Getting Better from Mental Illness

You can get better from mental illness. You can have a life worth living. First, medications can bring symptoms down to where they are tolerable. You can further lessen your symptoms by learning lifestyle skills. And you can learn to tolerate what can’t be reduced further. Hoping for a better future is realistic.

Recovery is not really about the lack of symptoms, but instead recovery is about finding ways to live a meaningful life despite having symptoms.

The “consumer movement” is the name for people who have mental illness and are involved in making treatment better and reforming the system. We are working to de-stigmatize mental illness, so it is seen in the same light as other medical conditions. The consumer movement is making  great contributions to advances in treatment. They are fond of saying that, ” ‘Normal’ is only a setting on a dryer.” What this means is that you don’t have to feel ashamed that you have mental illness. It does not mean that it’s OK to be messed up or at odds with society. And it’s not OK to disengage from society and imagine that the problems you face aren’t problems after all. Our vision should be to recover
and not to simply exist. People can and do recover to a remarkable extent.

Some meds take effect very quickly, within hours or days. Others build up in your bloodstream over weeks or longer. All medications have direct effects, but indirectly they may also help you make more or less of your own natural brain chemicals, so you stabilize. This stability can take a long time to become fully complete, so give your medications time to work. That also means giving your prescriber lots of time to adjust your meds. Be patient and hopeful. Medications often have other effects than the ones which are desirable. These side effects can sometimes be more tolerable using a lower dose. They also sometimes lessen as time goes by. Or we just get used to them as a trade-off for the benefit which we grow to see as most important for your lives.

Always ask if a change of meds might help. If you don’t speak up, your prescriber won’t think about making changes.

Your lifestyle and attitude are as important as your medications in dealing with what you face, whether it is schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or brain trauma, to name a few. Or you may have a combination of more than one of these conditions. At times you likely have depression, anxiety or difficulty concentrating and remembering etc. You also are likely to feel fear, shame, hopelessness, helplessness or feel suicidal. Treatment including your own efforts to get well can make these feelings go away, at least most of the time. Never give up trying new ways to get better!

If you use alcohol or street drugs, you may never really get better, at least until you stop. But, mental health treatment will help stabilize you, even if you do continue to use. Get alcohol/drug treatment and cooperate. Figure out a way to like going to Alcoholics Anonymous and absorb AA’s teachings, which is easier for some people than others.

The main battle for better mental health is often waged over sleep. If you’re sleeping on a regular schedule, then all your symptoms will likely improve. As long as you can’t sleep well, everything will be the same or worse. See the article on sleep for help with this.

Generally, besides sleep, the paths to reduce your symptoms and lead a better life include one or more of the following:

Follow a daily schedule to increase your physical health. This includes some exercise, even if it’s only walking. Eat healthy instead of junk food. Reduce or stop smoking. If you have medical problems, see a doctor ( if you can) and follow his or her treatment plan. Brush and floss your teeth twice a day, and, if you can, see a dentist. There is a saying, “Only floss the teeth you want to keep”, and it is true.

Don’t isolate but drag yourself up and out. Make sure you keep your appointments. Follow a routine each day and have one for every day of the week. Gracefully carry yourself from place to place and a better state of mind, moment by moment. Stay in a meditative state of mind, banishing your negative thoughts and feelings (and actions), and your life will improve. We think, we feel, we act, and then we act what we think, we feel what we act, and we think what we feel. All the theories about human behavior and brain chemicals are only that –theories–which have rapidly been rolled over repeatedly for a generation. Do they have all the answers yet? They admit that they don’t. What doesn’t change is the benefits from thinking and feeling positive and doing constructive things. You will feel better and people will like you more.

Recovery happens much more easily and meaningfully when you are in healthy relationships. This can mean things as simple as smiling and being pleasant to the grocery clerk or things as serious as romantic relationships –and everything in between. Make friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Remember that to have a friend, you have to be a friend.

Not all people with mental illness exhibit the next trait I bring up, but we are generally known for it, which is that we do not get along with others. To a certain extent, this difficulty with other people could almost be one of the definitions of mental illness. In order to recover more, you may need to learn how to get along with everybody. Go to groups, read books, listen to positive songs, choose some movies which are upbeat. Talk about it, and seek out people who do get along.  In Alcoholics Anonymous we have a saying, “Go with the Winners”. It means to seek out people and spend time with people who are in recovery—these will be individuals and groups who get along with other people. Destructive relationships or interactions are a major cause of stress and increased symptoms. Avoid conflict.

Discover how you can understand yourself and others in your own unique spiritual way. To do this learn how others have found morals and values, inspiration and meaning. Life without values is drudgery. Get a better life by finding meaning –perhaps you can find a way that your suffering can give you insight on how to help others.

Do everything you can to look nice and be clean. You will get an entirely different response from society this way, because to a certain extent, the “stigma” or discrimination against the mentally ill is an aversion to people who are poor and dirty. Don’t look poor and dirty if you can help it, and the world will treat you differently. You will feel better about yourself.

Volunteer or work. You will respect yourself more and so will the world.

Create a home of order and beauty, no matter how simple or sparse –even if you only carry it in your backpack or just in your back pocket. Try to recreate and save your memories of the past, your pictures, your diplomas or whatever–maybe it’s a certificate of successful completion of parole. Save these pieces of your life, if you can. Carry the paper records of your life and also scan them electronically and put them on a computer CD, which is waterproof. So often, we lose our past, which contains real accomplishments. Try to hang onto the parts of your past life which you cherish.

We have a past, but we also have a future. Often our past is burdened with trauma, abuse, shame, failure, rejection, fear, pain–even terror or horror. Get treatment for going through these events, but don’t dwell on the past. Come to terms with it but don’t let it control your future. Learn to live a life of peace and joy. An important part of this might be to find someone who will listen without shock or judgment. Maybe you can be that friend who listens to someone else, or you can listen to each other. Just listen,  people do not want advice, just a friendly ear to tell their story to.

Recovery often takes years, but you can start feeling dramatic effects right away. And even while you may continue to be disabled from working, you can live with dignity, respect and joy. You can have a real life, have fun, love and learn, despite your symptoms or your poverty (which often comes along with having mental illness).

Plan for a future which will be better. Dream of the day we will be treated with respect and not contempt by our society. Make moves which will bring about a better world for the mentally ill. Become involved with society and help it to change so we can all live in a better place.

Here are the 13 paths to recovery from mental illness of Dr. Ragin

Dr. Mark Ragins has years of on-hands experience helping people go into recovery. He is part of The Village inLos Angeles, which serves the homeless and others seeking help. The best way to go into recovery from mental illness is not to simply take your medicine and do what you’re told. People recovery with medication, but they need to do something more. He recommends that people start down at least one of the 13 paths he has found have worked for others. These paths can lead into each other, until the person is using many of them and many more which they find on their own.

Edited with the help of Silvia S. 10/29/11

The 13 Paths to Recovery of Dr. Mark Ragins:

  1. Talk to other people instead of isolating.
  2. Actually feel feelings and emotions instead
    of deadening them, medicating them, avoiding them, or getting high.
  3. Learn some emotional coping skills.
  4. Learn to “use” medications instead of just
    “taking” medications.
  5. Engage (or re-engage) in activities that
    make you more fun and interesting.
  6. Take responsibility for your own life and
    make some changes in yourself.
  7. Go to work even when you’re not feeling well.
  8. Do things outside of being a mental patient
    and outside the mental health system.
  9. Improve physical health and wellness.
  10. Love other people—family, partners, kids.
  11. Work on acceptance and forgiveness instead
    of blaming and vengeance.
  12. Give back by helping others
  13. Find meaning and blessings in suffering and
    reconnect with God and spirituality.

Mark Ragins, MD, Medical Director for the
MHA Village Integrated Service Agency, Mental Health America of Greater Los

You can view Dr. Ragins writings online or
order it at


About mentalrecovery

I work in a large mental health clinic and am active in NAMI
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