Mental illness is one of the most common kinds of disability in the U.S. In fact, National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that annually, around one in five American adults experience mental illness, and one in twenty-five American adults experience severe mental illness. Despite how common they are, mental health issues (and the symptoms that accompany them) can manifest differently for each and every individual. That means that even two people with the same exact diagnosis may act completely different, or face different challenges. And that means that what people do to manage their mental illness every day may vary a ton from person to person.
Because of how unique mental health issues can be, it's important to be aware that there's no one, correct path to treat mental health issues or to practice self-care. For people with mental health disorders, finding what works — from a solid routine, to a therapist, or additional support group — can often require a process of trial and error. While talk therapy and exercise may help one person, another person will benefit from medication and self-care — or something else entirely. This is what 15 different people do every day to manage their mental health and practice self-care.
"I manage my mental health by using medications, and learning about myself. The more I know myself, the more I can figure out how to cope with whatever I'm dealing with," says Shirley, a sex worker who lives with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety/panic disorder, borderline personality disorder, and ADD. "For me, the first step is to find out what I feel, and why I'm thinking or feeling the way I am. Sometimes I need to talk to a friend about it, and sometimes I just need to listen to music or watch a familiar movie, and let it go to the best of my ability."
"I struggle with bipolar disorder, PTSD, and an anxiety disorder that can be hard to manage, but it is not impossible. I do take meds and go to therapy every two weeks and that does make a difference in how I feel," Deborah, a Spanish-English interpreter, explains.
Another unique trick Deborah utilizes is writing herself encouraging reminders. "One of the things that works well for me is that I have cute Post-its all over my apartment reminding me to 'slow down and focus,' 'be gentle with yourself,' and 'it's a bad day, not a bad life.' I have these visual reminders combined with listening to reggae music and lighting my favorite incense as a daily routine that instantly improves my mood," she says.
"I deal with my bipolar disorder and ADHD via many methods, "Ryan, a fry cook, tells Bustle. "First and foremost is with medication — without it, I can't make it through the day. Secondly, it's come to a point where I know stress and anxiety are a part of me, so I do all I can to just not think about it. It's nearly as helpful as the medicine."
He adds that, "They always say day by day for people in recovery — well, it applies to disabled folks too. Just focus on the now if you can."
"I have bipolar disorder with primarily depressive episodes, so for me, having a routine is absolutely vital," Jordan, a sex worker, tells Bustle. "I work from home so I make sure I do the same self-care every day: eat, yoga, meditation, work, eat. This helps especially when I’m having a depressive episode, because it’s already part of my routine and it helps me regulate my mood better than anything else I’ve found."
"I have had depression and anxiety pretty much my whole life, but this year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder," says Brandi, a medical assistant and behavioral health consultant and liaison. "I take meds daily for my anxiety and depression, and I have something for break-through anxiety/panic attacks. Working in behavioral health, I see how important it is to find a medication that works and to stick with it. I attend therapy a few times a month."
Brandi explains to Bustle that while she struggles to make time to practice self-care, she has found a few activities that are therapeutic — including listening to music daily to "release all tension and frustration," getting a manicure, and going to the gym with her step-daughter.
"I’ve been severely and chronically depressed in the past. Much better in recent years, but this past winter was rough. My depression is seasonal and when it comes it’s almost always in the fall and gets worse throughout the winter," explains Alex, a librarian whose name has been changed to protect his privacy. "I’m planning to invest in a light box that I can use for next winter. Talking to friends also helped a great deal, as well as listening to and playing music on a daily basis."
"My self-care routine to manage my eating disorder, depression, OCD, and PTSD has changed a lot over the years," Kenslee, a newborn care specialist, tells Bustle. "Yoga previously played a big part in keeping me in recovery from my eating disorder, but when my PTSD and depression started to spiral out of control, I lost that special connection with the practice. I now do a lot of EMDR and talk therapy which helps immensely with all of my diagnoses."
"Getting regular massages and taking baths has assisted greatly in calming my nervous system when I fall into what I call the 'black hole' of not sleeping, dissociating, and depression," she adds.
"First and foremost, I love and need to see my therapist for my mental health. I feel very fortunate to have found a therapist who understands me. I feel lighter every time I walk out of her office. Therapy has helped me process my trauma in a way I could not have on my own," says Alexandra, a reproductive rights activist who lives with C-PTSD. "A part of my self care is writing. I write what I’m feeling. I allow myself to be raw, and vulnerable in my words. Writing is a wonderful self care therapy for me. I’m a mother, so quality time with my 5-year-old little boy is soul soothing for me. Snuggling with him has a way of calming my soul."
Alexandra adds that, "Activism has been wonderful for my mental health because I think growing up feeling powerless was really painful. Now as an adult, I do things that make me feel strong, and I fight for others in a way that I wasn’t fought for."
Caroline, an activist, tells Bustle, "I manage my mental health by regularly taking meds, seeing my doctor when I can afford it, building a supportive community, dissociation through Netflix and mobile games, and with petting my many cats."
"Learning boundaries is the most important lesson I've learned. It would have spared me a lot of trauma," Emilie, a single mother and college student who lives with PTSD and bipolar disorder, explains. "I also use the app period tracker to follow my cycle so I can see when mental health symptoms are compounded by hormones."
Michelle, a patient advocate, says, "If things start to feel a bit much, I bake a ton of bread. It's a way to cope with my PTSD. The smell of fresh baked bread is very calming, and it's very soothing messing around with dough. It also makes my house feel warm."
"I manage my mental health issues by trying to stick to a consistent schedule; I am at my best when I am able to regulate when I sleep, eat, take my meds, go to therapy, and various other important activities," says Riley, whose name has been changed to protect their privacy. "To keep myself safe during the frequent depressive lows and periods of high anxiety that come with my bipolar II disorder, I practice self care by listening to my favorite music, watching TV or Vine compilation videos, and playing Mario Kart. If I have the energy, I'll go on walks, exercise and read. I'll also try being creative by playing my saxophone, building things, drawing, designing, and writing stories."
They add that they've found writing in a journal every night to be a helpful way to "release" any pent up emotions before bedtime.
"It took a long time for me to learn to recognize my anxious behavior, especially anxiety as it was triggered by my ADHD," says Kat, an office manager. "I start my mornings with physical activity — a jog or boxing; it isn’t a cure-all or a replacement for my meds, but I have noticed how much it helps with my symptoms and my ability to manage them."
"Compartmentalizing my tasks into smaller ones as well as setting lots of digital reminders of tasks helps me manage my forgetfulness, which can also be a massive anxiety trigger for ADHD," she says. "Something specifically for ADHD people with anxiety is recognizing how much overstimulation plays into my burnout, and giving myself permission to step away, even if it is for a few seconds to look at a video on Facebook or send someone a message to distract myself for a little. Little things like this can help me from feeling overwhelmed and help prevent anxiety attacks from becoming unmanageable."
Polly, a student, tells Bustle, "I use to beat myself up over the inevitable. Now I know [when my winter depression] is coming, so I gear up: warm clothes, popcorn, tea on hand, and a tight knit group of friends who don’t judge."
She also says that one way she's managed her mental health issues is by scheduling alone time for herself. "When I know I need a good cry and more sleep, I look over my schedule and literally schedule these things in. 'Okay, it looks like I can watch Steel Magnolias on this day, and have a breakdown that night. Yep. That works.' Knowing I have a breakdown on its way helps me push through."
"Being an artist, musician, and night owl, I thought that an 8 to 5 schedule would have killed me. However, for the past four years, being to forced to get up early each day, eat breakfast, take my meds, dress up nice and see the day light has helped me become ten times as productive as I was before," says Rachel, a singer/songwriter and student who lives with Bipolar II, PTSD, and ADHD.
"Writing about, sharing, and owning my diagnosis and experiences has helped me cast off the shame I used to feel and helps me give back to the community through spreading awareness and giving these struggles a face, a voice, and a name. Also, if your therapist isn't working, find a new one; for me, third time was the charm, and my life has greatly improved ever since I found the right fit for me," she explains.