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Understanding the mental health journey — and how to read the map

January 5, 2022 - 23 min read

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What is a mental health journey?

5 stages of a mental health journey

4 ways to get started on your journey

4 considerations on your mental health journey

When should I ask for help?

Why understanding a mental health journey is important

There are a lot of solutions out there promising a quick fix for everything that ails you.

It’d be great if we could wave a magic wand and resolve our emotional hurt, past trauma, and limiting beliefs. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health, a quick fix is rarely possible.

It’s a journey. And like every adventure, it has its ups and downs. Although it’s not always fun, it is rewarding. When you learn to approach your mental health as a journey, you build resilience. You also build self-awareness and self-compassion. You continue to learn, grow, and get to know yourself better than you did yesterday.

And, although it may not have an ending, it won't always be so hard. As you build the skills of mental fitness, you will reach a point of greater control and confidence in your ability to maintain — and improve — your well-being.

It’s important to understand the path to wellness isn’t linear. But by embarking on a mental health journey, you can appreciate the positives and put the challenges in perspective. Learn more about the mental health journey, how to start yours, and how to build support along the way.

What is a mental health journey? 

A mental health journey looks different for everyone. For some, their mental health journey might be a pathway to recovering from a mental illness. For others, their mental health journey entails managing or living with their mental health condition. It requires learning positive coping mechanisms and behavior changes over time.

Here are some common mental health conditions: 

- Anxiety or anxiety disorders 

​- Bipolar disorder 

​- Depression 

- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  

- Eating disorders 

- Schizophrenia

While everyone’s journey is nuanced and unique, there are some commonalities to the mental health journey. Knowing what to expect can help you be better prepared to work towards better mental health.

It’s important to recognize that your mental health journey, like any other adventure, may come with its setbacks. But by overcoming those setbacks and plateaus, you’re making progress towards a better quality of life.  And with any mental health journey, it's important to determine how to take care of your mental health

5 stages of the mental health journey 

Let’s break down the stages of the mental health journey. 

Desire for change

The first step is always building awareness around what is not going well in your life. This starts by identifying what you are hoping to change.

You might feel a lack of motivation or feel completely overwhelmed. You might want to overcome addiction or navigate a career challenge. Or you might want to through a relationship issue or several other struggles people tend to encounter daily. 

Once you have the desire to change, you can start taking other steps in the journey.

Asking for help

Some may like to start by reaching out to a trusted family member or friend to share how they’re feeling. Leaning on the support of loved ones is a great start.

While it can feel intimidating, it’s important to reach out to a trained professional. With a solid social support system and professional help, you can ensure you have trusted confidants along your journey. 

Getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan

Humans and their mental health journeys are a process that rarely fits neatly into boxes. If your therapist doesn't have an accurate understanding of what you're struggling with, they will have a harder time helping you heal. 

It’s important for mental health professionals to fully understand your mental health condition. That full understanding helps them create tailored intervention plans. With catered treatment plans, they can help you work on the issues that are most impacting your life. 

But without a full window into what you’re experiencing in your mental health journey, you won’t see accurate treatment plans or diagnoses. As a result, you may not see as much progress. 

Make sure to be open and vulnerable when discussing your symptoms. Having a good starting point and identifying the root issues can make a world of difference in the mental health journey.

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Putting in the work

To get the most out of this journey, you have to be committed to doing the work. Once you seek professional help, you’ll likely meet with your therapist or counselor once a week for about 50 minutes. That is less than 1% of the time in a week.

That means the other 99% of the time is for you to work on the issues you discussed. This could mean you start to reflect on or track problematic patterns of behavior or thinking. This could mean you begin to have important yet difficult conversations with friends and loved ones. This is where the real work comes into play. 

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You’ll take what you learn in your journey and apply those learnings to everyday life. The more you lean into this process and commit to doing the work outside of sessions, the more progress you’ll see.  

Is this the end?

We tend to think of journeys as having a beginning, middle, and end. Many like to focus solely on the destination. The reality of mental health is that it is an ongoing journey. 

After working on your issues diligently, you may see enough progress to take a break from therapy or professional help. You will hopefully have a set of tools to utilize as you continue your day-to-day life. You may need to continue seeing your therapist but perhaps the number of sessions is reduced. You may feel you’ve learned enough in therapy to take those learnings and apply them to your life without consistent sessions. 

Or you may continue to stay in therapy consistently. This is particularly helpful for those that suffer from more severe mental health struggles. It can also be helpful for those suffering from trauma that may take longer to heal. There is no one-size-fits-all in terms of duration or style of therapy that works. 

It’s important to remember that everyone’s mental health needs are different because we are all different. There’s nothing wrong with getting support over the course of many years. That’s part of the journey. It’s up to you to figure out what works best for you and stay committed to the work. 

4 ways to get started on your journey 

Build awareness

The first step in your journey is to become aware. If you are not able to be vulnerable and honest with yourself about what you are looking to change, it will be harder to make progress. 

Having a sense of self-awareness and introspection is crucial to be aware of what you’re struggling with. Try to take time to reflect on your mood, behaviors, actions, and thoughts. By looking inward, you may be able to help determine what changes you seek to make

Find a trusted counselor

Finding a trusted counselor or therapist can be the first hurdle to starting any mental health journey. There are a few factors that play a role.

Finding a person you connect with and feel comfortable sharing with is key — but it can take some time. Some people also struggle with things like mutual availability and schedules. Others struggle with access to available mental health services and resources in the first place.

First, cast a wide net. Start with searching online and compile multiple profiles of therapists in your area and network. Ask trusted family and friends for referrals. Lean on your insurance provider and/or primary care doctor to provide in-network options.

Educate yourself on what type of mental health professional you may be looking for. Psychiatrists treat mental health issues with medicines rather than through talk therapy. Clinicians (like therapists, counselors, licensed social workers, psychologists) provide talk therapy. However, they cannot prescribe medications.

Depending on your needs, having a combination of both can be beneficial given your mental health challenges. 

Seek accountability partners

Accountability can help ensure you follow through with your intended plans. Tell trusted family members, loved ones, or best friends about your mental health goals. This is an opportunity for you to share openly what you’re going through — but also ask for their support.

By opening up to your support system, you are helping them understand what you’re going through. You can help equip your accountability partners with the tools they need to support you along your mental health journey. It can also help add some motivation as you progress through the journey.

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Set realistic expectations

While some people can rapidly progress through therapy, most do not. And that’s OK.

When it comes to mental health conditions and challenges, it can take quite some time to heal. For some, it’s a lifelong journey of managing and living with a mental health condition. 

While a quick fix would be great, it is fairly uncommon in the world of therapy. True change comes gradually over time. Set yourself up for success by setting the expectation that it is a process that will take time.

Permit yourself to take the time you need to heal and grow. Practice self-care like you would with your physical health journey. It's important to rest, recover, and take breaks from things like social media when you're working on your overall wellness.

4 things to consider on your mental health journey 

While there are many things you can consider, here is a shortlist of four considerations as you embark on your mental health journey. 

Be vulnerable 

Sharing your mental health symptoms openly can be scary. You might feel like no one understands what you’re going through. You might also fear judgment or stigma associated with your symptoms.

Vulnerability is incredibly brave and challenging. By being vulnerable and honest with yourself, your loved ones, and your therapist (or doctor), you’ll receive better care. 

It’s important to share your thoughts and feelings openly, even the dark ones. Let someone else help shoulder the burden of your thoughts so you no longer feel alone in your struggles. By sharing your personal stories, you might open the door for a loved one to seek help, too.

Trust the process

This is a journey. There is no step-by-step process that you can follow to reach success that works for everyone. In fact, success is going to look different for every person. There is no one path to health — there are many paths. For many, you create your own path along the way.

While it is hopeful that you will feel better sooner rather than later, there is no guarantee on how long your individual journey will take. Trust that your hard work will pay off and stay committed to your health. 

Offer feedback

Let your therapist know what is or is not working for you. This allows them to adjust interventions and treatment plans for you. If you are not communicating with them on what you do or do not find helpful, they cannot tailor the sessions to be more effective for you. 

Similarly, if family or friends are not being helpful (or are even being hurtful) along your journey, let them know. Ask your therapist for support when navigating these difficult conversations. By communicating your needs clearly to your support system, you’ll find your needs can be more easily met. This can be extremely beneficial and empowering. 

Adjust if needed

You might have started working with a therapist but don’t feel like it’s the right fit. That’s OK. Trust your gut. It might be time to find someone new to work with.

Therapists refer to the dynamic between therapist and a patient/client as the therapeutic alliance. Most therapists are extremely aware of how important the therapeutic alliance is for therapy to be successful. Many will help provide referrals to others that might be a better fit for you to work with if you ask them. 

When should I ask for help? 

It can be hard to determine when you need additional support along your mental health journey. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples that might help signal the need for more help. 

Overwhelming symptoms

A person’s symptoms might get to a point where they feel totally overwhelmed and out of control. If you feel your symptoms reaching this unmanageable point, there’s a good chance it’s time to ask for help. 

Some examples of overwhelming symptoms may be: 

  • Big reactions to small situations. If you feel yourself reacting in big ways to situations that previously wouldn’t bother you, it might be a sign you need some extra support.  
  • Increased emotional responses. You might cry more frequently or have trouble regulating your emotional responses. If you feel your fuse shortening, it might be time to get help. 
  • Increased anxiety or depression. You might feel increased symptoms of anxiety or depression, like panic attacks. If you experience these symptoms, seek the support of a trained health care professional.  

Relationship symptoms

If any of your relationships (platonic or romantic) are being affected, it can be another sign that asking for help is warranted. Symptoms of impacted relationships include: 

The quality and quantity of your relationships being impacted are important to notice in relation to mental health. 

Work is impacted

Work is a huge part of our daily lives. If something is off at work, there is a good chance it is having ripple effects in your personal life as well. 

You might notice yourself falling behind on projects. You might be unable to focus on tasks at hand. You might find yourself missing meetings or making mistakes you wouldn’t normally make.

If your job is either impacted or lost as a result of mental health issues, you may need professional support.

Lack of motivation

We all lack motivation from time-to-time. But if you find you are no longer interested or enjoying those things you used to do, you may be suffering from a mental health issue. 

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Why is it important to understand your mental health journey? 

It is important to remember that feeling better is not a destination but a journey. 

The goal of getting help is to do two important things: 

  • Identify the root problem and create a treatment plan 
  • Develop tools and behaviors to more effectively manage your mental health issues  

If a person has anxiety symptoms, it's not possible to simply avoid anxiety-inducing experiences. For example, anxiety is a natural response to danger. However, it's the level of response that could become a problem. Too much of a response results in overwhelming anxiety that can feel debilitating. 

When a person creates a personalized mental health toolkit, they  are able to manage their symptoms when those emotions come up again. They are better equipped to handle whatever life throws at them. But it takes a learning journey to fill the toolkit with the tools they need. 

Ready to embark? 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, seek out support. 

Be kind to yourself. Practice self-care and self-compassion. Remember that the mental health journey is a process — and that journey looks different for everyone. It’s a fluid, fluctuating journey rather than a checklist for success.

But with the right support, self-awareness, and willingness to put in the work, you can navigate your mental health journey. 

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Published January 5, 2022

Kealy Spring

BetterUp Coach

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