What Does Mental Health ‘Recovery’ Actually Mean?

What Does Mental Health ‘Recovery’ Actually Mean?

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By Sally Buchanan-Hagen

Recovery. It’s a word used a lot in the mental health world. Ask anyone — psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, family and consumers — sustained recovery from an episode of mental illness is what we all strive for.

However, what does “recovery” look like? No person’s recovery is going to be the same; therefore, no recovery goal is going to be the same. I have bipolar disorder, and unfortunately, I am in the group of people who don’t respond that well to medication. Medication can stop the great peaks of manic elation and decrease the time spent in the most despairing depths of depression, but for me, it is not a miracle cure, and I still get residual symptoms.

In an ideal world, everyone would love for my recovery to mean the cessation of all manic and depressive symptoms — for me to be constantly euthymic (stable) — but we don’t live in an ideal world. For that to happen, I would have to be on a lot more medication with higher doses. I’ve been down that road before, and for me, the side effects don’t allow for much quality of life.

Instead, my recovery goal isn’t to banish the symptoms completely, but to live with the ones medication can’t get rid of. In all honesty, if I did have the option to banish all of my symptoms, I’m not sure I would take it. I’ve lived for so long with ups and downs that I’m used to that way of life. For a long time, what I thought was my “normal” self was actually my hypomanic self. It’s confronting when the person you thought you were turns out to be an unwell version of you.

New approaches to recovery in mental health are person-centered, which is about what the individual person wants for their recovery. Previously it was thought that if someone with mental illness was completely symptom-free, they were in recovery. Now it is recognized that this isn’t necessarily the case. As I said previously, if I were to live a life free of symptoms, I would have to be over-medicated, miss out on the social life of a 25-year old and have a decreased capacity to work and study.

I bet I’m not alone in this scenario. What’s the point of being symptom-free if you have no quality of life? Is it any wonder some people aren’t always concordant with treatment?

Instead, a happy medium has to be reached so we can live to our full potential. For this to happen, there has to be a dialogue between you and your treating professionals as well as the loved ones involved in your care. Let your health professionals know what you want for your recovery and explain this to your loved ones so they know what to accept as part of your recovery. Having everyone on the same page can increase compliance, support and ultimately happiness.

I recently had that conversation with my family. What I want from my treatment is little peaks and troughs. Since the age of 14, I have lived with cycles of depression, so “mild” depression for me is manageable. When I am hypomanic, I function better than normal. Before I was diagnosed, I would instinctively fit my life around my mood cycles — accomplishing as much as I could when I had high energy levels to compensate and prepare for the times of low energy. This is who I am. I am a person who is all-or-nothing. I am someone who lives life fast-paced and with passion, but I am also someone who experiences great apathy or melancholy. I am not a person who sits constantly at baseline. I don’t want to get off my “roller coaster” completely, I just want to switch to a less extreme and more controllable one so I can still enjoy life and feel like myself.

Obviously this scares my family. They’re scared of the elevation turning into full-blown mania where I lose insight and become psychotic. They’re scared of the severe depressions that last for months and that can potentially kill me. However, they also want the best for me and for me to be happy. After a lengthy discussion and re-evaluating the early warning signs that indicate things are getting out of hand, we agreed on what I want from my recovery.

Having clear expectations of what you want from your recovery and letting everyone know these expectations means you can all work towards your goal together. I think the most important thing about recovery is recovering your quality of life. It’s your recovery, and as long as you are happy, functioning and safe, that’s all that matters.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

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