Let’s say you haven’t been officially diagnosed with a mental illness yet. Maybe someone recently pointed out that you’ve been a lot quieter than usual lately, or that you always have a fretful look on your face, or that they’ve noticed you tend to tap the corner of every item within arm’s reach at least five times before you can settle down. Maybe it’s come to your attention that you’ve lost interest in all your favorite hobbies, or that you dread getting in bed at night because all you do is lie there and think distressing thoughts until you finally fall asleep at around 3:00 AM. Maybe you’re experiencing the sensation I lived with as a teenager, a gnawing, overwhelming feeling that something is wrong inside. Whatever your situation is, you’ve now been faced with this question: Could I have a mental illness?
My first piece of advice to you is “Don’t Google the mental illness you think you have.” I’m too late, aren’t I? Who am I kidding, of course I’m too late. That’s probably the very first thing you did. Don’t feel bad; if Google had been around when I was a kid, it would have been the first thing I did, too. Since that particular piece of advice is probably moot, amend it to “Forget everything Google told you about the mental illness you think you have.” As a general Rule of Life, it’s a good idea to take everything you read on the Internet with a grain of salt unless it’s from a legitimate, established source, like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) , the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) , the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) , or (of course) this blog – because unlike many bloggers out there, I always check my facts. Coincidentally, if you really have no idea whether or not you should even be concerned about having a mental illness, NAMI has a great checklist of common warning signs that might help convince you one way or the other.
If you took a look at the aforementioned list of warning signs and found that many of them apply to you, don’t assume you definitely have a mental illness and immediately start searching Google for miracle cures. Only a psychiatrist can make an official diagnosis, but you’ll want to make an appointment with your GP (general practitioner) first so he or she can rule out any diseases or disorders of the body. Regular run-of-the-mill health problems like diabetes, strep throat, and bacterial infections can cause many symptoms also associated with mental illness, such as irritability, confusion, increased or decreased appetite, trouble concentrating, and excessive fatigue, so it’s entirely possible that if your symptoms appeared very recently, they may originate from someplace other than the brain. If everything from the neck down passes inspection, your GP will then be able to give you a referral to a psychiatrist, who will conduct his own examination before pronouncing a diagnosis.
What if you’re self-conscious about your symptoms or feel uncomfortable divulging such personal information to someone you don’t know all that well? Write a list of the symptoms you’re experiencing and add all the questions you have about them. Your doctor will still have to read them, but it will save you from having to say them out loud. Another trick that helps me when I have to explain my conditions to someone out loud is avoiding eye contact. Pick an object or a spot on the wall far enough away from your doctor that you won’t be tempted to look at him or her and stare it down while you talk. Don’t mumble, though, and don’t speed through it, because then you’ll just be asked to repeat the whole thing. Speak clearly and slowly and make sure to include all the gory details, because they might contain crucial information your doctor can use to determine what’s causing the problem. I know this is hard; I recently had to explain to an insurance representative that the reason I needed the company to pay for this specific medication was because it was the only one I had tried that allowed me to have a normal sex life. Thing is, people are a lot nicer than you think they are. I was expecting shocked silence or a snide remark about “too much information,” but she was surprisingly sympathetic. A few days later (still trying to get the medication covered) I called again and had to explain the situation once more, this time to a man. I think I even cried a little, I was so humiliated. But to my amazement, the guy said he and his wife had been through a similar situation – and then he said a prayer for me right there on the phone. (He still couldn’t get the medication approved, but that’s beside the point.)
The most important thing to take away today is the fact that you can’t get better if you don’t see a doctor. Mental illness is a lot like regular illness in that it can be treated, managed, and sometimes even cured, but one thing it won’t do is go away on its own – and the longer you go without getting it checked out, the more likely you are to end up in the hospital or make a bad decision that could affect the rest of your life.