In our last newsletter I highlighted the importance to recovery of having people in your life who believe in you. I pointed out that these people affirm our deepest self and have confidence in our ability. What I should have made clear is that they believe that we can recover. I was reminded of the importance of this belief in our recovery by a letter recently sent to me by a reader. She was prompted to write me because she could personally relate to my article in a previous newsletter, “Recovery is Real.” She had read about my experience of my recovery being denied by a psychology professor and was amazed to see how similar that attitude was to one she had been subjected to. She wrote:
“I had suffered from severe mental illness in my mid-20’s and early 30’s (I am now 53). Then, through the grace of God, I was able to find my way out of this debilitating condition and make a full recovery. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work in a mental health agency as secretary to the Executive Director. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that his mindset was like those you describe in your article – he needed me to either deny that I had ever been sick or otherwise go back to the ‘consumer mode.’ Eventually that stigmatizing attitude surfaced and I was forced to leave the job.” She also sent us a letter to the editor she had published in her local paper which elaborated on this theme.
“When I worked in the mental health field for several years as a secretary, I observed…[that] many workers do not believe in recovery. They categorize everyone as either “sick” or “well,” placing themselves…in the “well” group. “Their assessment of their own mental health seems to be based on a comparison of themselves with those who are ill rather than on a knowledge of themselves. This puts them on very shaky ground and they do more harm than good since they end up discouraging rather than encouraging recovery.
“Work in this field is complex and demanding. It requires enlightened, secure individuals who recognize that full recovery is possible.”
She has recovered from mental illness and yet while she was working at a mental health agency her recovery was denied. This view that if one becomes mentally ill one will always be sick not only interferes with emotional recovery but also prevents one from identifying as a contributing member of society. This interferes with striving to return to work or establishing long-term relationships, which are essential aspects of recovery (see accompanying article on work and recovery).
The belief that one can recover from mental illness is well established as an important aspect of the healing experience. This relationship has recently been pointed out in Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, Timeless Healing. A similar point about the importance of belief in one’s own capacity to heal is found in Deepak Chopra’s book Quantum Healing (p.189) in which he discusses Ayurvedic Medicine:
“Ayurveda is…a system for curing delusions, for stripping away the convincing quality of a disease and letting a healthy reality take its place. [The name] comes from two Sanskrit roots, Ayus or life and Veda which means knowledge or science. The literal meaning then is the “science of life.” …I spend much of my time just talking, trying to get people not to be so convinced by their disease. In Ayurveda, this is the first, most important step in healing. As long as the patient is convinced by his symptoms, he is caught in a reality where being sick is the dominant input. The reason why meditation is so important in Ayurveda is that it leads the mind to a free zone that is not touched by the disease. Until you know that such a place exists, your disease will seem to be taking over completely. This is the principal delusion that needs to be shattered.”
Although it is encouraging that Western medicine is beginning to acknowledge the central role of a positive belief in recovery in the area of physical illness, it is disturbing that psychiatry does not see the wisdom of such an attitude for mental illness. Even though the weight of personal testimony and epidemiological studies argues that most people are able to regain a productive role in society and recover from mental illness, the mental health field in particular persists in a belief that mental illness is a permanent condition. The more of us who have recovered who can tell our stories the more truth will displace falsehood. We welcome your letters by or about anyone who has made a complete recovery from mental illness. As I point out in another article in this newsletter, by complete recovery we mean that the person has regained a meaningful role in society, can cope with life’s stresses, and is not considered sick by others around them.