…and the strategies that help.

 

I believe in the healing power of communication (and I’m not alone!). Let’s leverage that power to alleviate what ails us by starting the conversation about mental wellness. Your symptoms matter and help exists to heal all shades of mental illness, which may or may not include an official diagnosis. The strategies that I discuss here have the potential to help you, regardless of your situation or background. That’s the unifying power of our message for Mental Wellness Week: everyone deals with issues of mental wellness.

So, I need your help to make a stand: No Dawg Suffers Alone. Here’s a brief glimpse into one student’s story.

fall-at-lake
Photo by: Peter Frey, UGA Photographic Services

While a sophomore at UGA, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now, I’m preparing to put these incredible but tumultuous four years behind. I know what it’s like to manage mental illness as a young person and as a college student here at the University of Georgia. I’m not a mental health professional but I’ve experienced combinations of depression, anxiety, impulsive frustration, irrational anger and mood instability. I can relate to a variety of symptoms and their consequences.

But I’m writing to you now because I believe in the power of illness to bring people together.  

Tragically, I understand how mental illness can tear people apart. All too often it does just that. But I’m writing to you now because I believe in the power of illness to bring people together. When those who endure a disease and those who toil to support them find comfort in each other’s company, the experience of mental illness reinforces relationships. When individuals reveal their stories, they can create a community of people with similar struggles who, by sharing those experiences, may inspire and sustain one another. So consider sharing your story with someone you trust. Or, reach out to hear mine. 

My disease requires me to avoid alcohol and drugs, take medication daily, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, listen to doctors, talk with a therapist, exercise, and eat right. I accept this as the way my life is now. But with regard to the way I feel, how I perform academically and my ability to maintain relationships, it’s important not to slump into the mindset of “this is the way I am now.” Mental illness changed my life. But I still strive to love and be loved, to create things and not destroy them, to help others, live passionately and succeed professionally.

To achieve those aims, managing mental illness requires discipline and consistency. Here are three strategies that have eased my road to recovery. I hope they help you in yours.

1. Talk it out.

Shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, both a psychiatrist and a therapist advised me to disclose that information only to my immediate family and “one or two best friends.” Needless to say, I ignored their advice. Sometimes that decision scares me. Insecurity related to my condition and my behavior is real. Perhaps my greatest fear is using the disease as an excuse, whether to myself or to others, for poor behavior. Candidly discussing my illness has been, in most circumstances, a rewarding decision.

When I opened up about my story, I heard from a professor with the disease. Then, from a cross country teammate, the mom of a dear friend, and a friend whose sister has bipolar disorder. A family member of mine shared wisdom gained from her experience, not unlike my own, at an inpatient psychiatric facility. I’m grateful to these people for reaching out. My life continues to be enriched by connections formed through a shared understanding of mental illness. The resulting relationships have inspired me in my journey and validated my efforts. I hope that my story may do the same for you.

To me, “talking it out” doesn’t mean talking to everyone. And it may not mean talking to close friends, at least not at first. In my experience, most people are compassionate when it comes to issues of mental illness. Regardless, it can be a difficult subject and many people don’t know what to say or how to react. For that reason, turning to a health professional can help. Therapists and psychiatrists are trained to deal with these issues. Their experience, combined with their third-party perspective, can help in ways that friends or family cannot.

Openness has been the right decision for me. But I have friends for whom the same degree of openness has been difficult or impossible. Not only do I respect that decision but also recognize it to be best for them at this point. Countless answered prayers have allowed me to conduct my recovery in this way. I am grateful for those blessings and realize that so many others have not been so lucky. Mental illness manifests in many ways, meaning that what works for one person may not work for another.

In my experience, the sharing of struggles between friends helps to deescalate and demystify the experience of mental illness. Explain what hurts and why. Together, come to understand how others may help. In doing so, you will surely serve the roles of both ‘patient’ and ‘therapist.’ Having one or more trusted people in your life to discuss your symptoms with can go a long way towards getting the help that that you need.

2. Run your best triangle offense.

While collecting an NBA record 11 championship rings, hall-of-fame coach Phil Jackson mastered the science and the art of the “Triangle Offense.” During my six weeks of intensive outpatient therapy, I learned a lesser-known triangle offense that I employ on a daily basis to manage my disease. My “Triangle Offense” looks something like this:

triangle-offense

This concept comes from a counseling approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In general, we cannot simply change how we feel. Therefore, CBT emphasizes the power of thoughts and behaviors to influence feelings. Therapists routinely use CBT to help patients with depression, anxiety, addiction, dependence, eating disorders, and mood disorders.

The CBT approach allows me to combat thoughts such as “I wish I felt better.” Instead, I challenge myself to ask “what thoughts and behaviors may work to change my negative feelings?” For example, although I may not be able to change my feelings directly, exercising or hanging out with friends are behaviors that positively impact my feelings. In this way, I can avoid feeling hopeless and instead feel empowered to change my mood through action.

Understanding CBT will add a powerful tool to your arsenal of strategies used to combat everyday issues of mental health. Whether you aspire to NBA fame or wish to hijack patterns of negativity, the Triangle Offense can help.

3. Assemble your toolbox.

In practice, CBT isn’t easy. Some days I am too overwhelmed, too stressed, or too stubborn to use it effectively. Some days I just don’t believe that CBT can solve my problems. And sometimes it truly can’t. Therefore, the last idea I want to leave with you is the importance of having an abundant toolbox of strategies used to combat mental illness.

My toolbox includes medication, sleep manipulation, exercise (find activities that you truly love), nutrition, low blue-light glasses, a lightbox, cooking, reading, growing a bamboo plant, watching baseball, petting my dog, listening to music, playing the piano, backpacking, and spending time with family, pets, and friends. All of these strategies rejuvenate me in some way and each one becomes necessary from time to time. I encourage you to find the strategies that work for you. With practice, your strategies will become reliable. Some may become necessary in times of crisis.

Managing mental illness can be tough. The payoff is worth the work.

On a bad day, any number of toxic attitudes infect if not dominate my psyche. I must pray for strength, try my best, and hope that others may forgive my shortcomings. On a good day, I envision my 18-month-long (and counting) path to wellness like a less-than-glorious Rocky montage. Similar to that of Sylvester Stallone, my montage includes: routine; repeated failure; blood draws; sweat; uncontrollable tears; and one man’s singular resolve to vanquish an invisible and inexorable foe. Unlike Stallone, I lack the primetime paycheck, chiseled physique, and widespread audience. Few witness even half of my struggles, much less the work that goes into preventing them.

Your struggles are no less significant than mine: your symptoms matter.

Due to that private nature of most mental health problems, I occasionally dwell on thoughts of “if only ______ understood how difficult ______ is for me” and sometimes “nobody understands.” But everyone struggles within the context of their own life experience. Comparing those experiences without relating them can be unproductive. Your struggles are no less significant than mine: your symptoms matter. Everyone can benefit from strategies to improve mental wellness; and seeking resources such as talk therapy, support groups, and CAPS does not require an ‘official’ diagnosis. If nothing more, please internalize these truths.

 

Written by: Drew Farr,  University Health Center Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC)
He encourages you to reach out to him at drwfarr@uga.edu or (865) 235-2671.

 

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