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Articles

COPING WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS
By Scott Findlay
Consumer Consultant at 'Our Voice'
Newsletter for consumers in the Middle South

I want to say at the outset that I do not have any special qualifications for writing on the topic of 'Coping with a Mental Illness.' The only qualification I have is a long experience. I have grappled with mental illness, sometimes of a quite severe nature, for much of my life.

The proposals I make in this article are mere suggestions. They are not necessarily applicable to everyone. Other sufferers may have alternative or better suggestions. I would say, however, that the suggestions I will make are based on my experience, and sometimes have been helpful to me.

1.   Dont' let a label rule your life.

Everyone who suffers from a mental illness has received a diagnosis: a label. I don't dispute that these labels are to some extent necessary. They certainly help in the selection of appropriate treatments.

However, a label can also be something of a trap. That is because a label, such as 'mentally ill', is a very general thing, whereas each of us is a particular person. We are all people before we are cases or consumers. We do not live by means of the labels we have received. Whatever the label we may have, each of us still has a life, which it is our responsibility to live. No one can possibly tell another person what it means to have a mental illness. Within certain limitations that is for each of us to work out for ourselves - by living.

2.   Look forward to the future.

The future is the realm of possibilities. It is yet undecided; it is waiting for us to convert into a better present. Our actions today help to decide the kind of future we will enjoy. Because the future is undecided, it will not necessarily be the same as the past. Thus, bad and unpleasant events in one's past life need not mean a bad and unpleasant future. People can recover from serious mental illness to go on and lead useful satisfying lives. Looking forward to the future means defining one's aims and goals. One might decide, for instance, to learn new skills or take up a hobby. Developing new interests is always helpful. Perhaps the best therapy of all is to find an interest that will carry you forward into the future, and give you something to work towards in the months and years to follow.

3.   Develop a support network.

Everyone - certainly not just those with a mental illness - needs to have people they can trust, whom they can call on for help at any time. At an informal level this support network might be made up of friends, family and fellow consumers. At a more formal level it is important to be well informed about how the mental health system operates and how best to take advantage of it. It pays to have key telephone numbers at hand and to be well aware of your rights as a consumer (voluntary or otherwise) of mental health services.

Finally, make sure you know what to do in a crisis. Do you know who to call and where to go if things get out of hand? What about First Aid for mental illness? What, for instance, are the best ways of dealing with worsening symptoms? Some people find that distracting themselves helps, others know to increase their medication, phone their mental health professional, or seek additional rest.

4.   Set yourself ground rules.

The course of mental illness is very unpredictable. I sometimes feel dreadful in the morning and reasonably well in the evening. It's hard to know how I will feel from one day to the next. For this reason I set myself a number of ground rules which I apply to myself irrespective of how I feel. You can think up your own ground rules, it helps to write them down. Here are three of the ground rules, which I try to live by:

    1.   I will not make major decisions of any kind when I am feeling upset or unwell
    2.   I will always act according to my own best interests.
    3.   I will always do what I know helps; I will always avoid what I know harms me.

As I said above, you can make up your own ground rules, and apply them to you life. They are something you can hold when life gets difficult. They also help to add structure to one's life.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful to other consumers. Here at 'Our Voice' we would welcome other suggestions about how to cope. What is most important is that you have coping methods which work for you, which you can count on at all times.

Scott Findlay
Consumer Consultant


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