I Am NOT My Diagnosis!

Emma Finan is a board-certified nurse, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the primary psychotherapist in the Psychosis Clinic at Vanderbilt. She will help listeners to understand how people with mental illnesses can lead successful lives.

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Rosemary Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast.  I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  My guest today is Emma Finan.  Emma is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist and is also a Board-Certified nurse.  She is the primary psychotherapist in the psychosis clinic and works to help individuals identify early psychosis and educating patients and their families on the research available, and helping them define appropriate support.  Many people believe that mental illness is rare and happens to someone else; however, an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder every year, and many of us are not prepared to deal with it within ourselves or with a loved one.  What is most important to remember is that you are not your diagnosis.  Emma, what are things that people can do to not feel defined by a mental health diagnosis?

Emma Finan:  I would say the first thing is to get some education about the particular diagnosis, but to remember that when you are reading the material, it manifests different in everybody, your symptoms.  So, even though you might be reading, say, about depression, and there might be 15 different symptoms, that doesn't necessarily mean that you have all the symptoms.  And also, I would say to be very careful about not defining yourself by your diagnosis.  So, even though if you have a diagnosis of a bipolar disorder, that doesn't mean that you are bipolar, or often people will say with schizophrenia, "I am a schizophrenic," and that is not actually accurate.  It is a medical condition.  It is important to understand it and know it, but it doesn't define you as a person.  And the other thing that I would say is that when you are diagnosed, it is important to process with somebody, so it might be your provider, although a lot of people will say they don't find them particularly helpful, so therefore, talking to, you know, friends, or finding a therapist to be able to process with - that is very helpful.  .

Rosemary Cope:  And are there issues and emotions that you think everybody struggles with after being diagnosed with some sort of mental health disorder?

Emma Finan:  Yes.  I think it is very common, initially, for a person to ... there is almost like the shock of it initially, and it is almost like a grieving process for some people.  They get very angry with it.  Some people will kind of bargain back and forth.  Some people get very depressed when they have a particular diagnosis.  So, kind of, people are up and down with it, and it is a process to kind of wrap your head around it.  And that is where the education comes in - reading as much material, or talking to other people with a similar diagnosis can be very helpful.  And then, the other big factor that comes into play is the stigma of mental illness, and we find now that actually it is not so much external, that people are maybe calling you names or making rude comments about your diagnosis, but actually a person internalizes themselves, and they think, oh, if I have a mental health diagnosis of whatever, you know, people are going to see me and make a lot of assumptions that may or may not be true.  So, be very careful about that.  You have to really ask yourself, and that is where it is good if you have a therapist or somebody close that you can process, because you might be thinking and assuming a lot of stuff that is really not actually happening.  I do think that there is a grieving process to whatever the diagnosis is, and then obviously, a lot of people would say that a diagnosis like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that they are like, oh my god, that is the worst thing ever, and again, that is not actually accurate.  It is a diagnosis with specific symptoms.  There is very good treatment, and you definitely can move on in your life regardless of whatever the diagnosis is.

Rosemary Cope:  Emma, I also think that given today's climate, that either the news or on social media, we have people making comments about mental health, and that can be very stigmatizing, too.  So, would you advise that people sometimes limit their exposure to some of the media?

Emma Finan:  Right.  Certainly, reading negative comments, I would encourage somebody to ... because that is all negativity and quite toxic, and it is not accurate.  And again, there are these massive generalizations where people ... If somebody is mentally ill, they are out of control, they are violent, when, in fact, my whole career has been in mental health, and I would say most of the people I've met, they are actually very sensitive people and they are not at all violent.

Rosemary Cope:  So, if I need support, or my family member needs support, what are some available resources for me?

Emma Finan:  I think one of the best resources (I use it all the time with my patients and family) is the NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness.  So, you can either go online, and they also have a lot of support meetings here if you live in the Nashville area, but they are everywhere in Tennessee.  Also, you can go on a website - the National Institute of Mental Health.  They have some very good information and actually they have good screening tools.  Also, Mental Health of America, that is also a very good resource.  It gives you a lot of information about different diagnoses and symptoms and treatments and different research with a particular diagnosis.  But most of all, I would say, you know, not to go it alone.  It is very important to get some support and help, and if you don't like your providers, find somebody else.  If your friend is being negative and saying, oh, such a bother this happened, you need to find more helpful, have more helpful discussions, because there are millions of people that have a mental illness, a mental health diagnosis, and they go on and they live very fulfilling lives.

Rosemary Cope:  That is the best thing to remember, isn't it, that you can have a life regardless of your diagnosis?

Emma Finan:  Absolutely, and I see it all the time in my work, that people go on and they have, you know, relationships and jobs and careers, and go back to school.  Thankfully today, in 2018, all our young people that we see in our clinic, if they want to go back to school, they go back to school, and there is some very good psychotherapy for people with psychosis.

Rosemary Cope:  Well, Emma, thank you so much for the great information and the encouragement.

Thank you all for listening.  If you have a story suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu, or you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website at www.vumc.org/health-wellness.