Three years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD. When I was diagnosed with ADHD, I was in the midst of a deep depression accompanied by crushing anxiety and even panic attacks. As my depression slowly subsided and my anxiety calmed, what remained was a question.
Honestly I thought my ADHD diagnosis was stupid. In part, because the medication I was given did very little to improve my attention. I talked to my doctor, but she strongly recommended that I stay on the medication. She reasoned that since I am stable, we don’t want to disrupt that. It made sense, but her answer also bothered me.
Is maintaining mental health really just a precarious balance of just the right kind and the right dose of psychiatric medications? Is mental health really just taking the right pills?
These questions feel dangerous to me. Questioning the role of medications and feeling well can seem like we are saying that medication is not important. For some people and for some situations in our lives, medications can be essential to clear our minds or to bring our minds out of a very dark and hopeless place.
But mental health is more than taking the right kind of pills.
I would never suggest to someone that they stop taking their medications. But what we all have to consider is what happens on the day after we take the medication? We should continue taking the medication, but as we begin to stabilize we can begin to ask ourselves what kind of relationships will we begin to form? Physical practices? Sense of meaning and how we can be creative?
“Mental health is produced socially: The presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual, solutions.” The World Health Organization, 2011.
Pills are not skills
A while ago, my wife and I began attending an ADHD support group. At first I was skeptical. But over and over, I heard other people’s stories and it felt like they were telling my story. One man in his 30’s said that ADHD nearly destroyed his relationship with his family and several others talked about how their disorganization effected their sense of confidence.
I thought about my desk at work and how it can become piled with books and papers. How I doodle all of the time in ANY meeting just to make it through. How I have piles of creative but unfinished ideas all over my house, on my to do list. And how many of my marital conflicts have to do with not being mentally ‘in’ my marriage or with not taking care of my responsibilities at home.
Taking pills for ADHD is a start, but I have learned that I need to be honest with myself about how my habits effect the important areas of my life: My marriage, my communications with my family, my ability to persist and see an important project through to the end, and my awareness of the ‘piles’ of ideas on my computer, my iPhone… and all over my house.
“We have, as a society, built our responses to depression and anxiety almost entirely around changing brains, rather than changing lives.” Johann Hari
For me, mental health is not medical. Reducing my mental health to what’s happening with my brain chemistry doesn’t really help me. Mental health does not consist of which pills I take or my diagnoses. Mental health is about my ability to enjoy my relationships and do my work; it is about my ability to be creative and to be physically healthy. Mental health is not about a pill. It is about what happens in the rest of my life. Mental health is about doing what feels alive rather than maintaining my brain chemistry.
Mental health is about how I spend my time and ensuring that I prioritize my important relationships. It is about how I organize my environment and how I communicate. It means that I need to be more aware of what I eat, my sleeping patterns and exercise. It means that I need to vary my routines and invest time being creative. It might sound complicated, but it’s not. It boils down to one question:
How do you invest your free time so that you can build a better life?
What do you think? I am curious how you may answer this question and I would love to hear from you in the comments.
For a related article, “What I learned About Depression from Johann Hari,” follow this link.
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