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The Importance of Lived Experience in Mental Health

alone thoughtful sadness girl is sad at the windowLived experiences are the core of who you are, what you have become, and why. No one truly understands where you are today if they don’t know where you’ve been – and that’s especially true with mental illness. Mental health treatment relies on lived experiences, both as a foundation for behavior and a foundation for moving forward.

In addition, mental health is a holistic thing. It ties into physical health, stress, and quality of life. It’s impossible to treat or improve mental health without being aware of and possibly working to improve other aspects of your life.

Lived experiences in mental health are a complex topic. Their important varies by individual, by age of the experience, and by the experience. Eventually, someone with depression will have lived a different life and will require different treatment than someone with anxiety. Someone with a past of substance use disorder will require different treatment.

Lived experiences are not who you are, but they effect many aspects of who you are – and they are an incredibly important part of your mental health.

Lived Experiences and the Developing Mind

Most people are aware that experiences greatly impact children, but few are aware of just how much. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (Ace) study found that adverse experiences such as parental divorce, trauma, abuse, a death in the family, assault, a major illness, or similar affect development. Children with 1 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely to experience both physical and mental illnesses. In fact, adults who score high on Adverse Childhood Experiences are more than twice as likely to experience mental and physical illnesses.

These lived experiences shape who we are. In fact, they change the shape of the brain. Children raised in high stress environments have reduced impulse management, higher risk-taking, increased sense of responsibility, increased sense of guilt and shame, and higher anxiety and depression. This relates to how the brain manages hormones to prompt survival behavior – which quickly becomes a hindrance in adults.

Sharing Around or Without a Diagnosis

Many of us learn to share about mental health around a diagnosis. If you don’t have a diagnosis or you have problems not covered by that diagnosis, you might feel as though you are making things up. You might also feel as though you don’t have a right to talk about it or shouldn’t bring it up in a clinical or support setting. The focus on lived experiences, and valuing those experiences, shifts you away from that mindset. It’s important to share about what you feel, how you are experiencing life, and how your emotions and mental health are impacting your life. Whether or not you have a diagnosis should not impact how and what you share or how your treatment provider listens.

For example, in one study, patients asked to share based on lived experience were better able to communicate what they actually felt and to seek support from their peers. This resulted in higher quality care, better communication, and better relationships between staff and patients.

Sharing lived experiences allows you to:

  • Reflect on experiences and gain insight from them, with the help of a mental health professional
  • Receive better care and support from professionals reacting to your experiences rather than “just” your diagnosis
  • Connect with peers
  • Be your genuine self, sharing what you actually feel and getting help with that

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Shaping the Future of Mental Healthcare

photo of a man talking to a psychologist about Mental HealthcareLived experiences influence and shape your health and mental health. It makes sense that they should influence and shape mental healthcare. Integrating lived experiences into healthcare and treatment means making space for dialogue between groups and between patients and staff. It means listening, it means sharing stories and strategies, and it means allowing patient input on what works and what doesn’t.

If you’ve been through treatment before, you know what helped, what didn’t, and what got in the way. Your perspectives can add value to your program, giving your clinicians and psychologists insight into how you’ve responded to treatment in the past. Offering that same insight into how you’ve experienced your mental health problems can help clinicians to offer better coping mechanisms, to engage with you, and to deliver more personalized and better treatment.

That also holds true for counselors. As Lived Experiences take on a more prominent role in mental healthcare, counselors are using their own lived experiences to connect with clients, to create better relationships, and to offer better mental healthcare to specific audiences. For example, lived experiences suggest that working with individuals from a similar cultural background offers you insight into where they’re coming from, builds trust, and overall allows better treatment.

Seeking Respect for Lived Experiences in Mental Health

Lived experiences affect every aspect of your life, they should be important in healthcare as well. For most of us, seeking that means finding a healthcare facility that is willing to ask questions, to learn who you are on a personal level, and to engage with you as part of the treatment process. Your clinicians should:

  • Engage with you with the intent of learning about you, your experiences, and your background
  • Learn the language you use to communicate about mental health and work to either adapt it or to teach you a broader mental health vocabulary
  • Adopt your language when referring to your personal experiences
  • Deliver person-centered information, with respect to background
  • Open dialogue regarding treatment, experiences, and perspectives on treatment, so that you can contribute to your mental health treatment with your own past experiences of care

Eventually, lived experiences are part of “being heard”. Integrating lived experiences into mental healthcare means that you can receive personalized treatment based on what you’ve lived. Your perspectives are valued. Your experiences have real effect on who you are. And, your experiences reflect your mental health and state, no matter what your diagnosis.

Lived experiences are taking on a larger role in mental health than ever before. That’s important, as mental healthcare shifts towards personalized care, with programs built around patient needs. Your experiences shape who you are, they should shape your treatment.

If you have any questions about lived experiences and mental health treatment, please contact us today. We are here to help and our experienced mental health advisors are standing by to answer any questions.