For those of you who are not in the behavioral health field, you may be surprised to learn that the term “Recovery” refers not just to addiction issues but also mental health issues. As someone who works in the field and also has a sister diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder, understanding the concepts of the Recovery Model has been an encouragement to me. I can distinctly remember getting a phone call while I was in one of my grad school classes telling me that my sister had been hospitalized due to her mental illness. This wasn’t the first time she was hospitalized, and the weight of my fear and grief hung off of me like an oversized coat. I can remember standing outside during my break from class, staring at the grass, and realizing that for all her gifts, talents, hopes and dreams, my sister would always struggle with a profound mental illness.
The following semester, I encountered the concepts of the Recovery Model. While both my sister and I had come to terms with her mental illness, including grieving the things it had taken away from her, this model has helped me remove the discouragement and limitations that I had placed on her. I began to see mental illness as a long journey, recognizing that my sister would be growing and changing along the way--her times of crisis did not define her, and they were not the end of her story.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) definition of Recovery is: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” Additionally, SAMHSA has designated four major “dimensions that support a life in recovery”, including:
- Health—overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms—for example, abstaining from use of alcohol, illicit drugs and non-prescribed medications if one has an addiction problem—and, for everyone in recovery, making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional wellbeing
- Home—having a stable and safe place to live
- Purpose—conducting meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school volunteerism, family caretaking or creative endeavors, and the independence, income and resources to participate in society
- Community—having relationships and social networks which provide support, friendship, love and hope
The Recovery Model does not state that people will no longer have symptoms of mental illness, but rather it believes that even those with an extreme illness can live meaningful lives that they have control over. Empowerment and choice are at the heart of the Recovery movement. This way of thinking challenges the typical Medical Model that we often use to treat physical and mental illness. Instead of going to doctors and other professionals as the “experts,” the idea is that each person is an expert on themselves and should have a guiding voice in choosing the path for their treatment. Of course, this is a lovely idea but it becomes more challenging to believe in the more severe a mental health issues becomes. Nonetheless, goals which are self-determined are proven to be much more successful than those dictated by others, and whenever possible, choices about housing, medication, therapy and other treatments should be determined by participants themselves.
My sister is much younger than I am, and when she was in junior high she wrote an essay naming me as her hero. Ten years later, I have to say that she is MY hero. She fights an unseen battle every day and she’s overcoming it. She is full of life, talent and tenacity, and only made more beautiful and tender by her struggle.