This comes with a story, about how I ended a friendship thanks to some serious misconceptions around mental health treatment.
Since I was a teenager, I have suffered from depression and anxiety issues. At the time I fell out with my friend, let’s call her Alison, I was going through a particularly severe depressive episode. Alison and I had been swimming together in the mornings at least once a week before work for some time, agreeing that we both needed to get more exercise in – with me hoping that by increasing my physical activity, I would reduce the number and severity of my then frequent major depressive episodes.
I had just started a new type of medication under the advice of my Psychiatrist, I had been seeing a Psychologist once a month, and Alison was dragging me out of bed once a week or more at 5:30 am for our morning swim. I don’t know exactly what kicked off my downward spiral, but I theorise a combination of a new job, a new lease, and an impoverished sense of purpose surely contributed. In spite of the daily struggle, I found that once I actually got swimming, I felt OK for awhile.
However, the regularity of our swimming sessions started to drop off as I found it more and more difficult to get out of bed and Alison (who used to take me to the pool) would sometimes sleep in or have too much on her plate. Then I received a text message which upset me. While I’m paraphrasing, the gist of the message was:
‘I am not going to take you to the pool anymore, because I don’t think you are doing enough about your depression…’
Needless to say I was initially shocked, but this was shortly followed by anger and indignation – I was seeing a Psychologist regularly, I was taking meds, and I was even exercising! I felt that I was being punished for a perceived misconception about how mental health treatment worked – that, because I was not better (whatever that looks like), I was therefore not trying hard enough. It should be noted, that I couldn’t get to the pool without her, so I felt that her punishment was counter intuitive, given that exercise demonstrably helps manage mental health issues. I told her as much, and suggested that mental health treatment is not a matter of simply ticking boxes on a bingo card or list: meds – check!, psych-check!, exercise-check! ad infinitum, followed by one winning the mental wellness prize.
Suffice to say, we went our separate ways, agreeing to disagree about how to manage my mental health. The loss of a dear friend and the reduction in exercise likely contributed, albeit in a small way, to a protracted major depressive episode, but it did help me coin the phrase – mental health bingo, so that’s something I guess.
While there’s a lot of information out there on the world wide webs about mental health and it’s treatment, this misconception that, by engaging in enough of these activities, a person suffering from a mental health issue/s should become mentally well, and that, if you are still suffering, you’re simply not trying hard enough. This is patently bullshit.
First things first – I am not saying that engaging in any of the activities above is a bad thing, or that these things and many others, are not useful. What I am saying is that in treating mental health issues, the measurement of it’s success is more about an improvement in functionality and is very seldom about becoming ‘mentally well’, and that these things can take a long time to have an effect. Indeed, mental health treatment involves A LOT of trial and error – with different types of medications/doses, monitoring of side effects, as well as finding the right psychologist or doctor to diagnose and treat your issues appropriately. These treatments can take months or years to have any noticeable effect, and seldom result in acquisition of mental wellness, but allowing one to be more functional. Getting regular exercise and managing ones diet is especially problematic, especially when suffering from depression (I mean, it’s totally easy to go for a run when you haven’t got out of bed for two days, am I right?), not to mention the financial burden – a healthier diet is often a more expensive one, and it’s not at all accessible to everyone. Don’t even get me started about access to and affordability of designated mental health services.
The take-home here is that there is no checklist that will guarantee that once you’ve ticked them off you will feel better. You could be doing many of the activities that are recommended by various health practitioners and still be struggling, but that doesn’t mean you should give up or aren’t trying hard enough – ask questions of your doctors and see them regularly, hit up a friend to give you a much needed hug, reach out to someone online, and hang in there.