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Redefining Mental Illness

Like any science, mental health treatment is continually evolving as researchers, practitioners, and native experts such as me vigorously seek new methods that will produce better results. For me, this experimentation has led to several ideas about mental health and its treatment.
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Like most things in life, particularly those with a scientific dimension, we have developed a complex classification system to define various forms of mental illness. These deviations from the norm or average typically result in some notable unsatisfactory condition or result, such as emotional pain or inability to fully particulate in regular activities, in the lives of those who suffer with these ailments. Mental illnesses are treated much in the same way as other diseases traditionally are -- with various forms of therapy that are adapted to the needs of the individual patient and, if needed, with medication as well. Mental illness is usually diagnosed and treated so that it can be properly controlled and managed, leading to improved functionality and more fulfillment in life.

Having been diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses throughout my life, and having experienced a variety of treatments including a broad range of medications, I can, with confidence, claim that the traditional medical model of mental health treatment is inadequate in many ways. Like most traditional medicine in the modern Western world, mental health treatment tends to prioritize doctors' educated judgement over patient self-knowledge and insight, prescribe simple standardized treatment plans rather than cultivate deeper and more complex understanding of how various human and ecological systems interconnect and interact, and promote suppression of discrete components of the mind rather than illumination and seamless integration of the whole self. It can be stigma-inducing, degrading, and, for too many of us, ineffective.

Don't get me wrong. I would never discourage anyone from seeking mental health treatment just as I would never discourage anyone from seeking medical help for any type of condition. Despite its limitations, traditional mental health treatment can be helpful. It can save lives. And it has improved greatly over the years, becoming more humane, accessible, and innovative.

But like any science, mental health treatment is continually evolving as researchers, practitioners, and native experts such as me vigorously seek new methods that will produce better results. For me, this experimentation has led to several ideas about mental health and its treatment. Here are 10 of them:

1. People experience mental illness in ways as unique as they are. Like snowflakes, no two experiences of a particular mental health diagnosis will be the same. Manifestations of mental illness are influenced by personality, support networks, cognitive ability, access to resources, presence of life stressors, culture, and many other factors.

2. Diagnoses should not be used as labels. I am a person experiencing bipolar disorder, not bipolar or a bipolar person. Mental health diagnoses do not fully define the individual experiencing them and using them as labels can have negative consequences for both the patient and society.

3. We need to treat the individual, not the disease. Because everyone experiences mental health in unique ways, each person's response to treatment will also be different. What works wonders for one person may backfire for another. Treatment plans should be fully customized for each individual patient, taking into account the whole person.

4. People who experience mental illness are the experts. It would be foolish to develop and adjust a treatment plan without open input and feedback from the individual patient. We all know more about our own lives than any other person ever could. And while a trained therapist may have specialized knowledge that can certainly be useful, this should never be used to establish or affirm a position of power over a patient by excluding or trivializing their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

5. Treatment should focus on resilience and healing rather than disease management and control. Whenever we focus our energy on trying to dominate and control someone or something, it leads to resistance and rebellion. Rather than controlling and managing mental illness, we should listen to it with an open mind and heart, seek to fully understand its nuances while suspending judgment, and then set it free.

6. Integrative approaches that promote mental and emotional wellness need to be promoted and more accessible. Proper nutrition, exercise, purposeful activity, supportive relationships, and connection to nature are all essential for our well-being. Yet, they are often not explored or emphasized by therapists. In addition, alternative modalities, such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture, herbal supplements, and light therapy should be available as a complement to other treatment options.

7. Treatment should emphasize the gifts of the patient and build self-efficacy. When treatment is solely or mostly focused on the mental illness itself, it can be overwhelming and discouraging. Nearly all people who experience mental illness have something special that they can offer the world to make it a better place -- even if it is something small. Uncovering and developing these gifts provide patients with a sense of purpose and fulfillment that creates an environment where mental illness is unable to flourish.

8. Mental illness itself can be a gift. It certainly has been in my life. My mental illness has made me a more introspective and compassionate person who is excited by the complexities of life that intimidate many others. Understanding the meaning of mental illness in a person's life should be comprehensive and include the purpose it has served.

9. Mental illness should be loved rather than feared and loathed. Unfortunately, when people fear and loathe mental illness they too often fear and loathe the people who suffer because of it by association. This leads to prejudice and stigma that may deter people from seeking help; it can also result in discrimination. We should approach mental illness as a platform for possibility rather than as a deficit.

10. We simply need to do better. You may not agree with some of my ideas listed above, but we certainly can't ignore the many people for whom treatment has not been effective and the personal and communal tragedies that have occurred as a result. We can't stop our search for better treatment options until we have open access to care that leads to positive results for all.