Recovery is a term much used in mental health, but not always understood. Some people think of recovery in relation to a cure or getting better. Others associate it with 12-step recovery from addiction. Mental health recovery can be all those things, but for those living with mental illness the term most often describes an attitude towards their disorder and their way of coping with it.
This May, with the arrival of Mental Health Awareness Month, is a good time to stop and reflect on the meaning of mental health recovery. Many of us whose lives are affected by mental illness use the word recovery without really thinking of what it means. It is even in our name, Resources to Recover, the second “r” in www.rtor.org. But many of those who contact us for help wonder if recovery from a mental health disorder is even possible.
Part of the problem is that there is no universally accepted definition of recovery related to mental health. Two years ago for Mental Health Awareness month, I proposed a functional definition of recovery that looks at the problem from a clinical perspective. My definition was based on two measurable conditions in people living with mental health disorders: human agency – the ability to exert control over oneself and one’s environment – and self-efficacy – a set of beliefs about one’s capacity to exert control. That definition may be helpful to providers, funders, and policymakers looking for a way to measure the impact of programs. But it is of limited use to the people who live with mental health disorders. I wanted a definition that would convey hope and point people in the direction of a fulfilling life.
Earlier this year, I asked a question on the question-and-answer website Quora, What does mental health recovery mean to you? Nearly all who answered acknowledged having lived experience with mental illness, and it is interesting to note that there were as many definitions of recovery as there were responses. Here are excerpts from some of the many excellent answers to my question.
What Does Mental Health Recovery Mean to You?
“Mental health recovery for me means plugging-in to society.”
“To reach a point of being symptom-free and functional and the road it takes to get there. Emphasis on the road to get there, all the processes, therapy, adjustments to medication, coping mechanisms, all of that.
“Part of my recovery is forcing myself to go to bed at regular hours … Not to drink much coffee … use cognitive therapy to work out the things that make me want to escape into the manic. Eat regular nutritious meals … It’s a whole life style change.”
“I am on the right cocktail of meds, my cognitive functions are firing on all cylinders and I feel normal – like a person without bipolar 2, who has good and bad days just like someone without a mental illness.”
“No more social anxiety, language issues, depression, suicidal thoughts, confidence, talking with family issues, and let’s not forget a big one, brain deficit, AKA ‘brain fog.’”
“Mental health recovery is the drive to be able to make decisions … to be able to objectively analyze my mental health and decide what is best for me.”
“The return to psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being. I believe that they’re all interconnected … It’s being in-tune with emotions, accepting things in life with a resilient/positive attitude, participating and contributing in life, forming positive meaningful relationships and not turning to bad habits or unhealthy ways … of coping.”
Each definition touches on a different aspect of recovery. Despite these differences, consistent themes and messages emerge. No one claims recovery is easy, but every answer to my question goes by the assumption that it is possible. Each one speaks to a common hope that they can live with a mental illness and still aim for a better life. What follows are six hopeful themes of recovery gleaned from their answers.
6 Hopeful Themes of Mental Health Recovery
Recovery is personal. What we call mental illness involves a combination of different things: not just a mental health diagnosis, but a person’s individual experiences and history, family relations, interactions with the environment, habits of living, physical and emotional health, financial considerations, trauma, and effects of stigma. As each person’s experience of mental illness differs, so does their approach to recovery.
Mental health recovery as a process. None of the responses to my question on recovery refers to a cure for mental illness or no longer having a disorder. Each respondent, in one way or another, refers to recovery as a process or way of living, rather than a final destination. One person wrote of being “active in recovery.” In other words, a person can be actively engaged in a process of recovery in some periods of life and not in others. In all the definitions, there is a sense that recovery is action-oriented: you take steps or follow a plan to manage and live with the disorder. As one person answered, “It’s a continuous and life-long effort.”
Being free of symptoms and unwanted behaviors. On some level, this is a goal of every person in active mental health recovery. Some people aim for a total end to symptoms. Others may feel that is not an option for them and focus instead on symptom management. A few of those on Quora referred to the pleasurable aspects of their symptoms. One person wrote, “I miss The Manic” and compared her symptom-free self to a declawed cat: “My manic phases were like my claws. I could accomplish more, eat less, excel at work, soar academically, look gorgeous, quip wittily, and feel great.” She is grateful for the treatment that allows her to avoid the pain of depression that always followed, but sometimes feels that without her “claws” it can be hard to get a grip and “plug-in to society.”
Autonomy and independence. Some people recognize that their disorder can negatively affect their judgment and behavior. This does not lessen their desire to maintain a sense of independence and make their own decisions. One person stated that an important part of his recovery is to listen to the other people in his life and seek their advice. At the same time, he needs to step back and take an objective look at his mental health and make his own decisions. Sometimes that can lead to negative results. But for most people, having the freedom, as well as the drive, to make their own decisions is an essential part of their recovery.
Daily living habits and a sense of personal well-being. Several people wrote about making lifestyle changes to manage their disorders: paying attention to the basics of healthy thinking and cognition, sleep, diet, and exercise, and being aware of problem habits such as substance use. More than one person mentioned the importance of having a sense of emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Personal wellness is closely tied to mental health recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has identified Eight Dimensions of Wellness that help people maintain overall good health. The eight dimensions are: emotional, intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, environmental, occupational, and financial (check our linked articles for more information on each of these). A balanced approach to mental health recovery takes into account each of these aspects of a person’s life
Fitting in. Many definitions address the idea of “working toward greater involvement with (the) community.” There is much concern with the problem of stigma and how negative attitudes about mental illness work against recovery. The flip side of that problem is the longing most people with mental health disorders have to connect with others. This is not just a passive wish for acceptance. Many see it as an ongoing pursuit they must actively engage in: “forming positive meaningful relationships” and “plugging-in to society.” For others it is an attitude about themselves, the desire to feel “normal,” like a person without a mental illness.
Whether you live with a mental health disorder or care about someone else who does, please consider using these hopeful themes of mental health recovery to jumpstart your own thinking on this topic.
What is your definition of mental health recovery? Celebrate May Mental Health Awareness Month by writing a comment below or send us a tweet by using #myMHrecovery.
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