Coming to terms with having a mental illness is a difficult process. It is hard enough to admit to yourself that you are suffering without also being met with ridicule and judgment from your peers. There are a lot of phases of accepting a mental illness that everyone must go through, whether it is you yourself or a loved one. These come in the form of avoidance, denial, shame, and acceptance; sometimes one by one or all at once.
Avoidance often starts when you start to realize that there is something off or different about yourself or a loved one. Usually we might attribute these changes to situational or environmental factors in a person’s life – a recent breakup, moving to a new city or loss of a loved one may evoke a broad range of emotions all at once, which could be hard to classify. At this point it is easy to think that feelings of low mood or acting out of sorts is normal because of such a transitional period and that once everything settles, so will these symptoms. However, if these feelings persist for longer than a few weeks you may be in a state of chronic stress, thus leading to worse circumstances. As a friend or family member it can be helpful to monitor your loved one to see how long these changes have been occurring.
If it has been longer than a few weeks and you are still unwilling to admit that there is a problem at hand, then this is where you begin to get into denial. I want to reinforce here that there is nothing necessarily wrong with being in a state of denial because the journey of mental illness is a long and strenuous one to work through. People need time to come to certain realizations on their own, and oftentimes it’s unhelpful to force your opinion of another person’s situation on them. It can be beneficial to allow them to work through it on their terms while still letting them know you are there to listen and to offer support when needed.
When someone does come to terms with their illness, and with themselves, there is often a layer of shame which accompanies this realization. If this phase is not met with the utmost acceptance it can be easy to retreat within yourself, often resorting to self-blame for your circumstance. It never helps to hear harsh judgments made under false assumptions when someone is trying to accept such a difficult part of themselves. When a person is in such a vulnerable state it is easy to take on such negative ideas or labels about themselves without hesitation. The more that this happens the more it may become a part of your identity. This is unhelpful again because this will only cause more damage to the situation which will need to be undone later.
It is important to keep in mind during these phases that your mental illness does not make you the person that you are, it is only a small part of your identity.
The end result of this journey is acceptance and a decision to do something about it. If you can get past these phases then that in itself is a victory and a big part of the battle that has already been won.
About Deshawna Dookie
Deshawna Dookie is an undergraduate psych student and a mental health advocate. Originally from the Toronto area, she has had her own experiences with mental health as well as being a supportive friend and supporter of others with similar experiences. She also has a personal interest in topics pertaining to the intersection of race and mental health. Throughout her own trials with mental health she discovered a number of holistic methods to dealing with mental health issues and is working towards sharing these ideas on her own website and blog. Until then you can follow her on Twitter and here on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog.