As some of you may know, I am one of those people with an additional diagnosis to my Autism one. I have a mental health ‘label’ of atypical schizophrenia (or as I tend to view it, the ‘mental illness sampler’ as there seems to be a little bit from each of the main illnesses: psychosis, depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts and elevated mood). My mental health issues have followed me through life for more than half the time I have been on Earth. They are like an old enemy that visits from time to time and destroys your house, metaphorically. In the past my mental illness has come as close to destroying my life as one can imagine. Being unwell is scary, demotivating, disempowering. It is an ordeal which makes me question my worth and my value and doubt that I will ever be free of the misery and suffering. I hate my illness with a great passion but I do have to accept that it is also a part of who I am. Conversely my Autism is more like a quirky friend that other people don’t quite understand and which sometimes makes a social faux pas but which essentially has my interests at heart and wants good things for me. It is also very creative and clever – a little imp which tries to change the world just a little bit, for the better.
My illness has been visiting the last few weeks. Her presence has made me remember that I have some useful strategies for dealing with mental health nasties. I thought I should share a few with you so here goes:
- You are in charge of your destiny. Whatever your illness or self-doubt tells you, you are the boss. Don’t let something negative like an illness dictate your actions. It won;t do anything positive. Instead, tell it that the choice in your actions is yours. I sometimes find actually saying this out loud can be helpful (although maybe not at the bus interchange!)
- Remember that there are many people experiencing similar things to you. You are not alone.
- Always be aware that your actions have consequences and if you do something on impulse, even if it seems the best course of action at the time, you may regret it for a very long time.
- Mental health distress is temporary. A crisis often lasts for only twenty minutes or so. Even though it is difficult, tell yourself that how you feel during a crisis is not how you will feel in the future.
- Seek help if you need it. There is no shame in this and it is a sign of strength.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol, even a small amount, when unwell. (This does not include your prescribed medication of course!)
- Distract, distract and distract some more! Distraction helps your brain to focus on something other than your suffering and pain. Everyone has a different distraction/s that works for them. For me it is work (hence writing this blog!).
- Pets can be great therapy.
- Stimming can really help when we are stressed or struggling with mental health issues. I have a bunch of fidget toys and shiny things, plus the sensory wonderment of my little black kitty and his velvety fur and lovely, healing purrs.
- Try to build your confidence and self-esteem as much as you can. This will not happen overnight but it is a great protective factor for health so view it as an ongoing project.
- Try to spend time with positive people who support and care about you. Likewise try to excise negative and toxic people from your life.
- Remind yourself or something you are grateful for or something positive every day. You can write these down.
- If writing helps you to express feelings and issues, keep a journal.
- Be ‘in the present’ – try not to dwell on the past or worry about the future. You can’t control either. Instead focus on getting through the day now. There are exercises which can help with this, including mindfulness meditation.
- Engage in meaningful activity such as community activities, family, work, study, volunteering, Autism and/or mental health advocacy.
- Avoid self-stigma. Remind yourself that a mental illness is not a punishment or a failing, it is just your brain chemistry and your experiences conspiring to make life difficult. Maybe think of it like this: if you had a broken leg would you not use your crutches at your workplace, despite it causing great pain, because people are prejudiced against those with broken legs and think them unreliable and accident prone? Of course you wouldn’t! So likewise, a mental illness is something that can happen in your brain which cause pain – emotional rather than physical. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
- If you like, get involved in mental health and/or Autism self-advocacy groups. There are a lot of these on social media, These can help you to connect with other people experiencing similar things and to build your pride in yourself and self-worth.
- Remind yourself of how well you have done to get to where you are. You can even buy yourself a little present or treat yourself.
- Tell yourself that you can get through this and things will change.
I hope some of those tips are helpful. I’ve just finished writing a book on mental health and the Autism spectrum with Dr Emma Goodall and Dr Jane Nugent. It is absolutely full of useful information on all aspects of mental health which people on the Autism spectrum might need to know about. It is due out in mid-2016. I’ll obviously keep you updated on progress and where you can find s copy when it comes out. I suspect my dot point list doesn’t really do justice to all the helpful information that exists but it is just a quick list of some of the key things that help me.
Now I’m going to take my brain and make a cup of hot chocolate and maybe read a book.
And I find looking at beautiful things like flowers and sparkly paper always cheers me up too!