Mental Illness 101
So you think you have a mental illness. Now what?
Identifying the problem
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults in the US have some form of mental illness, and that number is higher among young, female-identified adults. While this statistic may seem sad, or maybe even hyperbolic, for those of us with a mental illness, it’s important to know you are not alone.
Even more important than knowing you are not alone is understanding one thing: Having a mental illness does NOT mean you are crazy.
If you think you have a mental illness and someone has told you it’s “just a phase” or “you’ll snap out of it,” know that these people are coming from a place of caring, but that they may not be correct. You should always see a doctor you trust if you think you have a mental illness, signs of which include:
- Persistent sadness or feelings of hopelessness
- Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Excessive fear or worry
- Seeing or hearing things that are not there
- Extremely high and low moods
- Aches, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear cause
- Social withdrawal
- Thoughts of suicide*
Mental illness manifests itself differently in everyone, which is what makes it so tricky to identify and why it so often goes ignored. I didn’t know I had anxiety until my senior year of college and started having what I found out were anxiety attacks - sudden panic brought on by a buildup of irrational worries that had me convinced, at the time, that I was actually dying. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.
As I said before, the first step to take when you think you have a mental illness is seeing a health professional you trust. I was lucky enough that my mom made an appointment with my primary care doctor who I felt really understood me and my health, and she was able to talk me through the symptoms I was experiencing. She diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, more commonly known as just anxiety.
Putting a name to what I was experiencing was half the battle; suddenly, so many things about my life made sense. I understood now why the smallest things could set my heart racing and leave a nervous pit in my stomach for hours, or why when entering social situations like job interviews I was so nervous that my hands clammed up and I was unable to think or form coherent sentences.
I was lucky in that my primary care doctor was able to diagnose my illness because anxiety is more common and more recognizable. For others, your doctor might recommend a psychological evaluation. These assessments can help to identify what you need to most help with, which will help to diagnose how you are feeling. Most of the time, these are simple questionnaires that help combine your symptoms and thought processes into one diagnosis.
For me personally, my doctor recommended starting me on a low dosage of sertraline, aka Zoloft. I was lucky in that this medication worked for me almost immediately after starting it, and I am so glad to have found something that alleviates my anxiety. While it’s not a cure, I have seen so much improvement in my day-to-day life: I don’t get as nervous starting conversations with strangers or being in new social situations; job interviews are much easier; and more importantly, I’ve become more confident in who I am as a person and feel much more comfortable presenting myself to others.
Medication and mental health is also tricky, and part of what makes mental illness so stigmatized. Antidepressants have been called “crazy pills” and the same people who may have excused your mental illness as a “phase” may have contributed to the idea that you should “have control” over your mental state or that taking medication because “you’re sad” is a sign a weakness. Let me tell you that all of this is a bag of lies (and if you don’t believe me, check out the #MedicatedAndMighty hashtag on Twitter).
Medication is not a cure, and drugs that help with mental health problems can often have many side effects that you’ll need to discuss with your doctor. Sometimes treatment requires trying several different medications to find out what works for you, which is something you and your doctor will discuss together.
Another big part of mental health maintenance is therapy, which is often recommended either instead of or alongside medication for people with mental illness. Your doctor may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist, who will help to give you the tools that you need to make healthy decisions and acknowledge important behaviors that may affect your mental and emotional well-being. Going to therapy might seem intimidating, but there are many different options that ensure that you are as comfortable as possible.
If you are afraid of being alone with a psychologist, you can opt for group therapy, and if you would prefer to be alone, you can try one-on-one therapy. No therapist is going to tell you what decisions to make in your life, but they will give you the tools that you need to acknowledge unhealthy behaviors and make decisions that benefit your emotional well-being. There are many different therapists and psychologists, so look into their philosophies and consider doing a phone consultation to be sure that you are comfortable with who you will be working with. Going to therapy might seem scary at first, but the hardest part is taking the first step and going to your first appointment.
Mental illness is still stigmatized simply for the fact that for many people, “seeing is believing.” It’s hard to understand someone is sick in the same way someone may have any other illness, like arthritis or eczema. Physical pain and emotional pain are different, but both require treatment in order for us to live happy, fulfilling lives.
*If you are thinking about suicide, there are people who can help.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat online
Mia is an aspiring cat lady and obsessed with books, beauty, and pop culture. By day she works in publishing in New York City, and by night she can be found in bed, drinking Moscato and binge-watching YouTube videos.
Hannah Moran also contributed to this post. Hannah is an aspiring pharmacist and a semi-professional car dancer. When she’s not cramming for chemistry in the University of Arizona library, she’s either teaching color guard or binge-watching YouTube videos in her pajamas. You can find her drinking a hazelnut iced coffee or perfecting her Sirsasana yoga stance.