By Caitlin C. Regan
Support is a word constantly used in the mental health world. We are told to “make sure you have a support network in place” and to “reach out for support during difficult times.” While this advice is truly essential, it does not define what “support” really means. Is it asking someone to help with grocery shopping or seeking advice from a mental health professional?
Through the years, my definition of support has meant a shoulder to cry on, open ears and hearts to listen, and has come from family, friends, professionals and, recently, a partner. The support I have received has lifted me up in the most difficult of times, including when I was suicidal, when support saved my life. In less challenging times, it helps me through my daily routines. Without this support, I honestly do not know where I would be today. I am thankful and blessed for it.
Support means something different for each of us who deal with a mental health condition. And one of the most important aspects of asking for support is defining what that means for you. Once we have defined specifically what we need, we must find a way to seek it out.
Having a mental health condition can often lead one to feeling alone and misunderstood. Having support can help overcome these feelings and make it possible to see that intrusive thoughts are often not true. Mental illness will often distort one’s thinking, but support can help bring you back to reality.
It was not easy learning to accept support or define what my support was. I always had the support of my family, but learning to recognize that took time and the help of many counselors and mental health professionals. Learning to accept the support of professionals did not come naturally either. At first, I felt like it was a sign of weakness to have to reach out for what I believed I should be able to do on my own. I would have thoughts like:
“Why can’t you do this yourself?”
“You are so weak, what is wrong with you?”
“Others do not need this much help”
Now, I recognize these as intrusive thoughts. These are the thoughts that convinced me not to reach out for many years. I was blessed that my family saw my pain and insisted I needed help. Through going into an inpatient program, I slowly began to see I needed help and began to reach out. Eventually, I landed in the office of an excellent psychotherapist, received my diagnosis and began recognizing it was not weakness to reach out.
Often when we think of support, our first go-tos are professionals, and indeed they can be very helpful. For me, a handful of trusted, caring mental health professionals have made all the difference in my life. There are many types of mental health professionals and finding the right team is key. Personally, I have my practitioner, my electroconvulsive treatment team and my counselor. The make-up of this team has helped me to thrive in my everyday living and has helped me to the path of becoming licensed as a mental health counselor myself.
You can start your search for a mental health professional by talking to your insurance provider to see who is covered. If insurance is not an option, you can always begin by searching mental health professionals in your area who use sliding scale or other forms of discounted treatment. Talking to others who are receiving similar treatment for recommendations can be helpful as well.
Keep in mind that you can give a counselor or psychiatrist a trial run. During treatment, we are opening up the most intimate details of ourselves. We have a right to feel 100% comfortable, and if you do not, it is perfectly okay to keep searching.
As a mental health counselor, and someone who receives treatment, I understand that counselors have personalities, too. While I do my best to keep my personal opinions and matters out of the counseling session, I am still going to have my personality traits. Those traits may not work for everyone and that is okay. I would rather a client feel wholly comfortable than stay with me and try to “make it work.” Counseling is not about the therapist — it’s about the person seeking care.
For some of us, seeking out support may just be asking our family members or friends. However, when doing this, boundaries must be kept in mind. First, when seeking support from a family or friend, they must be one who is wholly trusted and will keep your confidence (unless it is a crisis situation). Additionally, boundaries are important because neither party should feel as if they are being taken advantage of.
If I seek support from my fiancé, I should not guilt him into doing things or helping me by using my previous suicide attempts as a way to get what I want from him. This is manipulation, not support. Instead, I will reach out to him when I am feeling anxious and ask him to sit with me and listen because it helps calm me.
We previously have talked about what my anxiety looks like, what my needs are in the midst of those episodes and what my “danger” signs are, so that he is prepared to help and knows what to do if it becomes more than anxiety. And he also has support he can reach out to in case he begins to feel overwhelmed with helping me. Setting up a system to ensure your loved ones feel comfortable and able to support you can allow you to accept others’ support, and not feel as if you are burdening anyone.
I know not everyone who is dealing with a mental health condition can feel they have the blessing of support. Certainly, support of family or friends is not always available, and support of professionals is not always easily accessed. But, there are other forms of support out there.
Many counties have free services offered that can provide assistance. Even if there is a waiting list, it can be better than nothing at all. For example, many counties have a mental health office or facility which offers psychiatric emergency screening services (PESS) or a similar service under a different acronym (you can do an Internet search of “Psychiatric Emergency Screening Services” to find what’s available in your state). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a search of treatment and supports “near me.” Also, Internet searching “free mental health service near me,” with your zip code can help lead to support services in your area.
NAMI offers free support groups in many counties across the country. This is a great way to meet peers who are also struggling with their mental health, release your emotions in a safe space and learn about other resources. There are also many other online discussion and support groups for those looking for support, such as 7 cups or DBSA.
While not always right at the tip of our fingers, support is out there when we look for it. Whether support comes from professionals, family or friends, it is essential to successfully coping with a mental health condition. So, keep in mind, when the mental health world repeats over and over that “support is essential,” there is a reason for it.
Caitlin C. Regan is a 33-year-old English teacher who is also a certified school counselor and just graduated as a licensed associate counselor. For 10 years, she taught in middle and high schools in Florida and New Jersey, and is currently in New Jersey. She looks forward to being able to help others as a future school counselor and loves working with her students! She enjoys sharing her experiences of living with Bipolar II Disorder and the journey life has become.
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