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The journey of mental illness

The journey of mental illness

Experiencing a mental illness is like a journey with a series of stages. Understanding the different impact of these stages helps us to manage them better and move towards recovery.

The beginning

When a mental health problem develops, it can go undiagnosed for months, or even years in some cases. It feels just part of who you are. In a way that’s right. It is. But that’s only because how you currently feel and think are affected by an illness. Just as feeling weary all the time may be a sign of thyroid deficiency, then feeling unduly anxious, depressed, or distressed a lot of time may be a sign of mental health problem that needs help. In some cases, the symptoms can also feel traumatic and deeply confusing, for example when someone experiences a psychotic episode. This is often highly distressing for the person’s family and friends too, of course.

It doesn’t have to be like this. 

Reaching out and talking to a trusted person is the first step to seeing a doctor for an assessment and diagnosis. With a diagnosis, treatment can begin to start you on the road to recovery.


Receiving a diagnosis is a big step which opens the door to getting help. Many people say it’s a relief that how they’ve been feeling has a name and can be treated. Remember though, a diagnosis is just that, a name. It describes a condition which is affecting you, but it doesn’t define who you are. A person may be affected by Depression or Schizophrenia, for example, but that doesn’t mean they can be called a ‘depressive’ or ‘schizophrenic’ as though there were no more to them than that.

The other big step after a diagnosis is to accept and work on recovery rather than to deny it. Sometimes a diagnosis can change when a doctor gets a better understanding of your condition. Your experience no different, of course, but this does mean that the treatment can be fine-tuned to help you better. It’s all the more important, then, that you give the doctor as much information as possible about your symptoms, so that the diagnosis can be as accurate as possible.

Living with a mental illness is not always a simple, one-way journey.


Treatment for mental health problems usually involves psychotherapy or medication, or a combination of the two. When talking to your doctor or other therapist, be as frank and open as possible about how you are feeling. Hold nothing back and trust the process.

At its best, psychotherapy can be a deeply rewarding and life-changing experience, as well as helping to relieve and manage symptoms. Be clear about how the treatment is helping and also about the side-effects of any medication which has been prescribed. When starting a medication, there may be unnerving side-effects such as trembling and feeling feverish which last a day or so before disappearing.

Discuss these with the doctor beforehand, to be prepared, and let them know if the side-effects persist, so that the dosage or prescription can be changed. The best progress is made when you are an active partner in your treatment, working with the doctor or therapist. See Treatments to find out more.

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There is no simple ‘cure’ for mental illness. Treatments are generally effective however in managing and reducing the impact of symptoms. Whatever the diagnosis, recovering from an episode of mental illness means more than clinical treatment. You play an essential part yourself in getting better. For some, this means being careful about early warning signs, avoiding triggers, and developing new habits of behaviour. For others, it can be helpful to draw on services in the community, such as supported accommodation, a rehabilitation program, and help with getting back to work or education.

Staying connected with other people is an important contribution to getting better. The SANE Forums are an online space where you can engage with others to exchange experiences, information and tips, and provide mutual support. The Forums are available 24/7 and are a safe, anonymous, and moderated service provided by SANE in partnership with community mental health support services all around Australia.

Living with a mental illness is not always a simple, one-way journey. There may be ‘bumps’ along the way, and a period of wellness can be followed by a relapse when more active treatment is required again. This is to be expected as a normal part of life. Each time it happens is an opportunity to learn how to be more alert for warning signs of becoming ill,  how to get help sooner, and manage the symptoms better.


This The journey of mental illness page may be freely downloaded, copied and distributed on condition no change is made to the contents. SANE is not responsible for any actions taken as a result of information or opinions contained in this article.
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