A friend was taking a ‘First Aid for Mental Health’ class recently. We were debriefing it after the fact and they mentioned how focused the educators were on the use of medications and how little they talked about alternative healing methods (such as therapy, naturopathic care, etc.). But what we realized after shooting it back and forth for a bit was that one of the biggest healing methods they were missing was that of choice.
And that got me really thinking, because as someone who has dealt with mental health and physical health issues throughout my life, while I’ve met lots of people who get this, I often run into practitioners who don’t understand the power of choice in helping people to heal or to move towards not just surviving but thriving within the context of their physical or mental health issues.
So I thought I’d break down some of the basics of what I’ve learned over the years and then talk about what kind of a difference that can make.
Choice Increases Self-Awareness
If you simply get told “do these exercises” or “take this pill” you don’t have a chance to exercise mindfulness or self-reflection. More than that, you don’t necessarily have a chance to think through why you might choose what you might choose. Which in turn means that you won’t have the chance to communicate to your doctors and caregivers the things that you are learning about your body or your mind and what works and what doesn’t work. This back-and-forth process of self-awareness can lead to a greater awareness and understanding of the nuances of a condition which can, in turn, lead to improvements in treatment options that can be made available. It’s a win-win!
Choice Allows For Buy-In
When people have the chance to make choices it helps them to ‘buy-in’ to the process. This is true when toddlers need to put their socks and shoes on and it’s true when adults are struggling to follow through with daily treatment regimens. Simply by making a choice, it gives us the chance to commit a little bit of ourselves, and that can sometimes be enough to get us willing to do the work we need to do to follow through with the treatment.
Choice Returns Agency
Like so many folks who deal with illness and disability, agency is something that I struggle with. There are so many things I can’t control in my life – from whether or not I’m able to fix myself a meal to whether or not I will get the results I’m hoping for from my most recent diagnostic testing. And since agency is something that helps to contribute to healthy mental well-being and a positive sense of identity, there can be really significant implications to living life with no sense of agency.
But any time I get a choice – whether it’s what I want to eat for a meal, when I want to go out for a run or which room I want to sit in – it begins to return that agency and autonomy to me in ways that can make a really big emotional difference. And as this sense of autonomy and agency returns, it can have a positive ‘snowball’ effect on other areas of life.
Choice Can Lead to Healing
Ultimately – whether by increasing self-awareness, allowing for buy-in or returning agency – I think that choice can and does often lead to healing. As such, I think it should be considered part of a practitioner’s toolkit, whether they are a doctor, psychiatrist, occupational or physical therapist, massage therapist, coach, teacher or parent.