The road to recovery

Far from being a complete phenomenon in human experience, “mental
illness” may be a name we have given to just a part of a cycle of
change through which an individual might pass during their

We may have become obsessed with the need to reduce the pain
without realising that much of the pain may be caused both by
ignorance of the broader cycle of change and by the mental health
system’s pessimistic and rejectionist attitudes to that part of
this cycle on which it has decided to concentrate.

Nothing is more confidence-sapping than finding that others take
just as bleak a view of the difficulties we are in as we do
ourselves. However, it can be difficult to see a period of mental
illness as part of a “good thing” when someone is so obviously
struggling. One reason for this may be that the prevailing
atmosphere in the mental health system intensifies or prolongs the
distressing part of the cycle.

There is an alternative. The recovery approach to mental illness
may deepen the experience of a service user. In a typical cycle,
normal social functioning changes to increasing distress, a period
of mental illness, decreasing stress and normal functioning once

Because the distressing part of the cycle is viewed so negatively,
the possibility may be overlooked that the cycle as a whole may be

The reality is that most people recover from periods of mental
illness. Traditionally, the continual focus of mental health
services on what’s wrong with a person may have reinforced the
condemnatory view service users often already have of their

Few people have dared ask: what’s good about this situation
overall? The reason so few have asked this might be because the
benefits to the individual fully accrue only when the situation is
experienced alongside the lengthy process that includes recovery
and acceptance.

When “reactive” distress is pitched in certain circumstances, such
as after bereavement, we call it grieving and think of it as
normal, acceptable, growth-promoting and necessary. When the roots
of the distress are invisible, impenetrable or chaotic we call it a
mental illness and think it should stop.

In the recovery approach, a capable practitioner can show that they
are alert to the valuable part a period of distress may play in a
cycle of wider changes in a service user’s life.

There is a challenge for practitioners and for service users in
this approach. Service users will have the chance to move through
the mire which often seems engulfing and practitioners will be able
to share in a broader vision not only of the service user’s
strengths and purposes but also of a transformed mental health

Chris Whitehouse is a freelance trainer and service

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