What is Recovery?
Recovery literally means to return to a normal and functioning state of health. The meaning of Recovery from mental illness is different from recovery from physical illnesses. If we have a sore throat, we know that in order to recover we need rest, medications and steam. Similarly, if we have hepatitis, we know that we need to go to a doctor and take medications in order to recover. The objective of recovery, in these cases, is the cessation of the symptoms of the illnesses.
However, mental illnesses have a more complicated course and we believe that the objective of recovery shouldn’t focus only on the cessation of symptoms. This is because the complete cessation of symptoms of a mental illness is difficult and unrealistic expectations about recovery only serves to disillusion sufferers.
Mental illness results in a loss of functionality, causing the sufferer to be unable to participate effectively in life. Therefore, recovery from mental illness not only means the alleviation of symptoms, but also that the sufferer receives the necessary help and learns the skills needed to cope with his/her condition. This will eventually enable them to become a productive member of society.
The question that arises here is whether recovery from mental illness is possible. Previously it was thought that mental illness was a social death sentence, with sufferers being confined to asylums for life, being experimented upon and kept in inhumane conditions. However, today a range of treatment options are available which can help treat even the most severe of conditions.
The Journey of Recovery
Recovery is a journey that all sufferers must undertake in order to get better. Unlike physical illnesses with a set treatment regimen, the paths to recovery from mental illness vary according to the needs of the sufferer. Since mental illness occurs partly due to the effects of adverse life experiences, which are themselves very individual in nature, it is logical to assume that the journey of recovery is also unique to each sufferer. There is no set formula for recovery and some treatment options that work for one sufferer may not work for another, even if they have the same diagnosable illness.
The journey of recovery from mental illness is a process with multiple ups and downs.
It is also important to keep realistic expectations when it comes to the course of recovery from mental illness. If we have a sore throat, we know that taking treatment will eventually result in a pretty straightforward recovery process. However, the journey of recovery from mental illness is a process with multiple ups and downs. Sometimes we may feel that we are doing great and have fully recovered, but we must keep in mind that even then relapses may occur. If a relapse has occurred, we must remind ourselves that relapses are a part of the journey and we must steadfastly abide by the treatment regimen in order to improve again.
The Stages of Recovery
There are various stages in the recovery process that a sufferer may go through in order to begin and remain constant on the journey. Please note that the stages mentioned below are a general outline, which in real life is not as linear and may not be applicable to each sufferer. We believe that there are five stages in the recovery process and four processes that link those stages together. The time needed for each stage and process varies for each sufferer.
- Denial: This is the stage in which the symptoms of the illness have begun to adversely affect the life of the sufferer. However, due to lack of awareness about mental health problems and the stigma associated with seeking care, sufferers remain oblivious to their problems.
- Struggle: This process is very challenging in that the sufferer tries to cope with the symptoms of the illness by appearing, and trying to function, normally in society. However, it is during this phase that sufferers may make several mistakes, harming themselves and the people close to them. The signs of their illness become visible to those around them.
- Insight: In this stage, the sufferers begin to slowly realize that something is wrong with them and that there must be something more to the change in their behaviour and mood then just some moral flaw or character weakness.
- Breakdown: This process involves the sufferer reaching the limit of their coping ability and, subsequently, having a complete breakdown. The breakdown may involve a suicide attempt or a sudden burst of odd and eccentric activity that may be harmful to them and/or those around them.
- Acceptance: This stage is the most important of all. It requires the sufferer to not just realize that something is wrong with them, but also to come to terms with it. It is difficult to accept that one has mental illness, due to the stigma associated with it. Acceptance involves not just acknowledging our illness, but also recognizing that our actions prior to our breakdown were due to the illness and not within our control. This is important in order to overcome the toxic guilt that accompanies the mistakes sometimes made when a sufferer was ill. Acceptance therefore involves overcoming the stigma against mental illness, which is an extremely important part of recovery.
- Hope: The hope of recovery is an essential process in that it gives the sufferer the motivation to seek help. Hope can come as a result of a personal realization or by meeting peer leaders who have recovered and serve as role models.
- Treatment: This stage involves the sufferers trying out different treatment techniques and mental health professionals until they find the ones that suit them. There are various treatment modalities available and each sufferer needs to find out what works for them. It is quite common for sufferers having to change their regimens several times during the course of this stage. If it is taking time for the sufferers to find the appropriate treatment regimen, it can also cause them to feel disillusioned and stop seeking help. However, in such a situation it is important to remind ourselves that we want to improve and to keep on searching until we find the help that works for us.
- Stability: After settling on the appropriate treatment regimens, the sufferers now begin to experience the process of stability in which they gain more insight into the workings of their illness by learning how to recognize signs of mood fluctuations and taking the necessary steps to prevent them from worsening. Relapses have now become infrequent and less severe.
- Recovery: This is the last stage of the journey and involves the sufferers being transformed into survivors. In this stage, the survivors begin to rebuild burnt bridges and find meaning in life by participating actively in it again. The survivors improve their relationships, begin to work/study again and try to become productive members of society.
Tools of Recovery
Once sufferers have gone through the stage of acceptance, they can begin using the tools of recovery. The most important of these tools is professional help, without which it is difficult to begin the journey of recovery. The different modalities of professional help will be discussed in the next section.
Aside from professional help, there are certain measures that sufferers can take themselves:
- Nutrition: What we eat greatly influences our mood. It is important to have a balanced diet consisting of all the essential food groups and to eat at fixed times and in appropriate amounts.
- Routine: It is also important to regulate our sleep/wake cycle. If we don’t get enough sleep, sleep late at night and wake up late in the day, or are in the habit of sleeping too much, this may affect our mental health negatively. Practicing sleep hygiene is very important for recovery.
- Remain active: One of the key mistakes made by sufferers is that they think that they need to take time off for recovery. While taking time off from stressful situations may be beneficial, it is important to remain active in some task or the other. Otherwise the negative thought patterns accompanying mental illness may overwhelm our minds, impeding our recovery. Prolonged inactivity is also a major cause of mental health problems in the elderly.
- Social support network: Social support networks are very important in that they offer us a safety netting in case we relapse. Having trusted people close to us who have a positive influence on our life really helps with recovery and to prevent relapse. This is why it is also important to work on the relationships that may have been damaged during the initial stages of mental illness.
- Fix harmful habits: Letting go of harmful behaviours that may have helped us cope when we were ill, such as substance abuse and addiction, is also important. If we continue with those habits, the chances of relapse greatly increase.
- Spirituality and meditation: These have also been shown to be very helpful in recovery and include religious rituals practiced sincerely. In fact, it has also been shown that regular meditation causes neurochemical changes to occur in the brain, leading to improvements in mental health and overall wellbeing.