Mental Illness

The other day, I was working at a community mental health center in eastern Washington, and it was my turn to teach the lesson for that day. In these lessons, we are allowed a large amount of free reign, and on this day I decided that I would start the day by asking each of the participants what they were grateful for.

Before going into what was said, I think it would be helpful to give a little background. The group that I lead is one comprised of adults, most over the age of 40. Some of the held manual labor jobs, some were criminals, some were lower management and some are severely mentally disabled and unable to hold a job whatsoever. What is interesting, however, is that they all come to this group for the same reason – so that they can improve their mental health. While it is partially from the lessons that these clients hope to improve their mental health, I believe that the most significant gains come from the simple fact that these clients are in a safe place, away from the usual dangers and triggers that the rest of the world almost constantly throws at them. The vast differences in their life experiences is something that, when I began, I thought would create a gulf between the clients, causing them to focus on what made them different and not on the things that they had the same.

What really caused me to pause on this day was when we started with our gratitude journal. Every day, before beginning the lesson that I had planned for the day, I start with a gratitude journal, asking the clients to tell me one thing that they are grateful for since the last time that we met. The answers usually are about family, the people who take care of them, football or their animals. While these are all good answers, they can become a little routine. This day, however, one of the clients stated that he was grateful for his mental illness. Not only was this a very unusual answer, but it was one that took a significant amount of introspection. Before I had a chance to ask this client more about what he meant, the statement was met with quite a bit of resistance by many of the other clients in the group. Everyone else had a very understandable distaste for their mental illnesses, as they had the understanding that it was these illnesses that caused their difficulties in life, and were the reason that they needed assistance in their lives.

After listening to their statements of doubt, I asked the client who had stated that he was grateful for his mental illness why that was the case. He gave no reason – he said that he did not know. A bit disappointing, isn’t it? Perhaps, however, it is better this way, at least for you and me. While it would be a bit too much to state that we all have some form of mental illness, I do not believe that it would be inaccurate to say that we all struggle with some form of inner demon. Depression, anxiety, addiction, whatever it may be, there is some struggle that we will have to grapple with, and this struggle against our demons can cause us quite a bit of pain; can cause us to resent those demons. What if, however, we learned, like the client, to be grateful for these demons, even without knowing why?


While working with a demographic heavily populated by underserved sections of society, such as Latinos, Native Americans and people suffering from addiction, I came to the realization that I may have a very unique set of skills that I can use to assist the clients with the issues that they are facing. In my freshman year of undergrad, I began using opiates and benzos recreationally. At a point towards the end of this first year, it got to the point where it was not recreational anymore, and was becoming a hamper to my life. During the summer, I found a stash of Xanax and OxyContin, which I started abusing heavily. At one point, I overdosed and blacked out for 36 hours. Due to this, I had to go to the emergency room, where it was stated that I would be fine and that I was just a college kid who had made a mistake experimenting. When I was told this, I latched onto it and used it to tell myself that I really did not have an issue, that it was just a mistake and nothing more. I stopped using pills after this, which allowed me to lie to myself for quite a while that I did not have an issue with addiction. Since then, however, I have come to realize that I stopped using not because I didn’t have a real issue, but because my family was incredibly supportive, and provided me the strength that I needed in order to conquer my addiction. In the last few months, however, I have come to realize that it was much more than a mistake, and that it would have been far more accurate if I had been told that I had an addiction problem. This realization has come to me because of the interactions that I have been blessed enough to have with some of my clients. If I had not had the support of my family, which has been the case for more than a few of my clients, I truly believe that I would not have realized that I was circling the drain of addiction, until I was too far down to make an effective change. I wish that I did not have this addiction in my life, that when I get hurt, I could be given the same medication as everyone else and not have to deal with the pain, that I did not have to worry about how I will respond the next time a situation arises where I have the choice between using and staying strong.

At the same time, however, I believe that being given the opportunity to conquer addiction, and actually doing so, has been one of the biggest blessings of my life. It showed me that I could stand up to addiction and prevail. In addition to a blessing in disguise, I also believe that it is a life experience that I can use to help clients now, as well as far into the future, showing them, just by my mere presence, that addiction is not an unstoppable monster. Before having this issue in my life, I had many aspirations in which direction I wanted to take my psychology degree, all of which are still present. Working with the elderly is something that I would be great at, and is also a demographic that is distressingly underserved. Studying the connections between physical and mental activity, and how physical activity can be good for mental processes is also something that I have a strong interest in. In the midst of all these desires, being given the opportunity to serve an indigenous population and to serve those with addiction and at the same time learning more about myself along the way has opened my aspirations much further. I wish to continue working with populations that are regularly shunned by society at large, whether that be the elderly, indigenous peoples, people struggling with chemical dependencies or those who are suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. This work is something that is not only necessary, but also something that is closely tied to who I am.