There are two fundamental camps when it comes to mental illness, as I see it.
The first camp, which may be considered the more classic, “free-will” -leaning approach, is that mental illnesses are fundamentally a product of one’s own actions. As a result, they believe the solutions also come from one’s own actions.
These people, consciously or unconsciously, are inclined to believe that if and when people want to change the way their minds work, they will be able to, as a function of the choices they make.
The second camp, which may be considered the more new-aged “fate” -leaning approach, insists that mental illnesses are the result of complex biochemical processes, and will probably occur regardless of the things we do to fight them.
These people do not believe that those with symptoms of a mental illness are able to get better alone. The best way through is with medicine, a therapist, and white-washed Buddhism.
Neither camp has much evidence besides personal intuition.
As is the case with every other piece of information we seem to gather about the universe, I think it’s unlikely that either extreme is true.
By the same token, I think both sides are somewhat true.
From my own experiences, I don’t think improving mental health is about wanting to get better or submitting to and accepting the fact that there is nothing you can do for yourself.
However, I also don’t think those that are mentally ill want all that much to get better. It certainly feels like it to them. When I was squirming in Algebra freshman year, throwing greasy dishes across the kitchen because I didn’t want to use the extra soap to wash them, and desperately wishing that I could bring myself to enjoy anything I used to, it really felt like I wanted to change.
I would think I need to change now or I don’t know what I’ll do or, more tangibly, I don’t know what to do with myself and my stupid limbs.
Later the same day I thought these thoughts, I would give myself tasks that I was destined to fail. I signed contracts to myself, ridiculously strict ones: I would do this, this and that, at certain times, every day for 30 days and then I’d be sane again.
I would literally sign my name, in beautiful cursive: Ethan Fisher-Perez.
We all know, intuitively, that setting realistic goals is probably a good thing that makes success more likely in any field.
I set unrealistic goals for years despite knowing I would not be successful. I was sabotaging my potential for growth by expecting a ridiculous amount more of myself than I was capable of.
The question is: back then, did I not know how to set realistic goals, or did I not want to succeed in the first place?
I knew how to set realistic goals. I imagine many are familiar with SMART, which says goals should be specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-based. I understood all of that. But still, I never used it.
I have come to terms with the fact that back then, I did not want to change my mindset. I was so stuck in it, that I thought my personality would be threatened when I did. Rather, I wanted to want to change my mindset.
When our unconscious mind conflicts with our conscious mind, the unconscious seems to win every time. Who would you trust more to guide your life: the unconscious mind, an old, wise, bearded hermit, or the conscious mind, a naive adolescent whose tendency to anger has never been treated?
If you find relating to some of these tendencies: if you set goals for your mental health that you can’t seem to keep up with, I implore you to think about whether you’ve truly wanted to get better all this time, or if you’ve only wanted to want to get better.
I think the first camp is right in that people mostly just need to want to get better to get better. But I don’t think they recognize that those with mental illness symptoms are usually physically and chemically unable to do that.
The second camp is right in that these are largely biochemical processes, but not in that we can’t do anything about our mental health by ourselves (Although professionals help!).
Now that I am significantly less anxious than I was a few years ago, I can proudly say that as a result, I’m not happier, I’m not taller, and I’m probably not a better person than I was. I am just less anxious, and for me, that’s enough.
We are scared to change the way we think because we fear that it might threaten the existence of the people we have become and the personalities we have developed.
I can tell you definitively that it does not; you will always be you, no matter whether you attend therapy once a week or meditate or write in a journal.
You do not have to fear the change of getting better, because it really isn’t that big a deal.