One in five adult Americans will experience mental illness within any given year and 1 in 20 adults are living with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or clinical depression. Millions of people and their families feel the direct impact of living with a serious mental health problem. So how does one cope with mental illness while carrying on “living?” Based on my experience as a therapist, this article defines the essential elements that I believe underpin successfully living with mental illness.
The first step in living with mental illness involves accepting that you have an illness in the first place, engaging with the reality of your diagnosis. Acceptance allows you to cope with and manage your condition to the greatest degree possible. This is not a simple matter for many sufferers of mental illness. The lack of understanding and stigma associated with these conditions often makes it very difficult to accept the diagnosis. In addition to the implications of the diagnosis in terms of life going forward (e.g. having to take medication and the serious life disruptions associated with serious mental illness), it may simply be too painful or complex to process and denial may be the preferred response. This struggle to accept the diagnosis extends to family and friends who due to the stigma and lack of understanding of the diagnosis may also be reluctant to accept it and simply expect the sufferer to “snap out of it.”
The other essential element is to recognize the illness as something separate from you, something that you live with as opposed to it being you. For instance you are not a Schizophrenic but rather have the mental illness of Schizophrenia. While this may seem like semantics, it in fact communicates a much deeper understanding of your sense of self and your identity as being bigger than and separate from your mental illness. While your mental illness is something you have to live with, it is not you. As such you have the headspace to think about it and the resources to manage it. You are not merely at the mercy of this thing that has taken over your identity. While it may feel at times that your mental illness does indeed take over your very being (for instance in the depths of a major depressive episode) it is essential that you push back and hold your ground in nurturing the healthy parts of you, a sense of self that cohabits with rather than being consumed by your mental illness. This notion of your mental illness as separate from you also needs to be internalized by family and friends if they are to offer support in a way that empowers the person living with mental illness.
Wrestling with the acceptance of and separateness from mental illness is a process that takes time, effort and considerable emotional energy. However if one does not engage in this process the risk of a setback and the likelihood of managing mental illness effectively is greatly reduced. It is essential that significant family and friends wrestle with this process as well. Acceptance of mental illness and viewing it as separate from the self is absolutely key to successfully living with mental illness and allows for a realistic integration of the limitations that accompany the illness. It increases the likelihood of a proactive approach to managing mental illness including proper adherence to a treatment plan, ensuring that the correct therapy and general social support is put in place and that appropriate supportive decisions can be made.