Unlike many severely debilitating mental illnesses, a diagnosis of depression or anxiety is not a lifelong one. There are steps that one can take to reduce symptoms.
I've been struggling with a mental health problem for the past two decades. It all started when I suffered a nervous breakdown at the height of my career because I could not cope with the work pressure. The next few years that followed were a blur. I can’t recall too well what happened, except that I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression. Because of my mental health condition, I have not been able to hold a steady job. There are days when I feel all right, and days when I can’t quite function, and would lie in bed the whole day. I still go to the government hospital every month to collect my medication, which consist of mostly tranquillisers, I believe.
I stayed with my mother who provided much needed emotional support. But since my mother passed away two years ago, I have been feeling very lonely. I have two younger siblings but they are busy with their own families. They do chip in with financial support every few months. I’m in my 50s now, and without a family or career. I feel like I’ve lost half my life to depression. I feel useless and aimless. I have been estranged from my wife and two kids for more than 20 years, and have lost all contact with them. What is there left for me at this stage of my life? Sometimes I spend sleepless nights thinking about my future.
Sleepless in KL
Dear Sleepless in KL,
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they are diagnosed with a mental illness is that they shy away from society. This happens because the illness itself makes one not want to interact with the world. There is a general lack of motivation to do anything.
The other reason is the stigma associated with mental illness. Society, unfortunately, isn’t too kind to people who have the label of a mental illness even though it’s not due to any fault of the sufferer. The affected person would prefer to stay out of the world for self-imposed stigma, and for fear of having to hear hurtful and disparaging remarks by others.
All this adds to the affected person’s stress and mental health distress. One highly overlooked aspect of treatment for mental illness is social support. Research has shown that combined with regular psychiatric follow-ups and psychotherapy, social support helps a person with mental illness cope better.
Social support is necessary to enable a person find connections – social and emotional – in a world that can seem very scary. This would help them ease back into a healthy work-life balance. “Healthy” means different things for a person with a diagnosis of mental illness. While they may not be able to go back to the levels they had before the onset of illness, they can find one that is manageable for them. They may have to relearn skills that they once had. It may be frustrating, but a necessary step.
A diagnosis of mental illness doesn’t mean a life of social isolation. People with mental illnesses can lead meaningful and productive lives. It’s important for a person with a diagnosis of mental illness to be well-informed. And, more importantly, the person must know the medication that he or she is on. It is not difficult now to find information on how medication works. This will increase understanding of the diagnosis itself.
Don’t be afraid to ask the psychiatrist for information. Learn what doses you are on and find out what you can do to help yourself get off medication. It’s important to not just pick up your doses of medication, but to know if there is a need to change your dosage or even medication.
Unlike many severely debilitating mental illnesses, a diagnosis of depression or anxiety is not a lifelong one. There are steps that one can take to reduce symptoms. Meeting regularly with a counsellor or clinical psychologist helps in this area. Again, many refrain from doing this out of shame from seeing a mental health professional.
It’s not too late to make changes. Reach out to others. Your family would be the first step. Explain to them what your diagnosis means – not just the symptoms – but also what it meant to you with regard to the losses that you experienced. Take them with you for your next consultation with your psychiatrist. Encourage them to learn about the diagnosis and ask the psychiatrist questions.
The other important aspect is to understand that recovery also depends on you being proactive. Many people think it is sufficient to attend a one-hour counselling session once or twice a month. This is a fallacy. You have to take action in order to recover.
Build your social circle. Many people find an online community safe and easy as it enables levels of conversation that you can be comfortable with. Start slowly, but aim towards having conversations one-on-one or in groups. Then, you can build up to meeting socially.
What about hobbies you used to enjoy? This is usually one of the first things to go to when depression sets in – the loss of joy in doing things that once used to be enjoyable. Slowly start engaging in these activities.
There is always a social events section in the newspapers with information on various groups. Slowly work up to attending these events and making contact with people. Start small conversations and build up to bigger ones. The process can be at your own pace, but to decrease the possibility of developing frustration, set realistic goals for yourself.
There are many social support groups for people with depression and anxiety. Contact the Malaysian Mental Health Association to find out where these are located. A diagnosis of a mental illness is not the end of the world. There needs to be an increased awareness of illnesses like depression as the World Health Organisation predicts it to be one of the most significant non-communicable diseases in years to come.
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