we choose to talk about and classify what patients bring to us. Instead I use the two terms, ‘ordinary ’and/or ‘understandable,’ as my preferred constructs.”
Thinking about the times when I had the most difficulties in my life, it makes sense that I was feeling so bad. To reiterate: I was in a relationship with a man with very different values than mine. We were together for the wrong reasons. I had very low self-esteem and self-worth. I thought I had no choice; I had to be with someone, anyone, who happened to approve of me as his spouse.
There are many things I could have used some help with, e.g., developing better self-esteem, learning to value myself, dealing with the bad memories of being bullied at school, etc.
Mainstream ways of reacting to mental health problems aren’t the only way to think about mental health issues and how we should treat them. We must take a closer look at other ways to approach these. If we don’t, you may think your situation, or the situation of someone you love, is hopeless.
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