Throughout this post, I am using the term “mental health” rather than “mental illness”, as I want to make this accessible and applicable to a wide variety of people. Whilst only 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental illness, we ALL have mental health. This means that everyone can experience points of poor mental health, good mental health and potentially develop a mental illness. The two terms are different, yet similar principles can apply to general mental health, and illness.
Following on from the surge of posts online, due to #WorldMentalHealthDay, a common message being shared with very good intentions is “It gets better”. I have said this to many people, many times – as it is true; your mental health will get better. Your situation will get better, it always does and it always will. The great thing about saying “it gets better” is the instillment of hope to the receiver.
However, the issue with relying on your mental health getting “better” is that there is no specific way of measuring your progress. There’s no linear motion of going from poor mental health, straight towards good mental health. And the biggest problem is that for many, the idea of their mental health getting better suggests to them that they will one day get back to the point where their thoughts, actions, feelings, and emotions are back where they used to be; prior to their current struggles.
The reality is that, unfortunately, your mental health is unlikely to be 100% back where it used to be. The old cringeworthy metaphor of scars and wounds is applicable here. Your illness can be healed and you can come to a point of great mental clarity, yet you will always have the scars, memories, and associations with the low points in your mental health.
This means that you have to establish new ways and coping mechanisms for working alongside your mind, rather than fighting it. The lifestyle, relationships, experiences and behaviours which caused/contributed to your poor mental health will likely need to change. This is where people can struggle to believe that it ever gets better – because they hope that their mental health will improve and life will be back to normal; despite continuously living in the exact same environment that caused them to become ill in the first place.
I’m going to use two examples to describe my point here, and hopefully, it will make sense.
Joe is 22, a 3rd-year university student living away from home. He goes out drinking 2-4 times a week with his friends and usually completes his university work 2-3 days before it is due in. Joe has a part-time job working in retail both days of the weekend and has worked in the same place for 3 years. He doesn’t really like spending time by himself and feels best when he is around other people. One of Joe’s friends is Mark.
Mark is 21 and in the exact same position as Joe; same degree, same social status, same employment pattern etc. However, over the last 4 months, Mark has become more withdrawn and started to feel disconnected from those around him. Mark is aware of the fact that his mental health is fairly poor at the minute, and is looking for ways to improve how he is feeling. He realizes that he is overworking himself and some of his friendships/relationships are having a negative impact on him.
However, Mark refuses to make changes to his lifestyle or adapt his way of living to manage his mental health, because he has seen people – like Joe, who can live their lives in the exact same way and not experience any damage to their mental health. Mark continues to live his life the exact same way he was before, and each day he is losing hope that it gets better. The problem here is that Mark doesn’t want to adopt new ways to manage his mental health, or to work around situations to suit him and benefit him better. Mark believes that his mental health will just improve – just like that. This is especially perpetuated by the fact that one of his closest friends lives the exact same lifestyle, but has absolutely no mental health problems.
Managing your mental health and adapting your lifestyle to improve how you feel is sort of like taking medication. When I was recovering from an eating disorder, I was put on a meal plan by a dietician. I initially thought this was stupid because my happy and “normal” friends didn’t have to be on a meal plan, so why should I? It wasn’t until the dietician described it as a prescription, that I started to understand. I had to adapt my lifestyle, and make accommodations in my way of living – ie a meal plan, in order to help my mental health get better. It never became perfect, because I was 16 and following a meal plan structure – however, it was better.
I hope this post made sense. It’s only very recently that I’ve realized I have had to make changes in my own life to accommodate my mental health and help me get better. I look at some of the choices my friends make, the lifestyles they have and wish that I could be like them, carefree and reckless, however, I know that those choices would cause me to become mentally unwell again.
If you’re currently going through a bad patch in your life, just look at the things around you that you can change. It’s a long process, but there’s always something which can make you feel better. Continue to have things in place in your life which can support your mental health rather than bash it down.
Thank you for reading and I hope this has helped in some way.