How a mental health diagnosis can be empowering for your students

There are a lot of negative stereotypes that exist in the public sphere for the term “mental illness”. One of the most egregious stereotypes of people who live with mental illness is that they are more likely to be violent than the general population. The truth is that people who have a mental health diagnosis are about 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

Perhaps the stereotypical images that some people have about mental illness are the first to come to people’s minds because they are the most extreme interpretations of what mental illness might look like. The hard truth is that the majority of mental illnesses are subtle. Somebody could be diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety and the rest of us would have no idea. In fact, over 40 million adults in the United States have a mental health condition. That is equal to nearly 1 in 5 people. The reality is that the majority of adults with a mental illness are not violent, institutionalized, or home bound.

Mental illness affects children, adolescents, and adults from all walks of life, but this is not often talked about due to stigma. Although efforts to reduce stigma have made recent progress, it is not uncommon for people to experience guilt and shame as reactions to a mental health diagnosis. Many worry about getting a mental health evaluation. Would a mental health diagnosis alter their life in a frightening way? Would they have to take medication forever? Would they be able to work at a level that would allow them to meet their goals?

When new symptoms arise, it is reasonable to be concerned about how they may impact our quality of life. Yet, forecasting defeat can make symptoms of almost any mental health condition even worse. In fact, it is possible to utilize the information gathered about your diagnosis to make informed decisions about how to take care of yourself moving forward.

Something Doesn’t Feel Right…..

I think it is safe to say that we can all relate to having a physical illness or ailment. We have had upset stomachs, scratchy throats, or aches or pains that seemingly came from nowhere. All of us can relate to the feelings of helplessness and annoyance that arise when we want the condition to go away, but we have no control over when it will because we are unsure of what caused it and how to fix it. Some of us may have even been informed that there is no way to “fix” the ailment because we have something chronic, but that we can learn to live with it by managing the symptoms.
Now imagine that you are having symptoms, but they are emotional instead of physical. Picture struggling with a relentless sense of hopelessness, prolonged sadness, sudden episodes of panic, recurring flashbacks to a traumatic incident, or intense fear that others might be out to harm you. Like having an upset stomach or a mysterious pain, there could be a variety of reasons why you are having these symptoms and they are not always clear. And when we see a doctor for the weird stomach ache or sore throat that won’t go away, what does the doctor do? Ask questions: How long have the symptoms been occurring? Do they happen at specific times of the day? Do they happen after you eat? Then they will probably examine your throat or press on your stomach to examine your body further.

A similar process occurs when you seek consultation about a mental health condition. You tell a therapist, social worker, or psychiatrist the symptoms and life events that you have been experiencing, and they will ask a series of questions to help find the nature of your condition. The questions that these professionals ask are typically called bio-psychosocial assessments and tend to be quite comprehensive. Similar to when you visit a medical doctor, the treatment plan may not be clear after one session (in fact, in many cases it is not!) but it can offer a roadmap about what to do next.

Note not everyone who sees one of these professionals necessarily has a mental health condition that can be treated using the same biological model that applies to medical diagnoses. In many circumstances, the problem that brings someone to a therapist or social worker requires a treatment plan that has a higher emphasis on fixing social or environmental problems. Yet, these interventions are also based on best practices from previous research and can improve mental health outcomes.

People oftentimes can have different reactions to mental health diagnoses than they do to medical ones. It is not useful, and not at all accurate, to attach guilt and to such conditions.

When treating mental illness, it is often difficult to make a diagnosis after one visit. Providers have to identify a diagnosis for insurance billing purposes, but after just one visit with a client that diagnosis is preliminary. It is inaccurate to say that you will leave your first appointment with an explanation of how to vastly improve your symptoms, but the point is that once an explanation is provided it can arm you with additional knowledge about how to manage your situation and put you in a position where you can make a choice.

Challenges with This Process: And How to Stay Empowered Through Them

Mental health treatment isn’t always linear. If you need a medication to improve your mental health, you may need to try a few different drugs or different dosages before you find the right prescription that works for you. If you need to seek a therapist or support group, you may need to try different groups or providers before you find the right match. And you may go through mental health treatment, get better, and find that a month or a year or five years down the line, you need treatment again. There may not be a quick fix.

It is true that sometimes the dynamic between a therapist or psychiatrist and a help seeker can feel disempowering to the client

Let’s Talk More About Empowerment

OK, so you were informed of your different treatment options and have made a decision about what you would like to do. How can the sense of empowerment you felt when you made that choice stick with you as you go through the process of recovery?

A Canadian study that was facilitated in 2001 explored factors in the lives of adults with a mental illness that influenced the degree of empowerment felt in their lives. Every participant was in some kind of mental health treatment (either therapy, medication management, a peer support group, or a combination of more than one treatment method). The study revealed that the two factors below had a significant influence on empowerment:

1.) Personal motivation: When consumers of mental health services were able to take more initiative in making choices, it resulted in improved confidence, skill development, and greater sense of control over their lives.

2.) Supportive Relationships: Consumers of mental health services reported feeling more empowered when their personal and professional relationships were supportive and fair. This resulted in increased participation and involvement in the community, particularly if they were able to connect with a community of peers who they saw on a regular basis

Giving and receiving mutual support to other with a mental illness can provide empowerment and a sense of purpose.

Another way that having a mental health diagnosis can result in empowerment is through resilience. Those of us who have lived with a mental illness have often been placed in positions where we have had to struggle to find new or different ways to cope with life’s stressor

Changing our narrative, and the way we visually see the narrative playing out, can be useful. Psychologists have found that the self-fulfilling prophecies that occur during depression can create a cycle that is difficult to get out of. Visualizing yourself overcoming challenges has the potential to break this cycle.

Meditation reduces stress, improves concentration and increases self-awareness, something that is particularly useful when managing a mental illness.

The Takeaway

We are all familiar with the stereotypes of mental illness. Advocates, consumers, and providers across North America have been fighting to challenge these stereotypes and provide correct information about mental health. Stigma against mental illness can often deter people from seeking treatment and may cause them to view mental illness as a personal weakness rather than a treatable condition. This perspective can be reframed by viewing a mental health diagnosis as a framework for establishing a treatment plan. Some mental health consumers may be able to shift this perspective on their own, but providers and the public need to also take accountability. Stigma is created by public opinion. If the public could have more empowering and empathetic views toward people who have a mental illness, it could lead to a paradigm shift that could help more people see diagnosis as a blueprint rather than a bombshell.

This article was adapted from a first person story where the author, Ashley Santagelo, gives some first person experiences she has encountered with the stigmas associated with “mental health” issues. Check out the full article on Jen Reviews at:

Jen Reviews is the authority on everything food, fitness and home. Check them out here: