I Was Just Diagnosed With A Mental Illness. Now What?

Written by Esmé Weijun Wang

Though for some it may be a relief to finally receive a psychiatric diagnosis, that relief — if it exists — is usually mixed with anxiety and fear. Common questions that might run through your mind include, "What does this mean? Do I have to take medication? Is everyone going to call me crazy?"

I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16, bipolar disorder at 17, and, most recently, schizoaffective disorder at 29. With every diagnosis and every additional year, I've learned plenty about how best to live well with mental illness. However, there are a wealth of things that I wish I could have told my freshly diagnosed, 16-year-old self. Here are three of them.

1. Listen to suggestions, do your own research, and discuss any concerns openly.

Although you're certainly permitted to disagree with your doctor, remember that he or she is trying to help you get better — including when it comes to your treatment plan. Did your psychiatrist recommend antidepressants for your depression, or encourage you to exercise more? Perhaps you're the kind of person who never takes aspirin for a headache, preferring to wait the pain out for as long as it takes; maybe you're feeling so awful that you can't imagine leaving the house, let alone going for a 20-minute walk.

But it's likely that you'd wear a cast for a broken bone, no matter how troublesome it seems. Hear your doctor out. If you have questions, or are worried about things such as medication side effects, communicate. Don't simply take the prescription and throw it in the garbage on the way home.

2. Remember that you're not broken, and you're not alone.

Write this down, and tape it somewhere you will see it every day: I am not broken beyond repair, and I am not alone. A mental illness diagnosis can make you feel like the loneliest, most screwed-up person in the world. Stigmas surrounding psychiatric disorders don't help matters; misconceptions can cause others to say thoughtless things despite their good intentions, and an enormous number of those diagnosed don't talk about it at all. However, it's entirely possible to live a fulfilling life after being diagnosed with mental illness. Millions of people, including myself, do it every day.

3. Do something that reminds you of who you are.

A diagnosis is a tool for treatment, but it's also a label, and labels can often damage — or even take over — your self-image. Are you a cat lover? Go and play with your cat for 30 minutes. Do you fix bikes as a hobby? Find a broken bike on Craigslist and fix it. You are the same essential person that you were before this diagnosis — just as I was, and continue to be, the same ambitious, honest, book-reading, and photography-taking person I was before I was told I had clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorder.

Now go out there and keep on living.

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