The term “mental illness” can be used to describe a broad range of symptoms and experiences. It is commonly used when someone has been given a particular psychological diagnosis, such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and many others. People also may use the term “mental illness” to refer to symptoms such as anxiety, paranoia and psychosis.
You may have been given a diagnosis at some time in your life, or you may have symptoms or experiences which are typical of “mental illness”. This may be the first time you have sought help in dealing with these experiences or you may be dissatisfied with the type of help you have received in the past. Often people who come to see me for support around these kind of experiences have found that the mental health system does not meet their needs. Common difficulties include:
- A medical model of the experience doesn’t feel right for them
- They feel limited and labelled by their diagnosis
- They don’t feel treated like a person, or that the therapist doesn’t understand them
- They feel pressured to take medication when they don’t want to
- The positive or spiritual aspects of their experiences are not given any respect.
- They have their own framework of understanding for the experiences they have had and they feel this isn’t given any credibility.
If you are seeking the support of someone open-minded, non-judgemental and caring with whom you can share your experiences of life and work through your difficulties, I may be able to help you. I don’t focus on labels but help you explore what is occurring for you and assist you to come to your own sense of meaning about it. I can also assist you to find ways to manage and work with the difficult aspects of what you are experiencing. I relate to you as a person and an individual and work with the things which give you joy and pain.
There are aspects of having a diagnosis which some people can find helpful. It can help them feel not so alone, recognising that others have similar experiences. It can bring people together who are having similar experiences so they can support each other. It can link people to styles of treatment which have worked for others who have had similar experiences. It can also help people to feel that what is happening to them is not their fault.
What the labels can miss is that every person’s story is different. Two people with the same diagnosis may be affected in quite different ways and be troubled by completely different things. It is important to recognise that diagnosis itself is an imperfect science, and that two therapists may give two different diagnoses to the same person describing the same experiences.
The exclusive use of a medical model of mental illness can result in people feeling that they don’t have any power to facilitate their own healing. I encourage you to go beyond the label and increase your awareness about the actual experiences you have – what do you mean by depression? How does that feel? Where do you feel it in your body? How does that affect you? This kind of enquiry gives you a more intimate knowledge of what is happening to you as an individual. It helps you work out the borders and boundaries of what is difficult and what is possible for you. It may help highlight times when you actually don’t have the experience of “depression”. Ultimately it can empower you to influence and improve your life.
I encourage you to discover your own sense of meaning in your experiences. This can mean a shift from a perspective that mental illness is a wrong turn you have taken in your life to one in which the experiences are a meaningful part of the story of your life. You may discover meaning and purpose to what has happened for you. Through what has happened you can become more whole and learn valuable lessons which you carry through your life. The experiences can be an impetus for growth and healing which go much deeper than simply making the symptoms go away.