I can’t remember living without mental illness. I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 19, and in October 2015 I started on SSRIs as treatment, along with regular(ish) counseling sessions offered through my uni for free. As soon as the meds kicked in I noticed that I not only felt more energetic, awake, and not-suicidal, but also that they were treating the anxiety as well. I could make a phone call to people other than my mother. I could approach strangers and ask to pat their dogs. Stammering was a thing of the past. That’s not to say it’s a miracle pill; there were and still are issues with my anxiety. But my medication helped.
You know what didn’t help? The people (with no mental illness or medical training) who would, upon discovering that I had anxiety, recommend three things: yoga, meditation, and a diet change. Now, from a counselor or therapist or psychologist I would listen, consider what they recommended, do my own research on their suggestions and maybe try them out.
But when someone who hardly knows me tells me to do something (keeping in mind I am incredibly stubborn and find it hard to do what I’m told by people I actually like) such as yoga or meditation to cure my ills I want to scream. These are almost always people who’ve never actually suffered from any kind of anxiety or mood disorder, and aren’t trained to give advice on them. They think that me and my mental health team don’t know enough about my particular circumstances and unique experience to work out what will help for me. It’s irritating, ignorant, and kinda disrespectful to suggest to me that I try jogging as if I haven’t already tried physical activity and reported the outcome to a doctor. As if I haven’t made actual plans, constructed to-do lists, made endless appointments, to deal with my illness. Like getting out of bed at sunrise to do yoga and drink a smoothie is going to suddenly stop the anxiety attacks that come daily when I’m in a depressive episode. Or as if meditating every night before bed is going to stop me from having vivid and unsettling nightmares that wake me up in a puddle of sweat. Or perhaps clean eating will stop me from pulling my hair out strand by strand at four in the morning.
Not only is this ignorant of the actual medical advice I’m following, it feels disrespectful. Suggesting to me that I eat healthier, especially when I’m in a bad headspace, actually doesn’t help. When I feel like that, I’m lucky if I’m eating at all. I don’t need someone commenting on how three hashbrowns dipped in tomato sauce isn’t a good meal. I need someone to tell me they’re glad I’m trying. Telling me to exercise definitely doesn’t help, either. All you really tell me when you say “have you tried signing up for the gym?” is that you think I’m physically unhealthy – it usually makes me wonder if I look fat. I already have issues with my body image, and I don’t need more self-esteem problems from a well-meaning but clueless suggestion.
The idea that these ‘natural’ treatments could be more effective than taking the medication that offsets the chemical imbalance in my brain is laughable, to say the least. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking medications for mental illness. My brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin; my medication supplements it. It’s been over a year and a half since I started on Sertraline, and both my counselor and my GP have told me more than once that I’ve improved immensely. There are a lot of ways to treat mental illness. And there’s a reason that yoga isn’t at the top of that list.