By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP
In the 20 years I have lived with mental illness, I have learned some critical lessons — mostly the hard way.
As I reflect on my past, I want to share what I have learned to help people like me reach recovery (hopefully, more easily and quickly than I did).
Below are some key lessons. I wish I had known them much earlier on in my journey.
My recovery required me to have compassion for myself. Indeed, my healing was rooted in the following principles:
With these in mind, you can better practice self-care and forgiveness.
Being diagnosed with a mental health condition or experiencing severe symptoms of a mental illness can feel all-consuming. But you will always be more than a diagnosis or a label.
As you navigate a diagnosis and treatment, please remember the following:
There is no cure for mental health conditions, particularly serious mental illness (SMI), but you can manage symptoms, and you can live a fulfilling life — the key is to get help early. Delaying treatment can make a condition worse and harder to treat, so it’s essential not to diminish or dismiss symptoms, or assume they’ll eventually go away.
Empower yourself by learning about your illness and treatment options from reputable sources (practitioners, academic research, NAMI, etc.). Spend time researching and finding a good psychiatrist with experience treating your condition. Then, work with them to come up with a plan that works for you and your diagnosis. Be an active participant in your care and have open discussions with your provider about any concerns (side effects, for example).
Be patient and keep in mind that treatment can take time to work. Do not change medication dosages on your own if you feel a medication is not working, as that can lead to relapse.
Don’t fear, but be prepared for, a crisis. If you have a plan in place, you will have more control in the event of a mental health crisis. Ultimately, treatment can be a difficult process, but knowledge and self-awareness can help carry you though to recovery.
Recovery can often feel like an unreachable place but remembering the following principles can give you strength.
While it can be difficult to shift your perspective, doing so can create more opportunities for recovery.
When living with mental illness, relationships and social connections can be difficult to forge and maintain. But the following lessons have allowed me to have healthy and supportive relationships:
Healing requires acknowledging and surviving the stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma is ignorance. It is the problem of those who perpetuate it, not yours. You don’t have to internalize it. There are too many tragedies in our community due to stigma, but there are also beautiful stories of recovery and progress, too. If you feel comfortable, speaking out against stigma will pave the way for self-empowerment and for others to find recovery.
Over the course of your mental health journey, there will always be more to learn. But embrace what you have learned; chances are, you recognized many of these lessons in your own journey. But living by them is a conscious choice, every day. Prioritizing these steps can allow for huge strides in recovery. Perhaps you can even reach recovery more easily than I did.
Katherine Ponte is happily living in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder. She’s the Founder of ForLikeMinds’ mental illness peer support community, ForLikeGoals, collaborative goal management, BipolarThriving: Recovery Coaching and Psych Ward Greeting Cards. Katherine is also a faculty member of the Yale University Program for Recovery and Community Health and has authored ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights. She is on the NAMI-NYC Board.
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