Recovering from Mental Illness

Dr. David S. Proffitt
06/22/2008

Treatment for mental illness has changed radically from just 10 years ago, especially at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

The universal questions -- Why me? Now what? and Who am I now? -- are normal responses from every person diagnosed with a mental health condition. We worry not only about what is happening within us, but to also what is happening around us. How will people treat me if I am seen as mentally ill?

The stigma of mental illness remains the major barrier to people getting services and care early on, when they are most able to benefit from it.

Everyone knows what to do if they see someone at a restaurant jump up, grab their throat, turn red in the face and cough unproductively -- the Heimlich maneuver will help them clear their throat of whatever is choking them and save their life. We are eager to put hero status on the fast-acting rescuer in our community.
On the other hand, what do we do when we notice a co-worker, a neighbor, even a distant relative begin to express increasingly negative views about their future, ignore their hygiene or become unkempt? When they begin to isolate themselves more, drink more or give away possessions?

Frequently we stay away from them, walk on the other side of the street, avoid them in the cafeteria. Why? Is it that we don't recognize the distress? Is mental health and illness so taboo that we avoid it?
Maybe. Or maybe it is because we just don't know what to do.

Responding to a person in such distress should be as easy as responding to the person choking. We should feel comfortable reaching out, helping them see what is happening and telling them to get help, just get help.
Effective treatments are available for those whose mental health is compromised. Unfortunately, many don't seek care because they don't want to face the stigma of being labeled crazy or mentally ill. They don't want to risk having people become distant from them if it becomes known that they are being treated for a mental health issue.
What is ironic is that new studies estimate that almost half of us will receive mental health services in the course of our lives. About one-in-five of us will get a mental health diagnosis in our lives.

To me, that means in all likelihood either you or someone you love is getting, or is in need of, mental health care.
We should encourage those we care about to do whatever they can to take care of their health, both physical and mental. The best advice is to seek help now if you have illness.

The experience of having a mental illness changes you, becomes a part of you and transforms your life.
"You can never go home again" is true: It's not because home is different, it's because you're different. Persons affected by mental illness do not benefit from treatment to become who they were in the past. They benefit by learning about their self and incorporating that knowledge into the life they will live. This is what recovery is all about.
Recovery-oriented mental health systems like those at Riverview Psychiatric Center are a relatively new shift in services. They focus on the life of the person, not just the presence of an illness.

One principle of recovery is that while adversity affects everyone, it is possible to grow and learn from it. People can and do become stronger emotionally, more resilient and more mature as an outcome of loss, pain and suffering.
By focusing on a person's strength, calm can replace anxiety and hope can replace despair. Recovery is about people finding meaning and purpose in their lives and developing a sense of belonging and community.

Recovery begins when the person affected by mental illness sees the opportunity to grow, not just exist, with the illness.

Trying to learn from the illness while still trying to get rid of the symptoms are not mutually exclusive. Recovery means discovering meaning and gaining understanding and even value from the experience.

Let us encourage each other to stay well in all ways. This simple act will help all of us to break through the stigma of mental illness.