Several years ago, one of the major pharmaceutical companies had a very cute, animated television commercial promoting one of its newer antidepressants. The indisputable, underlying message? Take this little pill and you’ll soon be happy again.
If only it was that simple!
Unfortunately, some people have very unrealistic expectations when it comes to their mental health treatment. They assume (or at least hope) that a few therapy sessions or simply taking medication will solve the problem. But it rarely works that way. Humans are complex beings, and so is the interplay between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Overcoming or learning to effectively manage a psychiatric disorder or painful life issue is often a multi-faceted process that requires a collaborative effort – between you and your treatment provider(s).
So, how do you make the most of your mental health treatment? If you haven’t already asked yourself that question, you need to. Because there are many things you can do to enhance the process. In fact, by taking a proactive role in your own healing, you reap the additional reward of empowering yourself. And that sense of empowerment can play a significant role in helping you get better!
Now, keep in mind, some of things discussed below really are common sense – things your doctor or therapist probably already advised you to do. But others aren’t always addressed, or they’re mentioned once or twice early on, but didn’t really “stick”. After all, when people first seek treatment they’re often feeling at least somewhat overwhelmed, scared, or helpless.
Fortunately, you’re not as helpless as you feel, and taking action can help diminish both the fear and sense of overwhelm. Following are several things you can do to ensure you get the most out of your mental health treatment:
Stick to your treatment plan.
Yes, this tip really is common sense but it’s truly amazing how many people seek mental health treatment and then don’t stick to the plan. They wonder why they’re not getting better, blame their therapist for failing to help them, or decide that treatment is useless. That’s not to say that there aren’t incompetent treatment providers or that the plan is always going to be effective, but if you don’t truly give it a chance, it’s not going to help you.
Sticking to the treatment plan includes:
- Attending every appointment and therapy session
- Taking medication exactly as prescribed (if it’s prescribed)
- Doing any “homework” assignments
- Making any recommended adjustments in your lifestyle or daily habits
If you’re skipping sessions with your therapist or not consistently taking your medications, you might as well spend your time and money at the mall.
The caveat with this first tip is this: If you’ve been closely following your treatment plan for several months, and there’s no improvement, then it’s time to make some adjustments. This leads to the next recommendation:
Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Just because someone has a graduate degree or a prestigious title (especially “Dr.”) doesn’t mean he or she is always right or knows everything. Some people are intimidated by health care professionals and feel that questioning their treatment (when it’s not working or something doesn’t feel right) is inappropriate, impolite, or offensive. Having a say in your treatment is part of the collaborative effort, and it provides important feedback for those trying to help you. That’s not to say you should constantly challenge and question everything. There needs to be a reasonable degree of trust as part of the therapeutic relationship in order for treatment to be effective.
Speaking up may be especially challenging if you have a history of abuse (especially at the hands of any type of authority figure) or are struggling with certain issues such as social anxiety, low self-esteem, or avoidant tendencies. One of the benefits of therapy is that it’s a safe place to try out new (and sometimes uncomfortable) behaviors. If you’re uncertain how to broach the topic, let your therapist know that something’s bothering you that you’d like to discuss, but aren’t sure how to go about it. He or she can help you begin to express yourself effectively. A competent therapist will be able to handle your criticisms and concerns.
Be upfront about any alcohol or drug use.
Alcohol and drug use (including any prescription medications you’re taking) are typically addressed in your initial assessment. However, not everyone is honest about whether or not they’re using substances for recreation or self-medication. This includes “social drinking”. Even though many regard it as acceptable behavior, alcohol use may be interfering with your treatment.
If you’re truly serious about your mental health treatment, you must let your treatment providers know about any and all substance use – past and present. For example, it’s difficult to effectively treat depression if you’re drinking regularly, because alcohol is a depressant and can contribute to your symptoms. If you’re self-medicating in any form, it’s going to hinder your progress. Period. Why learn healthy coping skills and address painful emotions if you can keep falling back on your drug of choice as a means of escape?
If you have a substance use disorder, then you may be a good candidate for “dual diagnosis” treatment. This treatment approach is designed to treat both mental health issues and substance use disorders simultaneously.
Make restorative sleep a priority.
The key word here is “restorative”. You may be sleeping 10 to 12 hours a day, particularly if you’re depressed. But if you’re serious about improving your mental health, getting adequate sleep that truly restores and refreshes both your mind and your body is vital. Of course, doing so is often easier said than done, especially if you’re dealing with bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, major depression, PTSD, or psychotic symptoms (e.g. hearing voices).
One of the best ways to tackle sleep issues (in addition to working on your mental health issues) is to practice good sleep hygiene. This includes things like going to bed and getting up at the same time every day (including weekends), having a relaxing pre-bedtime ritual (e.g. taking a hot bath or listening to soft music), making sure your bedroom is dark and not too hot or cold, and avoiding or turning off any sources of “blue” light (e.g. the TV, computer, or iPad) 30 to 60 minutes prior to going to bed.
It’s difficult to deal with stress, difficult emotions, mood issues, and any other type of mental health problem when you’re sleep deprived. Granted, sometimes this is a “chicken or the egg” issue in terms of which is exacerbating which. But if you’re not being proactive in this area, you are likely undermining your mental health treatment.
Don’t rely solely or primarily on medication.
Unfortunately, there are some treatment providers who recommend medication as the primary treatment for many disorders – sometimes even to the exclusion of therapy and lifestyle changes. Like the old antidepressant commercial mentioned earlier, medication is often overemphasized (and over-used) in the treatment of many mental health conditions. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place; in fact, sometimes it’s crucial, particularly in the treatment of psychotic disorders or severe mood disorders.
There’s nothing abnormal about wanting to feel better as quickly as possible. But relying on a pill is rarely (if ever) the best way to go. The notion that your symptoms are caused solely or primarily by an imbalance in brain chemistry – an imbalance that can be restored with proper medication – oversimplifies the problem, to say the least. Scientists still don’t fully understand the human brain or the exact cause of most psychiatric disorders. While brain chemistry likely does play a role in many disorders, other factors, such as poor coping skills and irrational beliefs, are also often part of the picture. Medication doesn’t address those. Therapy does.
You see, this oft-touted explanation for depression and many other disorders tends to remove all personal responsibility when it comes to getting better. A young woman being treated for depression in a hospital psychiatric ward once said (in group therapy), “I don’t need therapy; the psychiatrist said my brain chemistry is out of balance and started me on medication”. Why go to therapy (and learn invaluable coping skills or how to improve your relationships) or make changes in your lifestyle (such as practicing good hygiene) if medication is the solution?
Far too often, psychiatric medications 1) don’t work at all or provide very limited benefit, 2) require a long process of trial and error, and / or 3) cause unpleasant, intolerable, or even potentially dangerous side effects. Not to mention, once stopped, symptoms often return.
Mediation can, at times, be highly beneficial. But if you rely on it to “fix” whatever ails you, you may be setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment (not to mention crappy side effects). Most experts agree that medication, if necessary, will be most effective when used in conjunction with (rather than in lieu of) therapy.
Be realistic – and optimistic.
No one likes to feel sad, anxious, hopeless, worthless, or lonely. If you’re like most people, you sought treatment because you were feeling (or starting to feel) a bit desperate. You’re seeking a solution to a very difficult problem. And, if you’re normal, you want it fixed yesterday. Not months or years down the road.
It’s easy to become impatient and frustrated in the course of mental health treatment. Unfortunately, healing takes time, as does learning to effectively manage a disorder that is generally considered lifelong, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Some people get into treatment and expect miracles – fast miracles. While miracles do occasionally occur in life, they’re definitely the exception not the rule. One of the best ways to be realistic is to have a candid discussion with your treatment providers regarding what you can reasonably expect from treatment (assuming you’ll do your part). Can you overcome [whatever it is you’re struggling with] completely? Or is learning to manage it the goal? Discussing these questions upfront will help prepare you for what’s ahead.
Regardless of the answers, it’s okay to be optimistic – at least cautiously optimistic. Hope is a powerful emotion, as it impacts your mindset and how you approach the treatment process. It’s hard to be motivated and do the hard work of therapy if you don’t think it’s going to help or you believe you’ll never get better. Even worse, those negative beliefs can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you’re feeling pessimistic or impatient, discuss your feelings with your therapist. He or she can help you shift your mindset in a way that will positively impact your treatment.
You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m trying to overcome depression not lose weight or compete in a marathon!” That may be true. However, research has shown that exercise plays a vital role in our emotional and cognitive wellbeing. Regular exercise has been shown to improve mood, boost self-confidence and self-esteem, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and alleviate stress.
If you rarely exercise and are struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder, a brisk 30-minute walk several days a week may be more beneficial than you ever thought possible. If you find it difficult to get motivated, enlist the help of an exercise partner. Don’t expect overnight miracles, as the real benefits will appear over time. Of course, always get your doctor’s okay before embarking on an exercise regimen, especially if you’ve been sedentary or have any medical issues.
Find healthy ways to reduce stress.
Stress hinders healing, whether it’s from a physical ailment, such as cancer, or a psychiatric disorder such as PTSD. Granted, like troubled sleep, mental health issues create additional (and often chronic) stress, and stress can trigger and exacerbate mental health issues. Either way, learning to manage and reduce the stress in your life will definitely enhance your mental health treatment.
One of the ways to reduce stress is to take inventory of the things that are causing it in the first place. Can you delegate tasks, say “no” more often to the demands of others, or stop putting it overtime at work? Is it time to end or take a break from a toxic relationship? Prioritizing your time, breaking large tasks into smaller ones, and planning ahead are just a few ways to reduce stress. Eliciting support from others (if possible) and adding fun to your life (even in just small ways) will also help ease the stress you’re experiencing.
Last but not least, regular exercise, meditation, and yoga are all proven ways to reduce stress, help you feel more relaxed and centered, and strengthen your emotional and mental reserves.
Your mental health treatment isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a one-way street. Your treatment providers may be very competent, but your own efforts and actions can play a significant role in in determining how much benefit you will get out of treatment. Don’t feel you need to tackle everything at once. Start by choosing one or two things on the list above, and go from there. Be patient with both yourself and the process.