So you've known for some time that something may be off with your moods...
Most research has found that symptoms of mental illness may start appearing in the late teens to early twenties. There are exceptions of course, but if you're in this age group and you feel that your day-to-day experience is being hampered by preoccupations of the mind, you may want to start doing some research. Before going any further, I want to emphasize that you should NOT panic. If anything, now is the time to exercise the most patience. I understand the emotional pain is akin to crawling out of your own skin, but learning to be patient will honestly save you from even more excruciating pain in the future. Recognizing that there may be something wrong and receiving treatment is not some sort of death sentence. You are not an outlier, a freak, or some sort of genetic anomaly; you are merely part of 25 percent of the entire human population. With the right treatment plan, you can find normality and happiness.
The purpose of this article isn't to discuss public perception of mental illness; that is a battle for more hardened writers. I'm hoping by writing about what I went through, I can help others avoid the tortuous process that I endured through an admittedly poorly planned illness management plan. It is absolutely critical you get the correct diagnoses before beginning medication management.
I now know for certain that I have Bipolar 1. It took around 5 years for me to arrive at the correct diagnoses. The first time I sought help from my university's counseling center, my psychiatrist referred me to the DSM. According to the checklists in the DSM, I was at risk for more mental illnesses than I could count. When you read the DSM in depth, you realize that many symptoms for different mental illnesses overlap. Navigating the DSM is akin to making your way through a mental labyrinth, scanning your memory bank for behaviors and thoughts that have become unreliable over to time. I would suggest not settling for the first illness you think is the best match. Take your assumption, the information you've collected, and relay it to loved ones, friends you can trust, and as many psychiatrists and mental health professionals as possible for verification. You want to check, double-check, and triple-check. I am not exaggerating. One of the best bets when attempting to get an accurate diagnosis is speaking to your loved ones about anyone else in the family who may have exhibited behaviors similar to your own. A family history of mental illness will help your struggle tremendously. If you have access to that information, use it. There are plenty of scholarly articles on the hereditary nature of mental illness. Relaying that information to your mental health professional will be of great help. Going a step further, bring in a similarly afflicted loved one to your sessions and discuss similarities in your life together with a professional.
I want to make sure that I am under no circumstance recommending you diagnose yourself, but doing your due diligence and researching as much as you can before entering the doctor's office will be in your best interest. If the psychiatrist is worth their weight, they will be happy to discuss the possibilities with you. The kinds of doctors you want to avoid will slap a label on you and prescribe you medication the day they meet you. Avoid these types of psychiatrists if at all possible. If for some reason you don't trust the doctor or disagree with what they have planned, don't hesitate to find another. This is your mind, your most precious commodity.
The risks of haphazardly accepting a diagnosis aren't just a matter of incorrect labeling. The psychotropic medications used to treat various mental illnesses are very powerful. Don't let the size of the pills deceive you. Their intended effect is to alter the very way you perceive your reality. Their effects vary from person to person and can have some very hefty, nearly incapacitating side effects. There is a period of time where you titrate medications in which your doctor observes the effects for up to 6 months to see if they help your symptoms. If the medication prescribed to you initially displays low efficacy, well, they switch you to a new one and the titration process begins anew. This can happen ad nauseum until they find a medication that relieves your symptoms. Meanwhile, you're left to decide whether any number of side effects from the medications are manageable or not. They sometimes prescribe medications just to treat side effects. Sometimes those side effects drugs have side effects of their own. Now imagine if all of this was for naught. What if they're giving you medication for an illness you don't even really have? That's how I ended up taking 5+ years titrating different treatment options.
Now not all is doom and gloom: once I got the correct diagnoses it took less than a year to get the right combination of medications for my treatment, with minimal side effects. Currently, I am a relatively happy, functioning human being with friends and family that I love. I do want to restate that getting the right diagnoses was key to all of that.
Once you and your psychiatrist are certain of a correct diagnosis for you, you may want to consider taking a gene test to see which medications your body can best metabolize. The one I used can be found here: GeneSight. The results of the test show you which medications would be right for you, given your body's ability to metabolize the synthetic compounds found in popular medications.
If you found this post and have yet to be diagnosed for what you think is a mental illness, I wish you the best of luck. I know it might be tempting to just try something, anything, to relieve the pain. I did exactly that: illicit drugs, alcohol, amphetamines, whatever I could get my hands on. But learn from my mistake; delaying proper treatment cost me nearly a decade of my life. Be smart about your mind, and most importantly be kind to yourself. Really put in the effort to get the right diagnoses so you can go back to living the fullest version of yourself possible.