Service and mental health

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Recently my rat Squiggle had some health problems of his own. He managed to get himself stuck in a tunnel that I didn’t realize he had outgrown, and scraped up his hand along the bottom. He then started picking at the wound which made it worse, so he needed to get a cone around his neck. And in the process of helping him with this issue, the vet also realized he was having problems with his eyes (thankfully only dry eye resolved through eye drops) and a respiratory infection (thankfully resolved through medicine). He is mostly ok now. He still has the cone and will for a few more days, until the wound completely heals, and is still taking the medicine for the respiratory infection, but both the respiratory infection and his hand have healed a great deal, and his eyes are completely healed and he no longer needs eye drops.   *sigh of relief*

I hated seeing him in so much pain, and scared from going to the vet and getting medicine every day (which he hates as much as he hates having a cone on his head, and I don’t blame him!) Initially, before the vet had figured out what the problems were and that they were treatable, I was scared myself. At the same time, for the first time in a long time my attention was not on my depression. I couldn’t spend all day wallowing, because Squiggle needed me. And that gave me a reason to get out of my head and be active.

This made me realize how necessary it is for me to be part of something larger than myself, and contribute to others. I wish the best of health for Squiggle, and he of course doesn’t need to be sick for my own need to serve others to be met. I would love to get back into volunteering. It can be really hard for me to commit to doing something on an ongoing basis when I’m often too depressed to get out of bed, nevermind be helpful.  However I have joined a volunteer placement organization that lists drop-in days of service at non-profits such as animal shelters, soup kitchens, after-school programs, and Habitat for Humanity.  This is perfect for me because I’m not sure what I’d be best at and enjoy the most, and it’d allow me to try different things out.  It would also allow me to volunteer only as I am able.

Unfortunately, among many other problems with the mental health system, I find that mental health treatment can oftentimes encourage being self-centered. The common assumption is that if someone is struggling, they need to focus on self-care and on their issues until they’re feeling better. This doesn’t necessarily work, though. For me at least, I find it to be counter-productive; if I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems I have, I develop a low self-esteem. If I focus too much on self-care, I have nothing to distract me from my emotions or to make me feel fulfilled and like I’m needed in this world. The self-care approach may work for some people (in particular people who are coming from a history of ignoring their own needs completely in favor of others; who perhaps are learning for the first time that they’re important too). But I do wish there were more options of treatments that focused instead on developing the ability to contribute and caretake, and on finding the right outlet that would best make use of the client’s unique interests and talents.

I have to give happiness in order to keep it.

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6 responses »

  1. I agree with you. The self-care approach is not always the best approach but doctors don’t seem to give that advice out willingly. Helping others is a large part of recovery but figuring out who would benefit from that vs self-care is difficult sometimes. I feel better when I take care of others and help them out. It works better than any medicine I’ve taken (for the most part).

    I hope you get to volunteer somewhere you enjoy a lot and I wish Squiggle the best of health. I have cats and they definitely keep me on my toes, that’s for sure!

    • Thanks for your reply, Crystal. Yeah, I can understand how it would be difficult to know what approach would work best for which people. Mental health workers are only human after all and can’t read minds or predict the future. 😉 So it’s often a matter of getting to know a client and trying out different things over time, not all of which will work. I just wish that in terms of more intensive treatments, such as inpatient and residential and day programs etc, there were more options for people to choose from. Most of the ones I’ve found don’t really focus on fulfillment at all (and if they do, just talk about it in groups but don’t help you apply these concepts to your life). If there were options, some of which had a mix of different types of groups, then more people with different needs could find something that works for them in the system.

      Thanks for the well wishes as well. Squiggle has a follow-up vet appointment tomorrow and hopefully that goes well. He seems to be recovering nicely, though, just from what my non-professional eyes can see. Cats are wonderful pets too, I grew up with them. I would love to have my own cat at some point, when I am living in a house rather than an apartment building and non-caged animals are allowed.

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  3. While I’m all about emphasizing self care, coming from the background you’re describing, I also think that people who advocate it don’t understand that there are multiple ways it can look like. For example, I’d parse meeting that need for involvement and to help others as its own form of self-care.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to understanding and meeting your needs, and they will not be the same for everyone, or even the same person all the time.

    For example, I have to be careful when I engage with certain oppressive discourses. The need to pick and choose my battles takes on a different meaning for me. Sometimes my silence becomes ridiculously more exhausting than wading into things. One example is that I can sometimes relive moments over and over in a loop for hours. So, rather than having, say, one difficult conversation, my mind is conjuring up enough variations on the same conversation to last me for days. In some really bad cases, months. And as more time passes, I begin to get into destructive self-talk over my “missed opportunity to set things right.”

    So basically, I not only need to know if I can afford to speak up, I need to know if I can afford to keep quiet. Yet, if you hear some people speak of it, in order to take care of myself, I should avoid engaging at all. These people don’t understand the glitches of my brain. I do.

    Er, I’ll stop rambling on your blog now.

    • I agree with everything you say here! Absolutely, self-care looks different for everyone. For me, it needs to include service as well as activism. In my experience though, unfortunately not a lot of mental health professionals see that as self-care, and will discourage it. I try to ignore them, because I know myself better than they do. You’re right though that there needs to be a balance. Sometimes, self-care can mean standing up, sometimes it means disengaging. It can be hard sometimes to find that balance, and there’s trial-and-error to figure out your own limits. Thanks for commenting, I don’t mind “rambling” at all! 😉

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