Navigating Life with a Mental Health Condition
Nearly 50 million American adults live with a mental health condition and more than half do not receive treatment. At MHA, we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic worsen the current mental health crisis and increase the number of people looking for support.
Each year, MHA takes time during the first week of October to raise awareness of this crisis and provide educational resources during Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). MIAW is a congressionally-recognized awareness week that was established in 1990. This year, MIAW falls on Oct. 2-8.
MHA knows that when you live with a mental health condition, the unique challenges that come with that condition intersect with every part of your life. So for MIAW this year, we are mapping out tips on how to navigate life’s intersections. Follow along with us as we travel through these topics:
- Sunday, Oct. 2: Recognizing MIAW
- Monday, Oct. 3: Navigating friendships and social life
- Tuesday, Oct. 4: Navigating faith (National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding)
- Wednesday, Oct. 5: Navigating family dynamics
- Thursday, Oct. 6: Navigating barriers to treatment (National Depression Screening Day)
- Friday, Oct. 7: Navigating the workplace
- Saturday, Oct. 8: Navigating identity
We will continue to map out this theme on Sunday, October 9 by focusing on navigating intimate relationships. Our campaign culminates with a celebration of World Mental Health Day on Monday, October 10.
Join us in raising awareness by sharing our resources on social media.
- Picking up social skills. Your mental health condition can make you feel like you missed out on learning all the social “rules” that others seem to already know. You might struggle to notice social cues or feel like no matter how hard you try, you just can’t connect with people. You may also be likely to overthink social interactions or deal with rejection sensitivity.
- Feeling like a “bad friend.” Your mental health condition can make it difficult to consistently show up for people you care about. Maybe you need to cancel on a friend’s birthday because you can’t get out of bed, or aren’t able to support them through a breakup because you’re too anxious to talk to anyone. Sometimes taking care of your mental health means letting people down. While that's okay (and at times necessary), it can be painful for you and the people you love.
- Social exhaustion and burnout. Managing your mental health – or masking your symptoms – on a daily basis takes a lot of energy. Socializing on top of that can be exhausting. You might get overstimulated quickly in large groups or feel like you can't keep up with the packed social calendar you want. It takes practice to learn how to balance your priorities and spend your time in a way that feels sustainable.
- Know yourself first. Think about who you are in friendships, both in and out of the context of your mental health condition. What are your specific triggers that come up in friendships? Are you likely to misunderstand something meant as a joke? If you’re aware of situations that can cause you to have a strong reaction, you might be able to recognize them as they arise. You can also prepare so that you can better manage your emotions in the moment – this can reduce your stress and even help you avoid conflict.
- Communicate your needs. It can be scary to assert yourself, however, being honest about your needs is one of the best ways to avoid situations that could hurt your mental health. You don’t have to tell others about your diagnosis, but asking for support can build trust and a deeper bond. Most likely, your friends will be happy to support you.
- Connect with the peer community. If you’ve felt uncomfortable in social settings, finding people who naturally understand some of the challenges you face and how you might operate can be a relief. Friendships with others with similar lived experiences often feel safer and can create supportive spaces to try out new skills.
Making and keeping healthy friendships can be hard – especially if one (or both) of you is dealing with a mental health condition. But social ties are one of the biggest factors in protecting your mental health. For more help with figuring out social challenges and your mental health, reach out to your local MHA affiliate.
- Questioning your higher power. Especially if you were raised religious or spiritual, developing the symptoms of a mental health condition can feel like a betrayal. You might start doubting your faith or believing that a higher power is angry or punishing you. This can turn into feelings of self-hatred, hopelessness, and isolation.
- Feeling invalidated in your pain and struggle. Some faith communities view mental health conditions as something that can be cured through prayer alone. The shame of struggling or seeking professional help can be just as difficult as the symptoms themselves. You might be worried about others finding out, or feel judged or invalidated by their reactions.
- Feeling pushed out of a community. Negative attitudes (stigma) against people with mental health conditions mean that some faith communities view mental health conditions as sins or a weak connection to faith. You may feel as though people in your community are distancing themselves from you at a time when you need them the most.
- Find a mental health professional that is willing to incorporate religious or spiritual approaches. Having a provider who understands how and why your faith impacts your mental health (or vice versa) can support you in faith-related challenges. They can also help you identify how spirituality can support your well-being. Many religious leaders also have some counseling training or can help connect you to relevant mental health resources.
- Find the right faith community for you. Physical places like a mosque, church, synagogue, meditation center, or other place of worship are great spaces to connect with others, which is helpful in dealing with loneliness or depression. Keep in mind that communities, even of the same faith, vary in culture and personality. If the first place you try isn’t a good fit, keep trying to connect with some other faith-based spaces, events, or groups to find your people.
- Have purposeful and quiet moments of prayer or meditation. Having a spiritual connection can encourage mindfulness and awareness of your thoughts, whether they are good or bad. Making time for purposeful moments of prayer or meditation can increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins – also known as the body’s feel-good chemicals.
Ultimately, spirituality is very personal – no two faith experiences are the same, but all are valid. If you’re looking for more guidance on how your faith can support your mental health, reach out to your local MHA affiliate for support.
- Feeling misunderstood by or disconnected from loved ones. You might think your family just doesn’t “get it” – and they probably don’t. The experience of having a mental health condition is unique, and your family members might be unsure of how to support you. Maybe they get awkward when the subject comes up or dismiss your struggles, leaving you feeling alone. These actions aren’t usually done to be mean; it’s often due to not understanding your mental health condition and how to handle the challenges that come with it.
- Feeling fully responsible for family stress. While you are the one living with a mental health condition, it probably still impacts the people close to you. Maybe you feel guilty for relying on your family members for help dealing with panic attacks, getting to appointments, or paying for care. Or you wish you could stop your siblings from being so worried about your safety after a suicide attempt. Family relationships are complicated, and while your mental health condition may play a part in that, it’s just that – one part.
- Balancing independence and accepting help. How much you rely on your family for help with your mental health is unique in every situation. It depends on a few factors like your age, symptoms, and pre-existing family relationships. Your family members can be an incredible source of support. But maintaining as much independence as you can in terms of managing your mental health condition will benefit everyone.
- Help educate your family. The people who love you should want to learn about your mental health condition and how to support you, but it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start looking for information. If you’re open to it, talking about your experiences can help them understand you better. You can even share some of the coping skills you learn during your recovery process – after all, they need to manage their own mental health, too. Once families acknowledge the reality of your diagnosis, you can form true and healthy connections.
- Set boundaries. You’re entitled to whatever boundaries you need to set for your own health. This might mean seeking help without your family knowing, avoiding certain triggers, or refusing their help if it feels like too much. Taking responsibility for your own mental health and making sure your needs are met is often empowering – and can lessen tension with family members.
- Be patient. Living with a mental illness is hard, but so is seeing someone you love struggle with a diagnosis or symptoms. If your family relationships feel strained, they won’t necessarily feel that way forever. Some relationships are toxic and must be avoided, but others are repairable. With time and effort, hurt feelings can mend and misunderstandings about mental health conditions can be corrected.
- Figuring out what kind of help to look for. Deciding to seek help for your mental health is a great first step, but knowing what to do next can be overwhelming. There are many different types of treatment and professionals. It might take some research to figure out what kind of care is right for you.
- Scheduling with a new provider. Trying to book a first appointment can be frustrating – providers move to new locations, aren’t accepting new clients, or stop practicing entirely. Insurance companies and other directories don’t always update this information quickly. You might end up spending a lot of time and energy trying to find help when you’re already struggling, which can make you feel discouraged from seeking treatment at all.
- Insurance and parity issues. There is a long history of health insurance plans not covering mental health and substance use treatment the same way they cover physical health services. From denying claims, to setting limits on how many times a person can be seen, to dropping an individual from a policy altogether – it isn’t always easy to find and maintain care. Many individuals pay out-of-pocket for services even when they have health insurance, or avoid care entirely.
- Know your payment options. If you have health insurance, make sure you’re familiar with the basics of how insurance works and the specifics of your benefits/coverage. Local community organizations may offer free or low-cost services on a sliding scale based on an individual’s income. Or maybe a technology-based therapeutic service offered through a software application is best for you. You can also decide to pay for mental health services directly out of pocket with cash, credit, or through a pre-tax health spending account like an FSA or HSA.
- Always have a care plan in place. Living with a mental health condition can be unpredictable. One of the most challenging things about getting better is that the things that can help often seem hard, especially when you’re struggling. Take advantage of the times you’re feeling well enough to get yourself organized. If your mental health condition flares up unexpectedly, you’ll be better prepared to get help.
- Use your health insurance member benefits. Care coordinators are people who work for insurance companies and can actually schedule appointments for you. Call your member benefits line – the phone number should be on the back of your insurance card – and tell them that you would like their help setting up a first appointment with an in-network provider. They’ll handle the rest.
- Be open to trial and error. Finding a mental health professional is kind of like dating – you might have to test out a few connections before you find the right fit. The most important thing is to get connected with someone who can provide care that feels safe and help you meet the goals you have set. You can ask your provider some questions to figure out if they’ll be a match:
- Do you have experience with helping a person manage [your diagnosis, symptoms, or challenges]?
- Do you have special certifications or areas of concentration that might be helpful for me?
- Do you offer both individual and group therapy or can you refer to those who do?
- Do you assign homework or specific to-do items to your clients?
- Know your rights and advocate for yourself. Employers, educational institutions, and public spaces are not allowed to discriminate against persons with psychiatric disabilities – but you might have to remind them of this. If a mental health condition affects your daily functioning as a student or employee, it’s your right to request accommodations to help you perform to the best of your ability. Educational institutions that receive federal funding must comply with Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which was recently reinforced by a 2019 court case involving Stanford University. For employees in companies with 15 or more employees, these accommodations are promised by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Ask for a second opinion. There are a lot of new digital apps and prescription drugs being advertised online. It may be difficult to research them all and figure out what is best for you – comparing platforms or medications can be overwhelming, even when you’re feeling fine. Try starting a discussion with a person with lived experience who is further along in their recovery about whether they have tried some of these options. You can also join a peer group online through the Inspire network to learn about the experiences of others in similar situations who have tried online platforms or medication services. Even if their decision is not best for you, you’ll have some trusted folks to bounce ideas off.
Getting started with mental health treatment or finding new services can be difficult – logistically and emotionally. If you’re feeling lost about how to get help, reach out to your local MHA affiliate for resources and guidance.
- Access to work opportunities. Compared to people with no diagnosed mental health conditions, people with common mental health conditions are three times more likely to be unemployed. People with severe mental health conditions are seven times more likely to be unemployed.
- Deciding whether or not to tell coworkers about your mental health. It can be scary to think about talking to your manager or human resources (HR) about your mental health. It’s a personal decision. If you do choose to tell your workplace, you:
- Negative attitudes in the workplace. Unfortunately, workers living with mental health conditions may experience unfair treatment from peers or supervisors. This is usually due to misconceptions about the realities of mental health conditions. People with conscious or unconscious bias against people living with mental health conditions may underestimate, micromanage, or exclude them from important meetings. Under the ADA, employers can’t legally discriminate against a worker with a disability, including mental health conditions – but this doesn’t always prevent stigma or unfair treatment.
- Deciding to take leave to recover. Sometimes, mental health treatment or recovery requires you to step away from work. The fear that taking leave may hurt your professional career is a valid concern that many struggle with.
- Know your employment rights. People with mental health conditions:
- Are protected against workplace discrimination and harassment;
- Have workplace privacy rights; and
- May have the right to job accommodations.
- Review your organization’s guidelines. You should be familiar with the business conduct, discrimination, and leave policies, in addition to your benefits like health insurance, paid time off (PTO), employee assistance programs (EAPs), and flexible work arrangements. Keep track of all communications and requests related to your mental health condition. This is especially important if you think negative consequences, discrimination, or harassment might happen in your workplace.
- Seek peers and allies for emotional support. Feeling included and like part of a team or community goes a long way in protecting mental health at work. If you're struggling to befriend coworkers or can’t identify anyone to be honest with about work-related challenges, text 510-674-1414 – you’ll be connected with a trained peer counselor through Empower Work. They can provide free and confidential real-time support with work-related stress and anxiety, discrimination, harassment, bullying, and unsafe working conditions.
The workplace can be full of challenges for anyone, but especially for employees dealing with a mental health condition. Having a knowledgeable support system can make a huge difference in keeping you mentally healthy at work. Find your local MHA affiliate and reach out if you want more help navigating your workplace – or life in general – with your mental health condition.
- Feeling disconnected from yourself. Mental health conditions don’t discriminate, but not everyone recognizes that. Some people think certain identity groups “shouldn’t” or “don’t” deal with mental health conditions – like men living with anxiety or Black individuals living with depression. This can feel as though you have to pick between caring for your mental health or holding onto your other identity. It can also make you feel disconnected from your culture, family, or social support system.
- Leaving parts of yourself out of conversations with mental health professionals. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure diversity in the mental health field. If the providers you work with don’t share certain identities with you, you might find yourself not bringing up related challenges because you don’t think they’ll understand.
- Diagnosis becoming your identity. When you’ve dealt with your symptoms for so long, it can begin to feel like that version of you is your real self. No one enjoys struggling with their mental health, but it’s hard to care about improving it when you think it’s just who you are. It can even lead to you unintentionally self-sabotaging your recovery because your mental health condition feels familiar, or you don’t know who you are without it. This doesn’t mean you can’t embrace your diagnosis as a part of your identity. You’re allowed to be proud of all of you, mental health condition included.
- Explore your own identity. Know the other pieces of your identity and build a deeper connection between them and mental health. For instance, the general conversation around mental health doesn’t focus on men – but if you’re a man struggling with anxiety, exploring the specific connection between your gender and mental health can be much more relevant and helpful. Understanding why stigmas exist in some groups, for example, can shine a light on other parts of your personality.
- Connect with others. Whether you are connecting through a support group, family, friends, or by following people on your social media feeds, having a strong sense of community can protect your mental health. Try to find people talking about mental health within the identity groups you’re part of. If you can’t find many, make sure your mental health support system is validating and affirming of all parts of you. Most providers will do a 15–20-minute phone interview before starting regular treatment – you can ask if they’ve worked with people like you before, how they’ll bring your identity into sessions, and anything else you want to know.
- Find the mental health tools that work for you. Everyone deserves to have access to mental health care that meets their own unique needs. For some, this might be reaching out to a mental health clinician. For others, it might mean seeking support from peers, attending support groups, or using self-help tools. You are the expert on your own life, and mental health care looks different for everyone. To learn more about your options, check out MHA’s pages on Community Care, Culturally-Based Practices, and Mental Health Providers.
There are so many parts to each person’s overall identity. Figuring out who you are is complicated and affected by many societal structures and norms – and having a mental health condition certainly doesn’t make it any easier. For help dealing with identity-based challenges and your mental health, reach out to your local MHA affiliate.
- Deciding what, how, and when to tell the people you date. Healthy relationships can be a great support system. If you’re in it for the long haul, it’s probably worth letting your partner in on some of the details about your mental health. But sharing about your mental health condition can be scary, and telling people about it is up to you. It’s okay if it takes a while to develop the trust you need to open up – do this on your terms.
- Feeling unworthy. Between mental health stigma and your symptoms, there might be times when you feel undeserving of love, sex, or partnership because of your diagnosis. Your mental health condition can also make it harder to cope with the frustrations of dating, like rejection, mind games, and miscommunication.
- Trouble with sex and physical intimacy. Living with a mental health condition can impact your sex life in a few ways. You might deal with changes to your sex drive, struggle with self-esteem in the bedroom, or find physical intimacy triggering. Sex often plays a big role in compatibility, so it can be anxiety-inducing to think about dating if you have a complicated relationship with physical intimacy.
- Risk of codependency. Codependency is an unhealthy relationship dynamic where one person takes on the role of “the giver” and is overly responsible for the other person, who feels extreme dependence on them. Living with a mental health condition can make you more likely to over-rely on your partner. Your partner might even initiate this by overstepping or being more involved with your care than you want. It’s a painful and harmful cycle on both ends that often allows for poor coping strategies and loss of independence.
- Know your intentions. Be clear on what you want from dating and what is realistic for you. This might mean prioritizing your mental health over your desires. Maybe you want a committed relationship but aren’t in the headspace to start something new right now, or you’re interested in casual sex but recognize it’s not a good idea given your attachment trauma. Knowing what you’re actually looking for can prevent unnecessary distress and ensure you aren’t spending time and energy on a connection that’s ultimately incompatible.
- Practice healthy communication. Open communication is essential in any relationship, but especially when mental health challenges are involved. No one can read your mind. Being honest with a new partner about what you need to feel supported or the challenges you’re working through gives them the chance to show up for you and can build trust.
- Remember that you’re responsible for your own mental health. It’s more than OK to seek support from someone you’re dating – but it’s also okay for them to say no. The level to which they feel comfortable supporting you likely depends on the seriousness of your relationship and how much they can realistically help in every situation – they can’t be your stand-in therapist. It can be easy to take this personally, but remember that people set boundaries in order to continue the relationship in a way that works for them. If that doesn’t work for you as well, it’s OK to exit the relationship.
- Know what a healthy relationship looks like. Mental health conditions may complicate the early stages of dating, but they can also make it harder to recognize or get out of an unhealthy relationship. This is especially true if you’ve become dependent on your partner. However, it’s not always as easy as “trust your gut” when anxiety, paranoia, or intrusive thoughts are involved. Check out One Love’s 10 Signs of a Healthy Relationship for guidance, and seek advice from someone you trust if you’re unsure.
Dating comes with a lot of ups and downs – it can be hard for anyone to stay hopeful and confident. Your mental health condition might make some of the more challenging parts of dating even harder to cope with. It might feel impossible, but you’re worthy of the relationship and partner you want. For more guidance, connect with your local MHA affiliate.
This campaign is supported by contributions from Janssen: Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson and Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.