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Overcoming mental health problems is more than possible

Posted Oct 26 2011 12:00pm

Addicts and others with mental health issues continuously feel as if they need to hide their problems as well as hide from them. But an ongoing west-coast (U.C.L.A. and U.S.C.) study with a group of mental health patients suggests that hiding may be the wrong approach.

The participants in the study, all successful individuals with ongoing mental health problems who seem to be stable and productive are being examined for the specific factors that make them defy the stigma so closely linked with mental health problems. Doctors , lawyers, and CEOs are all part of the group and have all figured out ways to work with their mental health issues and succeed in life.

Mental Health Problems, Addiction, and Stigma

We’ve written before about the dilemma of mental health disclosure and I’ve talked over and over about the notion that stigma is one of the major obstacles to addiction treatment and recovery. This study’s preliminary results suggest that indeed, taking ownership of one’s problems and figuring out how to best function with the characteristics each of the holds has allowed these individuals to succeed where most psychiatrists and psychologists would have expected them  to fail – in high-pressure, high-stakes, positions of power.

The relevant metaphor I share often, especially to those who attend our A3 Academy sessions is this:

Imagine that two people you know drive two very different cars. One owns a Toyota Prius, one of the most efficient cars on the market with lots of storage and convenience. The other drives a Lamborghini Gallardo, one of the world’s fastest cars with an engine that makes your whole body shake and a body that reminds everyone of speed and sex. If tasked with giving the two a little guidance on taking the drive between Los Angeles and San Fransisco you would probably give the two very different suggestions…

To your Prius owner-friend you would tell that they should feel free to bring a suitcase and that the entire trip will likely require less than a full tank of gas, making the trip very cheap and economical. However, it’s likely going to take him 7 to 8 hours each way so he should leave early to not waste the day on the road. At least he won’t have to stop for gas. But the Lamborghini driver has a very different trip ahead of him, one that likely includes 2-3 stops for gas but, assuming no speed-traps or traffic, he can still probably make it to San Fran in 4 hours flat. He’s also not likely to be able to bring anything along except for an overnight bag and even that is only true if he’s not bringing anyone on the trip with him.

Unless one comes to the table with judgements about fast versus slow, or gas-efficient versus gas-guzzling, driving I think that few would suggest that I am somehow stigmatizing the cars or their owners in this story. Instead, I am offering a pretty objective description of their most likely and appropriate functioning. But when talking about people, feelings and stereotypes often get in the way.

Overcoming Mental Health Problems

This study from UCLA and USC in collaboration with The Veteran’s Administration shows us that in reality it is likely that, even for those with mental health problems, the real key is to figure out what the requirements of the “machine” you’re driving are and then plan your life accordingly. For Ms. Myrick, one of the participants in the study, that meant a high powered detail oriented job rather than a hiding spot on her favorite couch at home. Still, the researchers have identified a set of common characteristics they’ve written about. Many of the study’s participants do the following:

  1. Adhere to a medication regimen
  2. Often check their thoughts and perceptions with those around them
  3. Actively control their environment, sometimes with the help of a therapist.
  4. Some avoid travel, or crowded, noisy places while others prefer not to be alone.
  5. Stay away from illicit drugs and alcohol.

Knowing where you're going and believing you can get there is key when struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Overall, it’s obvious that their mental health diagnoses have made them very aware, and thoughtful, about daily activities that most people disregard. Still, with a specific regimen and some help, they’ve all managed to succeed.That regimen might include medication to control attention problems, delusions, or depression; it seems to certainly include some outside perspective when it comes to big decisions; it may also include some regular exercises (physical and mental) to control anxiety and other related emotional responses.

I believe that identifying your own recipe for success is key to success, that believing in your ability to succeed is necessary, and that plotting the course between here and the future is helpful if you’re trying not to get lost. That’s not stigma, it’s practicality.


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