It is Mental Health week at Authentic Freedom Ministries and Your Spiritual Truth. The goal of this series is to provide support, education and information for those who may be suffering from a mental illness and for family and friends of those who are experiencing mental illness. Yesterday’s blog discussed the definition of mental illness, diagnosis, the effectiveness of early intervention and treatment and where to find support. Today’s blog explores the topic of grief as it relates to a mental illness diagnosis.
In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that the greatest obstacle to the diagnosis and effective treatment of mental illness (Please read yesterday’s blog if you haven’t) is the negative stigma associated with mental illness. Contrary to what many believe, recovery from mental illness is not simply a case of “mind over matter.” Mental illness is a serious medical condition that affects people from all walks of life, gender, race, socio-economic status, religion, level of intelligence, etc. and can be effectively treated through a combination of supports. The negative stigma associated with mental illness prevents people from receiving the help they need and for most, the help that can lead to a happy and productive life. In my personal opinion, the second greatest obstacle to effective treatment of mental illness is grief – specifically grief that is unacknowledged and therefore unmanaged.
Grief as a Healing Tool
Grief is the healing tool that arises naturally in the face of any significant change, loss or disappointment that we experience in our lives. Grief presents itself as a vehicle through which we can process the loss and eventually move beyond it so that we can be open to the new life that is promised on the other side of that loss. Grief is a profound gift because it allows us to experience healing from the loss while it cultivates fertile ground on which new life can begin. When acknowledged and processed (often with the support of a helping professional like a counselor, therapist or Spiritual Director), grief frees us from our attachments to “what has been” and opens us to the gifts of “what will be.” It is only through acceptance of the grieving process and all of its faces that new life can emerge. This is as true in the case of a diagnosis of mental illness as it is in the case of any other kind of loss, disappointment or diagnosis.
Faces of Grief
Many are familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her exploration into the process of grief. Grief, as she explains it, happens in various stages which include:
Unfortunately, grief has often been presented to us as if it is a linear process with a somewhat predictable progression and endpoint. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, I think of grief as a spiraling pathway, much like a labyrinth where we move back and forth between the “faces of grief” (as opposed to stages which imply a linear process) and back again. I have also learned that grief is not a finite process. In the face of significant loss (death, terminal diagnosis, loss of cognitive or physical functionality, divorce, etc.); grief can be a life-long process. We may think that we are “done” with grief, and will find ourselves surprised when it resurfaces as a result of certain triggers. It is important for us to recognize these truths about the grieving process so that we can navigate the hills and valleys without doing further harm to ourselves.
Grief and Mental Illness
When we first begin to experience the symptoms of possible mental illness and when a diagnosis is received, grief enters into the picture. Specifically, in the forms of bargaining and denial. No one wants to be depressed, have panic attacks or be “labeled” as mentally ill. Unfortunately, the negative stigma attached to mental illness often prevents us from remembering that this is not something to be judged as negative, or to be ashamed of, but something that can likely be managed and effectively treated through proper medications and other supports.
If you or someone you love is facing a mental illness diagnosis, it is of vital importance that the grieving process be tended to in conjunction with the proper medical and cognitive care. Meeting your grief head-on will not only help you to process your grief more quickly, it will also hasten the successful management and potential relief of your symptoms. Support can be obtained through your counselor or therapist, Pastor or Spiritual Director. As not all professionals are trained or have experience with grief, it may be helpful to ask before setting up your first visit. Local mental illness support groups can also provide a vehicle through which you can process your grief when facilitated by a trained professional. The bottom line is that tending to grief is an integral and often overlooked part of the journey toward management and potential recovery in those with mental illness.
Authentic Freedom Ministries