Denying mental illness
Denying mental illness
Denial; the act of negating. Facing the very thought of any mental health issue or diagnosis can be very daunting. Denying mental illness can be a very difficult stage. If we are in denial, it is hard to see we are in denial or know we are in denial because we are in denial itself. Even when we come to recognize that ‘something’ is wrong, it can still be so difficult to come to terms with. Denial is a tough thing to work through. Whether it is self-denial, or our loved-ones and friends, and certainly not excluding work colleagues and so-forth (who may be in denial), it is a barrier to be broken down and in time though we will become more able to face the realities of our individual circumstances and start working through denying mental illness.
Personally, I found that through originally receiving a diagnosis many years ago, I was finally able to get to a point of acknowledging the problem which started to gradually bring about some changes in terms of facing the disorder. Once we can recognise that our life might not seem to be quite right or where we want it to be, we can start to acknowledge it. People for many years (as I did) may try to avoid the reality that something seems wrong. We may try to ignore the signs or symptoms for endless reasons (such as stigmatisation), and this (denying mental illness) is only completely normal or usual. There comes a disbelief, and often comes a stage of knowing something is wrong, but still not believing it though. Denial is not easy to face and it can wax-and-wane through different stages right through to a full acceptance of a diagnosed disorder or illness. Through acknowledging and accepting any issue, it is a significant step in our long-term process of recovery and adapting to living with better mental health and better coping mechanisms. In saying this, we need not live our life as a label though.
Many disorders wax-and-wane in themselves and this may have effects in various ways including accepting or denying problems. Denial therefore, may be a battle that re-visits us at times, or in other words, may seem to chop-and-change as we move from denial through the stages to acknowledgement and acceptance. For example, we may start to feel as though we are starting to accept a ‘problem’, only to find ourselves slipping back or thinking “oh, this just can’t be, not me”.
If something seems wrong, it can be so helpful even to start to talk to one person, and acknowledging the problem may start to help things just to make a little bit of initial sense. Maybe a family member or spouse may listen to you, if not , there are certainly others around who you could try such as a General Practitioner. GPs do play a major role in the community in relation to working directly with people who are facing and dealing with mental health problems (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017).
Problems of course do not just disappear without a lot of work. Early stages of denial involves acknowledgement of issues that may be causing distress and other feelings or problems. It is important to point out that naturally no two people will react the same to any given circumstance because we are so unique in ourselves, each and every one of us. So we will all face issues in life differently because none of us are exactly the same and we all interpret things in our own unique way unlike anybody else.
It is unrealistic to expect that any person can totally understand exactly what another person is really experiencing (including if we are diagnosed with the same disorder) because we are all so different. Something that is not the most helpful thing to say is ” I know exactly how you feel”…. do we really? Perhaps we might have an idea, but not know exactly. Therefore, for people experiencing mental health concerns/disorders there are many challenges and one can be to accept that nobody will understand exactly how you feel because they are not you. Yet there ARE many people (professional and non-professional) who want to understand and CAN certainly help us through methods such as active listening and validation. It is NOT shameful to have a mental disorder or illness. Unfortunately many myths still ‘haunt’ the perception of mental health by the general public and this is another troublesome barrier for many people who are trying to come to terms with mental health problems (Overton & Medina, 2008, pp.143-145). However, early on, maybe we need to face reality in that if something seems ‘wrong’ there may well be! Get help! Talk to somebody. Denying mental illness ultimately hinders recovery.
I would like to say a bit about my own struggles in coming to terms with denying mental illness. Personally, I found that finally facing my reality started to bring about changes. My wife of that time found some sort of relief even in the fact that I started to actually talk about it. This certainly does not mean that we understood it (my problems) at the time, but through talking about a problem, we were then able to start to accept it. For me, it started with me thinking “no way, not ME”, then came “maybe there is something wrong”, followed by “I think there is something wrong” right through the stages to acceptance of it. This is a completely ‘normal’ pattern, but of course we can sort of ‘chop-and-change’ even between these stages. However, as time progressed, my overall state of acceptance began to develop as I faced reality and stopped denying mental illness. Even though I personally think that in serious or clinically severe diagnosis of any disorder that there are tremendous struggles to work through, which is a huge bulk of our battle, I tend to believe denial is still a reasonably large battle to be won. What is meant here, is that you’ve probably heard people say “you are half way there if you accept it ” (a bit of a cliche really). This may arguably be doubted if we are facing serious issues, and here mild to moderate disorders/illnesses should not be dismissed either. We are all unique and handle things differently. My personal opinion is that denial is crucial to work through, but HALF way there, maybe not, but it IS a great start!
Denial may be likened to stages of grief that we need to work through. We may have some very early memories (in our lives) of a particular disorder (or connections to it) that become clearer as we develop through to adulthood. Others come later on and of course different diagnosis’ may eventuate as well. But whether we have longer-term memories of a ‘problem’ or not, it often comes to a stage when things don’t seem quite right or not as we might think ‘normal’. If we can manage to talk to even just one person about it, we can start to progress to a stage of recognition and acceptance. Maybe you know of people who when they have reached this stage, they actually find some relief. This is is a significant step in our long-term process of recovery. Let’s face it, not all mental disorders or illnesses may go away completely for the rest of our lives and never to return again. However, we can progress. Working through denial, whether we firstly talk to a professional or para-professional (eg. a family member) is such an important step to take.
What about if we start to accept our problems but just don’t believe we CAN actually get better or improve our lives with reduced symptoms? Understandably, many people may think that they are too far gone. We may think there is no hope. I would like to continue a little of my story in relation to denial in the hope it might shed some light on others’ battles with facing hope. In the early stage of a severe clinical diagnosis, I remember very well having thoughts such as “there is no hope, I’m beyond all hope” (and I sincerely believed this too). One night at a GROW meeting I tried to convince everybody there that I was simply ‘too far gone’. Yes, I had accepted my diagnosis at this stage, but as it was indeed severe, and I did not know otherwise, I had no hope. I was there just to more-or-less tell them “thank you for offering to help but you don’t understand- I am too far gone!” In time I realized how WRONG I was. At the time though, I just went along to tell them not to bother with me. I went because as I was asked along, I thought it would only be polite that I attended once. I did not return to this group, however some years later I bumped into the group leader who is now practicing in a successful private business, and told her of my advancement. She said “I never believed you when you said you were too far gone”. I had a severe (or actually on the lower end of extreme, according to clinical tests/evaluations) anxiety disorder and did not believe there was any hope. I did not believe that any higher power, doctor, psychiatrist or anybody could really help me. “This is my lot in life” I thought. No, I was wrong! Anybody can at least improve their current situation even if it is a little bit. The reality is that for example that a percentage of people with a psychiatric illness will remain unwell (for whatever reasons), but others can improve their situation and others may even go all the way to ‘full recovery’ or being in a class of sub-clinical diagnosis.
Even with people who have literally given up hope, you CAN improve certain aspects of your life. It is tough, yes. It is understandable that some people have no hope. At one period in my life, I had almost completely given up (relating to depression and the worth of being alive, along with being able to get better). How do we get from the absolute bottom of life’s valleys, even just to start to walk along a plateau let alone climb a mountain? This may come in the form of several or many elements and ‘tools’ that we can use, and resources that we can access in order to gradually be ready to take that first step up the mountain. As we are all so incredibly different, we interpret things differently, we re-act differently and we cope differently and so-forth, we need to start to identify each little ‘tool’ that we can use to fight the battle of mental health. In time we learn how to use these tools, when to change tools and how to adapt to different circumstances in life.
All-in-all though, in the early stages such as coming to terms with a mental health issue, or working through denying mental illness, we do need to talk to somebody. It was (for myself anyway) like reaching a type of catharsis or emotional release. We are going to have varying types of thoughts and feelings which can include guilt and many others. But, if we start to vent our feelings through emotional release, we will probably start to be able to deal better with the problems. This ‘sort of ‘ reminds me of complicated grief (which is not dealing with grieving issues and not handling it well emotionally) versus uncomplicated grief in where there is appropriate emotional relief and the like. Perhaps accepting a mental health diagnosis may be likened to a grieving process, and I certainly can identify areas of loss in my life including my own dignity, my own self-concept and many other areas. Talking to people, or even just one person to start with can be so valuable.
However, there is also the likelihood that a family member or someone close to you simply may be denying mental illness too. Certain people such as family members in my life, used denial as a defense mechanism. People might think “oh yes, I have had that too” or “I know exactly what that is like, but you need to snap out of it”, and so-on. This can be frustrating for the person with a disorder or illness because they need or want these people to accept. We shouldn’t expect them (others) to accept something like a mental health problem or diagnosis in just a day, or a week or a month. It could take many many months. What can we do in the meantime? Maybe you could talk to somebody else such as a General Practitioner who could prove to be a wonderful anchor point for you and certainly someone who will listen if nobody else does. Find someone to talk to! They may not necessarily exactly understand, but keep trying and you WILL find someone who will at least ACCEPT you. And in time, their understanding will probably deepen too. If people deny your particular mental health issue, then maybe we should navigate to find a listening ear. There will always be one somewhere. And in time, through education and further awareness of any problems, people may very well start to step outside of denial themselves.
We need special people such as loved family members, so if they are denying mental illness, maybe we could think that we may too if we were in their situation. Some people may never accept, others will, others will need more time. If certain people appear to react abruptly even if there is anger attached, it might be a good thing because they may be getting in touch their thoughts and feelings through emotional release (preferably not abuse of course) which can be an important stage in the process of working through denial. Get it out somehow. Perhaps write down your thoughts and feelings on a piece of paper which is like an unconditional friend (it will take anything you write on it), talk to a telephone counsellor, punch a boxing bag, have a good cry, whatever, but get your frustrations out whether it be self-denial or denial coming from others or both.
Here is a link to a video from You Tube with young people talking about things that have helped them.
Coming to terms with a mental health diagnosis or problem can be quite daunting for a family unit, and relationships within the family structure can be subdued to a lot of stress, yet at times people may find or express some relief in receiving a diagnosis. Perhaps it may seem a bit odd to find any relief in being diagnosed by a suitable and competent professional. In saying this, I know for myself and others I have known, there certainly has been some relief involved. Perhaps speaking for myself, I realized I questioned my thinking about myself as being some sort of ‘freak’, and I realized that my condition was in fact much more common than I had thought. It is generally not easy just to simply accept such things as coming to terms with mental health problems, however by starting to accept that problems exist and not sweeping it all under the carpet , we may be able to utilize our array of armory in overcoming mental health problems, and part of this can be utilizing the expertise of doctors, researchers, therapists and the like in where their knowledge can be proven to be absolutely invaluable. Speaking from my own recovery, I am eternally grateful to my therapist/psychologist who helped me in so many ways. Other people CAN help, AND they can be very good at it! Give it a go, talk to somebody. Denying mental illness will get nowhere. There will be somebody who will not judge you.
Best regards, and thank you for visiting Beyond My Label.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017, Mental health-related services provided by general practitioners, retrieved from https://mhsa.aihw.gov.au/services/general-practice/
Overton, S. L., & Medina, S. L. (2008). The stigma of mental illness. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86(2), 143-148. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2008.tb00491.x[contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]