May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. During this month, mental health advocates post online to reduce the stigma that mental illness still carries in our society. I’ve seen lots of posts on social media discussing the need to treat mental illness with the same importance and seriousness as physical illness. For instance, would you tell a person with cancer that they are difficult to deal with, as many people say to loved ones who struggle with chronic depression? Other posts include quotes from prolific writers about their own mental illness, describing in detail the dark depths of depression or the emotional roller coaster of bipolar disorder. Both types of raising awareness deliver the message that mental illness is serious, painful, and deserving of recognition.
While these articles are doing important work, they overwhelmingly give the impression that mental illness is untreatable, incurable, and something to just be accepted. But what is the next step after recognizing the reality of mental illness? As a mental health professional, my preference is to inject positive energy into the conversation by bringing a message of hope, healing, and resilience.
Below are six important practices for bringing this perspective into mental health treatment. For my colleagues, these are practical suggestions that you can incorporate into your work. Individuals receiving or considering mental health services can also benefit from being aware of these options and perspectives.
Redefining Mental Illness As a Treatable Condition Rather Than a Central Part of Their Identify: Would we tell a cancer patient they will be struggling with cancer for the rest of their life without trying to bring the cancer into remission? Would we identify a friend who has cancer as our “cancer friend”? These questions may seem absurd, but I’ve heard persons diagnosed with mental illness identified as “the depressed guy.” I’ve also heard, even from qualified mental health professionals, that certain clients will “always be depressed,” or “will continue to be debilitated by their mental health.” It is true that many people struggle with chronic mood disorders, severe anxiety, or complex trauma in which healing is an ongoing process. However, as professionals, we must send a message that speaks with hopeful optimism regarding treatment. Of course, we must be sensitive to those who struggle with chronic mental health challenges that are resistant to strategies that many people find helpful. That said, as a psychologist, I feel responsible for instilling my clients with hope and encouraging them to believe that, with a team of professionals and supportive resources, they can achieve a more positive outcome.
Building a Supportive Treatment Team: When someone struggles with chronic emotional and psychological challenges, a single practitioner is not enough to provide the level of treatment and support needed. Often a team includes a psychiatrist to prescribe medication, an individual therapist with whom the person meets once or twice a week, therapy groups, and various other resources. These may includes a nutritionist (as we learn more about the connection between gastrointestinal health and mental health); a life coach to assist in managing daily living; or an occupational therapist if the person experiences sensory challenges (sensitivities to sound, textures, or other environmental stimuli). Clients will likely not be aware that they need or can access these services, which is why processionals have an obligation to educate their clients after a thorough clinical intake.
Assessing Social Support: Outside of professional support and a complete treatment team, we must asses each client’s pool of family, friends, or other people in their lives who can provide comfort, encouragement, and compassion. This may involve meeting with family members or others close to them to provide education about how to be supportive. This reduces the burden of the client having to relay this information. It also ensures that fiends and relatives are helpful, rather than providing well-intentioned but unhelpful advice to those who are hurting.
Giving Clients Tools and Strategies: Insight oriented therapy can be extremely helpful, especially for those who have long suffered and are connecting the underlying sources of their pain to their present circumstances. However, even when talk therapy is useful, clients can always benefit from learning coping skills and specific strategies to employ when they are experiencing negative thinking or painful emotions outside of therapy sessions. Tools such as mindfulness meditation apps for calming techniques are examples of practical steps that clients can take to relieve the intensity of their symptoms. Taking some time in therapy to practice such strategies is useful because clients then feel more confident in using them on their own.
Goal-Setting and Assessing Progress: Helping clients set goals early in their treatment can affect whether they view therapy as being effective. If we notice that clients do not improve, or if they report that they are dissatisfied with their progress, we must reassess their treatment goals. This requires that we give clients the space to tell us they are dissatisfied. Establish their right to do this when they begin therapy.
Educating Clients About Mind-Body Interactions: A top priority in the treatment of mental health problems should be educating ourselves and our clients about all of the factors contributing to their condition. We must be responsible for staying current in new scientific findings. We must share this knowledge with our clients and provide them with information they can read on their own. While it is true that some mental health problems have genetic links, it is also true that environmental factors play a significant role in the outcome. Now more than ever, we know that our brain chemistry can be altered through our behavior and our interpersonal relationships. Sharing this information with clients can result in them finding more help in treatment, as well as increase their willingness to stay in therapy long enough for it to be more effective.
As mental health professionals, we must ask ourselves, do we have hope for our clients? Do we believe that their mental health can improve and their lives can change for the better? If so, then including some of the above suggestions into your work may enrich the quality of your relationships with clients and instill the hope and resilience necessary for them to remain in treatment and make positive gains. That is what mental health awareness means to me – instilling hope in our clients and in the public. Living with mental health challenges does not have to mean a miserable existence.