Opening the Door: The Physical, the Mental & the Stigma In-Between
A personal reflection after over a decade of trying
By Ashley Sargent, ChronicallySargent.com
“The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. The associations between mental and physical health are: Poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions.”
The first week of October in the United States in National Mental Illness Awareness Week, and October 10th is World Mental Health Day.
In honor of these wonderful events designed to end stigma and increase education I would like to share my personal experience with why mental illness is equally important as physical illness in diagnosis, treatment, research and advocacy for a successful recovery.
Without recognizing the reality of the role mental health can play, and the stigma associated with mental illness, many patients do not receive the full care they need. For the first 9 years I was sick, I was told that all of my symptoms were in my head, and was forced to take medications for mental health disorders I do not have, while being given no help for the ones I do. I was given strong anti-psychotics and antidepressants even though I have never been diagnosed with either of these conditions. This form of treatment caused me extreme physical and mental suffering. In desperate need of help I went to three separate mental health care providers explaining my situation to them, and all three dismissed me as being “totally fine”. I found myself with the mental health community telling me that my mental health was great, and the doctors telling me that I was totally nuts and all of my physical pain and struggles were in my head.
I cannot put into words the depths to which I felt alone, guilty, ashamed and thrown away.
At no point did anyone offer or try to help me.
Those who were telling me it was all in my head shamed me as if mental illness were a choice I was making to get attention, or entertain myself. At no point did they show any compassion for my suffering, or try and point me in the direction of help. The mental health and physical health providers were playing a game of hot potato with me and at some point they just let me fall.
It wasn’t until several years later in 2013 that I finally found people who were willing to look at me as a whole person with a body and a mind. Over several years we worked to diagnose as many of my physical and mental health disorders as we could. It was at this time that I finally starting to find healing physically and mentally.
I have somewhere around 13 physical diagnosis and 4 diagnosed mental health disorders. For me they are equally significant, difficult and debilitating and there is no way to separate them. I am a whole human made of different cracked and broken pieces. In the holistic community we see the mind body connection as obvious and a given. There are books and Ted talks and retreats celebrating the importance of the mind body connection. When you look from a clinical perspective most often the mind and the body are viewed and treated as separate. They are treated by different professionals, covered by different insurance and given vastly different levels of respect. These patients are bounced around like human pinballs unable to find the help and resources they need. It won’t be until we can stop treating mental health like some shameful self inflicted nuisance that these people will get the care they need.
For me living in my body and my reality there is no line where my mental health stops and my physical health begins.
I cannot separate the two as they directly affect each other. One example of this is my Interstitial Cystitis and Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. These are real conditions that have shown up on tests, with physical evidence. However, I have learned in my years of research and recovery from these two conditions that there is a direct link between these physical disorders and PTSD, other trauma disorders as well as anxiety disorders. I have found this to be amazingly true! When my trauma and anxiety disorders get flaired, my IC and PFD are often quick to follow. Since learning about this connection, and finding a better understanding of, and way to care for my mental health, I have found a higher level of healing in my physical and mental health.
I personally feel blessed to have gotten to where I am on my healing journey but I know that we as a society need to do so much better. For those of us with mental illness we need to be taken seriously. Making us feel guilty and ashamed only makes things worse. We need tools, and support, we need someone to say “I believe you”. As for the physically ill, we need the same thing, help and support. If you believe that our physical pain is all in our head, then help us heal our minds, don’t send us away in shame. Majority of my care team now sees the deeply woven connection between my mental and physical health. From this foundation I have been able to build a true and honest recovery plan, that is tailored to me. I feel lucky to have ended up where I am and in the hands of such compassionate providers who are willing to fight the stigma and help me find a real path to healing. It is in every step of care from diagnosis to treatment that we must learn how to imagine the connection and let go of our prejudices and judgement to find true healing mental and physical.
To learn more about Ashley Sargent, visit her blog @ ChronicallySargent.com
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