Understanding recovery and mental health problems

One of the key messages of the See Change campaign is to promote the fact that people who experience mental health problems (1 in 4 of us) can and do recover. For some, mental health problems are part of the normal ups and downs of life and might be related to a particular set of stresses or difficult experiences that occur at a particular point in one’s life.

For others, recovery and staying well can be more challenging and requires support and understanding from service providers, family and friends, and employers.

When we carried out our baseline survey in 2010, one of the most interesting findings was the poor understanding of recovery as a concept at all. In fact, only 1 in 5 strongly agreed that ‘the majority of people with mental health problems recover’.

It is vitally important that See Change and our partner organisations work to communicate the reality of the situation; that people who experience mental health problems can and do recover. That emphasis on recovery underpins everything that we do; all of our meetings and events include contributions from people with their own experience of mental health problems and their own journey to recovery.

But what do we mean when we talk about recovery?

There is no one-size-fits-all recovery model. Different approaches work for different people and the concept of recovery is not necessarily a clinical term in the case of mental health problems. This article from Shine – supporting people affected by mental ill-health – describes recovery as an individual ‘journey’

Mental health recovery can be described as a journey of healing and transformation enabling a person with a mental health problem to live a meaningful life in the community, while striving to achieve his of her full potential.

The concept of recovery from mental ill health has been the subject of much discussion over the last fifteen years. It is a wide subject and each individual has to find their own entry point and plan or map their own journey. One central principle of the concept of recovery is that the person’s own unique experience is the starting point for all actions. It is, therefore, very important to begin to learn about and understand what the experience is, what the feelings are and what the effect is on day to day life from the person’s own point of view.

[Recovery, Shine, 2010]

Similarly, Seaneen Moloney writes about her own unique journey in the excellent (and UK based) One in Four magazine – a publication written and produced by people with their own experience of mental health problems;

When people spoke to me of recovery, I struggled to understand what they meant. I had heard of clinical recovery; getting rid of the symptoms of a particular mental illness. As some mental health difficulties such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia can be episodic and recurrent; the statistics can make for grim reading. When recovery is judged upon the clinical definition of freedom from symptoms, around 60% of people with schizophrenia had a medium-poor outlook. Bipolar disorder fares better, however, with 40% of people who have been hospitalised for mania experiencing another episode within two years. I had certainly expected too much from clinical treatment. I thought the second I took medication, I would be cured. Pop! All gone.

Social workers and mental health nurses expressed the idea of recovery differently. Throughout my time with them, the focus was on helping me do more with my life. Like charities such as Mind they espoused the Recovery Model (see box), which promotes the view that to recover from a period of mental illness one must step out of the sick role, to make goals and empower yourself to live a meaningful life. It is a journey, not a destination. Developed by mental health service users, this to me at the time smacked of “will to power”, and the idea that you could get better if you really wanted to. It still does sometimes. Such a mantra can be downright dangerous. There are people who are incredibly unwell, who relapse often, and who do not have a home or support. They cannot become well by wishing alone.

And what is a meaningful life and who judges? Meaning could be a 9-5 job and a home, or, it could be creative endeavours. Even the experience of mental health difficulty can be itself meaningful.

[One in Four magazine, 2011]

Telling stories about recovery is one of the most effective ways to challenge the stigma of mental health problems. It removes some of the fear and misunderstanding that tends to surround these issues and creates a sense of commonality and empathy with other people. Stories of recovery are at the core of the See Change mission, if you’d like to tell your story get in touch.

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