Mental health issues are big news these days. Mental illnesses are getting increased attention because of COVID and the publication of statistics highlighting increasing problems with children’s mental health.
Regardless of what the latest statistics report, mental health problems have been a reality for people of all ages from young children to older adults for centuries. To add insult to injury, mental illnesses do not just affect the individual: parents of adult children and family members deal with mental health challenges as well, just in a different way.
Although it is easy to feel hopeless and confused by the sobering news and overwhelming amount of information about mental health challenges, there is good news (really).
As someone with personal and multifaceted experience with mental disorders, I know that there are many clinical services, education programs, mental health treatment, and online resources available to help people greatly increase their quality of life and manage their individual needs.
People can still live full, thriving lives with a mental illness.
I’m going to repeat this because when you’re in the thick of it, either as a family member or as the person with the struggles, it can feel like way too much. But you can manage mental health well. So, I’m going to say it again:
People can still live full, thriving lives with a mental illness.
But, it can be confusing and difficult to get to the management point. And until then there are lots of feelings to manage.
Those feelings are normal but taking action can substantially help alleviate those feelings. So, we’re going to break it down so you know where and how to start.
What Exactly Do We Mean by Mental Health?
Let’s talk about what we mean by mental health in the United States. Here, we separate many of our health services and seldom view things holistically. For example, if you have a heart problem, you see a cardiologist, a hormone problem, an endocrinologist.
Therefore, even though research on the connections between body functions and mental health challenges are being conducted, we still differentiate some issues as mental health.
It’s also important to note that we use a number of different terms to discuss mental health. While some are definitely better than others depending on the context used, here is a list of terms that usually refer to basically the same thing: mental health, behavioral health, mental challenge, mental illness, mental disorder, mental health services.
Professionals have a thick book with all current conditions that fall under the mental health category. Each condition has a name (generalized anxiety, for example) as well as the symptoms related to each disorder.
Conditions are grouped together into similar categories. There are too many to mention here, but I want to point out a few so that we understand how professionals categorize and diagnosis mental illnesses.
One category of mental illnesses are the mood disorders. As the name implies, these are illnesses that affect mood. Major depression falls under this category along with many others.
Another category are the substance abuse disorders which encompasses alcohol and drug use. A person may have a substance use disorder only, or they may experience substance abuse with another issue like a mood disorder.
When someone has more than one diagnosis, we call this a coexisting condition and it is not specific to substance use or any other diagnosis.
It’s important to remember that the term mental illness covers so many issues from anxiety disorders to schizophrenia to insomnia. Someone may have a mental illness that doesn’t affect their quality of life at all. Someone else may have a serious mental illness that causes delusions or makes them want to take their own life.
To sum it up, there is a lot of variation in the mental health/mental illness category.
What Causes Mental Illness?
There is not a definitive answer for most conditions. It is a bit like untangling why someone gets the flu or develops cancer. A combination of genetics, environment, life situations, drug/alcohol abuse, stress, lifestyle habits, negative thinking, past histories, and brain chemistry affect a person’s risk of developing a mental illness.
Of course, there are many variations here, as well. For example, we know that Neurodevelopmental Disorders such as ADHD, learning disabilities, etc. are related to how the brain grew and developed (Kress & Paylo, 2019).
We know that If someone experienced sexual abuse, they may experience symptoms related to depression and anxiety as well as many other issues, as a result of that experience. (Kress & Paylo, 2019).
And then some conditions are related to an undiagnosed physical problem. For example, people with thyroid issues may experience depression. Giving birth may also increase the likelihood of the mother experiencing depression called postpartum depression.
Are Mental Illnesses Permanent?
Some diagnoses are permanent and it is necessary to find ways to actively manage the disorder. Some diagnoses are situational and can be resolved with time or with lifestyle changes. And then some people vacillate between periods where their mental illness is active and times when it is in remission.
When to Get Help
If you feel as though you are not functioning well and symptoms are getting in the way of living your life, reach out to someone. The following video talks more about symptoms that are commonly signs of needing professional treatment.
How to Get Help and Treatment
There are many ways to start getting mental health services but it may take time to put together a permanent team that is a good fit for you. To get started, visit one professional and go from there. A good place to start is with one of the professionals below.
Your Health Care Provider
This can be a great place to start if you already have a relationship with your primary care provider or pediatricians for young people. It is usually possibly to get in to see them quickly which is invaluable if your child is not functioning well.
They may be able to refer you to a specific mental health professional or a behavior health services organization (such as a large group counseling or psychiatric practice) in your area. Since they are medical doctors, they should be able to work with you if medication is needed.
Social Workers & Counselors**
Social workers who have LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) after their name and therapists with LPC (licensed professional counselor) or LMHC (licensed mental health counselors) after their name, are people who train extensively in the treatment of mental health.
These certifications require a master’s degree, many hours of supervised counseling, as well as extra trainings. We are going to collectively call them therapists. It may take some time to get an appointment and it may take even longer to find one a good therapist but effective therapy can change your life.
Seriously. It’s worth the search.
Visiting one of the providers may be called talk therapy but don’t be fooled into thinking you will be lying on a couch relieving your childhood.
Therapists may provide a variety of the following services: family therapy, family support options, art therapy, group therapy, sand tray therapy, crisis intervention, psychoeducation workshops, and early intervention services.
Once you find a therapist that you want to work with, they will often write up a treatment plan with goals and therapeutic techniques to help achieve those goals. This plan changes with time as needed.
Not to be confused with psychiatrists (these are medical doctors who can prescribe medicine, see below), a psychologist is a mental health professional with a doctorate level degree.
Psychologists can do a variety of things, including counseling and diagnostic testings. Diagnostic testing is necessary, or desired, for certain disorders, such as learning disabilities. You can also look for a psychologist who does counseling to do therapy with.
**Most providers see particular clients based on age or issue. Many of them also provide treatment options based on specific psychological theories such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or solutions focused brief therapy (SFBT). Look for this information on their website or bio.
If you need to see someone immediately, you may not have the bandwidth to consider their orientation (the way they approach problems, change, and therapy). Eventually, talk to your therapist or spend a small amount of time researching how your therapist approaches therapy; different orientations are a good fit for different people.
Behavioral health medication services fall under psychiatric services, and are provided by a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner. It can be challenging to find a psychiatrist or get into one within a reasonable timeframe. That’s why some people start with their primary care provider until they are able to get in for psychiatric care.
Psychiatrists can consider both physical and mental aspects of a person’s health that may be contributing to a mental illness. Oftentimes they offer counseling as well.
Many people see both a therapist and a psychiatrists separately because psychiatry appointments are often more expensive than therapy appointments because of the level of expertise psychiatrists must have.
These services are invaluable if used correctly. If medication is needed, the appointments may eventually be called medication management appointments or check-ins.
How Do I Find a Provider in my Area?
To find someone in your area you can:
1. Ask people you know
2. Search for a provider online search including the name of your city
3. Contact the behavioral health providers in your insurance network
4. Search online at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or the Psychology Today online provider search.
Most cities also have low cost services for those who qualify.
How to Prepare for a Mental Health Care Visit?
Regardless how you prepare, making contact and getting the ball rolling is always a good first step. But, there are things you can do to make the most of your visit and get the best results.
List out the mental health symptoms that are concerning you. If you are a parent or family member, you may have to list the symptoms you notice if the person experiencing the poor mental health is unable or unwilling to do so. Don’t worry if the wording is not perfect or you have a difficult time making sense of what is going on, just do the best you can.
Along with the symptoms, provide some information on how often/how long this has been going on. For example, if your child won’t go to school, it will be extremely helpful for the provider to know how often this happens.
In the above example, the provider may want to know what behavioral issues accompany the “not going to school.” Is your child yelling, holding on to the bed, etc.
They will also work to get an idea about how recent these issues began. For example, has the school avoidance been happening everyday for the past year or is this a new situation?
What Else Can I Do?
There are many resources that can help you handle this challenge. There is a lot of support for both the patient and the family members because so many people experience behavioral health problems.
Find Support Groups
The National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) has support groups across the country. This organization also provides a wealth of information on various mental illness and mental health topics. You can also check out Facebook Support Groups or local groups for your diagnosis.
There are many people out there who want to connect with others going through the same experience. These groups can provide emotional support and helpful resources since the members are highly motivated to find solutions.
Be mindful of choosing groups that are helpful, supportive, and non-dogmatic so that the group is helpful, not emotionally draining.
There is always a new book coming out on one mental health issue or another. Vet out one or two books with high reviews and educate yourself about the particular mental health disorder you are dealing with.
Create a Game Plan
Once a crisis pasts, it is important to consider the next step.
Work on putting together a great mental health support staff or team. This may include your therapist, a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner, and a few experts in the field who provide information via YouTube, books, TedTalks, or class and programs they offer. Also include any other support groups such as local meetup groups or online support groups.
Put together an emergency game plan and include numbers and information about what to do if there is a crisis. You may want to include the national suicide prevention lifeline and the number of 24-hour emergency psychiatric help for your area.
If family dynamics are negatively affected, a few sessions of family therapy or individual therapy for those most affected can be very helpful. This may be temporary until everyone has adjusted.
How Can I Help my Child with their Own Mental Health Challenges?
Talk to your Kids
Just like someone with diabetes would need education about taking care of themself, the mental health of children demands discussions as well.
Over time, help your child become aware of symptoms to watch for, strategies to best manage the illness, how to keep track of how they are feeling, and plans to handle difficult times when they feel bad. This will look different depending on your child’s age and illness.
Keep in mind that they will need your help doing this until they realize the importance of managing their illness.
Because symptoms of mental illness are not always obvious and because it can affect the patient’s ability to perceive things correctly, other people can help the patient be mindful of the functioning they observe.
For example, if your son is managing OCD and you start to see him engaging in compulsions, you can track this information to share with him and his doctor.
Encourage a Team Attitude
Help your child to take a We’re a Team, attitude so that they know they are not alone and that you are all working together to manage this. Prepare them to expect questions and brief discussions about their mental health.
Work together to find a way that this can be done quickly and routinely so that your child can eventually internalize this process. If your child does not live with you, try a daily, bi-weekly, or weekly phone call.
Be Present at Appointments
When your child goes in to visit a therapist or psychiatrist, you may want to request time to touch base with them at the beginning or end of an appointment. This is especially relevant if your child is having a very difficult time or is depressed.
It is difficult to self-report accurately and it can also be difficult to be open about feeling horrible. This is where a tracker becomes especially helpful; everyone can see how the patient has been feeling and functioning for many days, not just at the moment they are at an appointment.
If your child says they are feeling fine and doing fine but you know that is not the case, speak up so that they can get the help they need.
Obviously your child needs love all the time but whenever they are feeling bad, they may feel unlovable. Be gentle and loving. Hugs, good meals, walks outside, notes on their door…think about the ways they enjoy being loved and continue to be present even though it is a challenging time for you as well.
Think about Yourself
Your child needs love and attention and so do you. You may need more self-care than normal and it’s imperative that you make sure to get it. While helping to manage your child’s mental health, you must manage your own as well.
Consider seeing a therapist during this time to help you process your feelings and also to have a safe space to express your frustrations and anger.
Ultimately, mental health issues usually do not have to drastically affect everyday life if they are treated and managed. Management is a key aspect of staying on top of the illness and consistent, effective, quality management puts you in charge instead of your illness.
Kress, V. & Paylo, M. (2019). Treating those with mental disorders: A comprehensive approach to case conceptualization and treatment. Pearson.
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How Minimalism Helps me Deal with a Chronic Illness
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