So, you’ve learned about mental illnesses, the basics of depression and anxiety, and you’ve familiarized yourself with the symptoms of suicide. You may realize that you yourself are struggling, or perhaps you have a loved one in mind that is hurting and you want to help. You have the phone numbers or websites written down, and you’re ready to move forward.
But… what happens next?
We believe that there are two huge barriers stopping hurting people from getting help, and these are a combination of societal stigma and ignorance. People have a fear that by seeking mental health treatment, they will be labeled as “crazy” or “psycho”, or they will be perceived as weak, overemotional, or attention-seeking. There is an idea, perpetuated by the media, that mental health treatment requires a leather couch, deciphering ink blots, and a professional that judges you for your hourly appointment. If you’re really bad, that notion turns into strait jackets, rubber rooms, and medication that takes away any ability to feel. These stereotypes are terrifying.
Luckily, they are unfounded. We’re going to walk you through the steps of what really happens during mental health treatment and hopefully we can soothe any fears you may have.
Most often, the first person you talk to is a friend or close family member. This person is not a professional, but merely someone whom you feel you can confide in. This is a hard step, as so often we are afraid to appear weak or out of control. There is also no guarantee that the person you are confiding in will respond correctly; remember, they are not a professional.
This step is not enough. It is only step one in a journey of recovery. Your friend is not a counselor, but they can be a great support for you. If it makes you more comfortable, ask your friend to come with you to speak with an adult who can help.
Talking with an Adult
This step is actually optional if you are 14 or older in the state of Pennsylvania. If you are not comfortable talking to your parents, teachers, or guidance counselors, you can actually contact a mental health professional directly. You have that right.
However, we recommend seeking out an adult you trust (with your friend, if you want) to discuss what’s going on. This adult can be your parents, your friend’s parents, your teacher, youth pastor, sports coach, or anyone else you feel comfortable talking to. Be prepared for questions that you may not be able to answer. It is very common for someone to feel overwhelmingly bad, but have no idea why they feel this way.
Family Doctor Appointment
The hardest parts are over. It is easy talking to a doctor or mental health professional about mental illnesses; it’s what they do! The scariest part is talking to your friends or parents, and now you’ve blazed past those steps and are well on your way to feeling better.
The next step for you is scheduling an appointment with your family doctor. During this appointment, your doctor will do a very basic exam to make sure your symptoms are not the result of something else, and then will do a quick mental health inventory. This inventory may involve providing a description of the behaviors present (when they happen, how they happen, and what makes them happen), a description of the symptoms, the effect the symptoms have on school, work, family, activities, relationships and involvement, family mental health history and your medical history. Questions will usually begin very broad and then scale down to more specific issues that can pinpoint an underlying condition.
A cognitive test will ask basic questions that test your ability to think, reason and remember. The doctor may ask you to state the date and time of day, to repeat a series of words, to follow directions written on a card or to count backwards from 100 by seven. The Mini Mental State Examination is one example of a basic cognitive test.
Tests for depression often include questions that you answer by rating on a scale of 0 to 3 or 4. Common questions are about mood, sleep habits, eating habits, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and obsessive compulsive symptoms. The Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression and the Beck Depression Inventory are two examples of written evaluations for depression.
After your doctor has a good idea of what’s going on, they will likely prescribe some medication and then make a referral for a counselor or therapist. Take the medication. It could take six to eight weeks to begin seeing your counselor, and it takes a few weeks for medication to begin taking effect. This medication is essential to helping you hold on until your appointment. If you are hesitant about taking medication, you can talk that over with your mental health professional at your appointment.
Talk Therapy and Recovery Plans
You have made it into therapy. Now you will work with your therapist to identify problems, work through solutions, and begin walking towards a happier and healthier life. 80-90% of people who seek treatment for mental illnesses find significant life improvements within 6 months of treatment.
The first meeting with your therapist is called the Intake appointment. Here again your therapist will ask a series of questions to learn more about your “big picture” – family life, medical history, and general goals. Don’t worry if you don’t know where you see yourself in five years, or even if you have the ability to see that far into the future. Your therapist is going to work with you right where you are.
It is hard to describe what treatment is like due to the fact that everyone is different and everyone responds to therapy differently. Some people respond best to medication, some respond best to talk therapy, and some require a combination of both. The path to recovery takes a lot of trial & error, open communication, and patience.
Together, you and your therapist are going to identify negative thought patterns, triggers that may cause negative behaviors, and work through any trauma in your life that is hard to cope with. Together you will learn how to take control of your thoughts and feelings, how to process emotions (both positive and negative), and learn coping and communication skills that will become valuable assets in your life well after you have graduated from treatment.
Stay the Course
Remember that your therapist has spent years learning about how humans work, successful therapeutic strategies, and the complexities of the human mind. If you feel a certain plan or medication is not working, be open and honest with your therapist to find something that works for you. You and your therapist work together, and you have the right to influence your treatment. You know you better than anyone else.
You will have good days and you will have bad days. This is normal, and your therapist expects it. Allow your therapist to celebrate the good days with you and console you during the bad.
Things to keep in mind:
Find a therapist that you can trust. If you feel uneasy with your therapist, or if you feel like the two of you just don’t “click”, you can fire them and get a new one. A good client-therapist relationship is essential to you getting better and even enjoying your therapy.
Do not stop taking your medication unless you’ve discussed it with your therapist and they give you the OK. Medication is designed to help you feel better. If you’re feeling better, your medicine is working. Many people make the mistake of stopping their medication when they feel better and then their mood quickly plummets worse than it was before.
It is up to you if and when to tell others about your treatment. If you don’t want your boss, co-workers, teachers, or siblings to know, then you don’t have to tell them. However, develop and keep a system of support. You will have bad days, and on those days it is essential to have a friend or family member whom you feel comfortable calling and talking to.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact your therapist immediately. These thoughts are continuing symptoms of your mental illness. They are indicators that your treatment isn’t working, or they may be a dangerous side effect to your medication.