The Five Stages of a Mental Illness Diagnosis

How we come to terms with the process

You’re finally able to book an appointment to see the shrink and anxiously sit in her office filled with worries as she listens to the symptoms you’ve been struggling with.  Is it being overstressed?  Please, oh please, let just it be stress.  I promise I’ll take my breaks at work and hit my 10k steps every single day on my Fitbit to relieve whatever I’m going through.  What about my diet?  No more double-doubles and animal fries at In & Out, I swear.  Just don’t let it be that.  Never, ever that.

And then she hits you with the news you’ve been praying to avoid: “You have a mental illness and I’m going to prescribe you these medications.”

Game over. It’s that.

As you leave the office with a prescription in hand and this new mental illness diagnosis hanging over your head, your anxieties and worries are amplified even more with endless questions: How am I ever going to work?  Would I date again?  Will all my friends peace-the-fuck-out and not want to hang out with a cray?

With this diagnosis, it feels like a great loss.  Even worse than losing a loved one, you lose your identity or sense of self.  It’s an existential crisis of a mental health crisis – the crisis double whammy.

Similar to how we grieve when we lose someone or something we love, there are five major stages on how we deal with being newly diagnosed with a mental illness.

1. Denial

If you’ve ever read a news headline or seen a scary movie around Halloween, you know the label. People with mental illnesses are gun-toting, violent psychopaths that have no place in society but to terrorizes and arm others.

I can’t be one of them, right?

So the psychiatrist was obviously wrong and I’m not taking my medications or following my treatment.  They’re crazy.  I’m normal and that’s that.   

2. Anger

Then reality begins to sink in.  There was a reason why you went to the doctor in the first place.  The symptoms affected not only school and work, but also the people you love most around you.  As it begins to sink in that your life path has now been changed forever, the natural way let go of the pain is expressing it is through rage and anger.

“This is bullshit!”

Yeah, that and every other expletive in the book.

3. Bargaining

When all the fury has been released and the emotions begin to settle down and you start feeling like you have no control, you begin to seek a higher power or anyone/thing for guidance.

Dear Lord, I promise I’ll eat Brussel sprouts for every meal including breakfast if I could just be normal once again.

Then the “what ifs” begin.  What if I started yoga during high school, stopped drinking caffeine, or if only I never drank alcohol. I’ll cut every harmful substance known to man if I can be normal again, I promise.

4. Depression

As you make your peace with things you can’t control, reality sinks in and you feel absolutely empty.  Perfectly understandable because you honestly don’t know who you are, what your next steps are, and how long the treatment process is going to be.  Unlike a broken bone, recovery from mental illness is not as easy to treat.

And it sucks.  A lot.

5. Acceptance

Ah, the final stage.  If you’ve made it here, it’s like making it to the final level on American Ninja Warrior – nearly impossible to not fall into the water pit and get knocked out.  But now you’re here and you begin to realize that the mental illness diagnosis ain’t so bad.  It doesn’t leave you in shackles and inhibit the ability to reach any dreams, big or small.

You also understand there are no cures and treatment is lifelong.  That means getting on meds, going to therapy and/or whatever you do to stay well and staying on your treatment plan for the rest of your life.  It takes hard work to navigate and process through these different stages, especially with the lack of support because so many view these “invisible” illnesses as character flaws and not biological illnesses.

There are so many people who are out there that struggle making it through even the first stage, and that’s why we need to share our stories and spread mental health awareness in our communities, both locally and online.

One in four live with a diagnosable mental illness, but everyone has the right to live the life we’ve always wanted.