ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Value of a Meaningful Activity

Jack Bragen
Friday April 22, 2016 - 04:43:00 PM

Participation in a constructive and/or enjoyable activity can be helpful in furthering recovery from psychiatric illness. If we feel able to do so, it could be a good idea to have an activity and possibly a goal. This stimulates the mind, can help morale, and can make us feel better about ourselves. To do this, we might ask ourselves what our interests are, what abilities we may have, and what we believe to be realistic. Waiting until we feel recovered before engaging in an activity could possibly be a mistake, since an activity could help accelerate our recovery.  

People might say we ought to get a volunteer job. However, in recent years, expectations for volunteers have risen. This is partly because numerous non-disabled people can not get paid employment, and are volunteering in order to remain active and because it looks good on their resume. I tried volunteering doing data entry at a senior center, and was let go upon having one day of absence. I know of two people who discovered, upon volunteering at several different places, that expectations were too high, and their disabilities weren't accommodated.  

Volunteering for a mental health organization or perhaps an organization that helps people with disabilities would likely have more accommodation. I have seen several people enjoy volunteering for NAMI of Contra Costa.  

This doesn't mean that we should never try anything unrelated to mental health. Volunteer or regular employment at something unrelated to mental health can be a boost to self-esteem, since it allows us to compete with nondisabled people. We might discover, if we try, that our abilities, in many ways, could be as good as, or better than, a typical person in the mainstream who does not have a disability.  

Had I not decided to pursue writing, I would probably have taken classes toward a technical career of some kind. Since regular employment isn't a fit for me, I probably would be doing self-employment or independent employment of some kind. Self-employment could be a good option for someone with mental illness who has a marketable skill, yet who may not be able to keep up with the expected pace of a regular job.  

When and if someone with mental illness enters the work force, if they can stay with it, it is a great way of furthering recovery. If you are in an environment filled with successful people, working people, and/or "mainstream" people, the connections that will exist will often be good therapy. If you are among "well" people, your mind may be able to sync with those of others, and this is very good for mental health.  

This is not to say we all should go out and get a full-time professional job. If not ready for any of that, there is no need to berate oneself. These are just general suggestions, and they are not a fit for everyone.  

We don't have to do anything or accomplish anything to be acceptable as human beings. If treatment is all you can handle for the time being, you should do that and should avoid applying unnecessary standards to yourself.  

Putting pressure on ourselves to try to do something that's too hard could be a factor in some relapses. Perhaps the question we could ask is, "What activity could I do that would allow me to get involved in life and would not create a feeling of pressure and/or of performing drudgery?"  

If you are mentally ill and subject to outpatient institutionalization, treatment practitioners will have a tendency to place you in unskilled work that doesn't provide mental stimulation. Mental health practitioners tend to presume that we could never perform at a job that entails advanced skills. This is a travesty, it doesn’t help us in our recovery, and the net effect is that we have lower self-esteem than we had beforehand.  

Doing something for the sake of the activity and the gratification of the thing we are doing, and not being excessively concerned with having a fabulous level of success, will make an activity more sustainable on an emotional level. For example, if you want to work in computers, you should enjoy working with computers and should not compare yourself to people who know more about computers than you do or who make more money at it. If you do an EBay business, (something I admittedly know nothing about) you should enjoy the stuff involved in it, whatever that is, and you should not be concerned with making a massive amount of money. 

Being enthusiastic about something in our lives can be very healing. Everyone is probably interested in something. We may not be able to do something at the level we want, but a goal or an activity to look forward to can be a reason to get up in the morning, can give purpose, and can be a great source of fulfillment.  

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