’Self-Determination in Mental Health Recovery: Taking Back Our Lives (Part 1)’ by Mary Ellen Copeland

Unknown-7This morning I was thinking about factors that facilitate healing amongst Indigenous people in preparation for some content I’m writing for Sharing Culture. I first thought ‘self-determination’. We know that self-determination is key for recovery, yet the white-dominated society here (and in other colonised nations) forces its way of doing things on indigenous people, even when it does not work.

Anyway, I googled self-determination, and came up with this excellent article by Mary Ellen Copeland. I thought I would upload Mary Ellen’s article in several parts.

‘The most important aspect of mental health recovery for me personally is self-determination. My connection with people in the system and in recovery has convinced me that the same is true for others.

In this paper I will discuss both my personal perspectives and the perspectives of others on this important topic based on many years of experience as a person, a user of mental health services, a researcher and a teacher.

It will include: 1) my personal story of taking back control of my life; 2) breaking down barriers to self-determination; 3) values and ethics that support self-determination; and 4) self-determination facilitators: WRAP and Peer Support.

My Personal Story
For many years I was dependent on the mental health system and other “supporters’ for my well-being and to make major decisions about the important aspects of my life. I depended on this system to provide for all of my needs including food, shelter, clothing, treatment and medications.

As time went on, my level of dependence increased. And through that time the circumstances of my life deteriorated. After having gotten a good education, raised a family and had a successful career, I found myself, in my mid-forties, living in a housing complex for the elderly, on social security disability, filled with shame and despair, my records declaring that I was permanently disabled.

I remember the day all of that changed. As I was leaving my psychiatrist’s office with the prescriptions for a new “soup” of medications, he said to me, “Mary Ellen, if this doesn’t work, we’ll try ECT.”

My mother had ECT many years ago, and after that she couldn’t remember the time when my siblings and I were growing up. It was a huge loss to her. I was clear ECT was not a road I wanted to take. I decided that day to take back control of my life – to determine my own future. And that decision has led me on an incredible journey.

My first step was to find out how others – who, like myself, had multiple psychiatric labels – cope with these symptoms or difficulties as I like to call them, on a day-to-day basis. So I asked my psychiatrist. He said he would get me that information for the next time.

But when, at the next appointment I asked him for that information, he told me there wasn’t any information like that. There was only information on medication, hospitalization and day treatment programs.

So I developed a scheme that some people might call “grandiose”, particularly for a person with a history of extreme mania and depression. I would interview people who have had these symptoms, find out how they cope, and use those skills and strategies to recover and get on with my life.

In the fifteen year since I decided to take back my life, I have talked to thousand of people all over the world. I have compiled the information they have shared with me into a mental health recovery program, have written 12 published books (distribution in the hundreds of thousands), teach others this information, and now am focusing on teaching others how to teach this information.

The most important concept that has come out of all of this – absolutely key to the recovery journey – is self-determination.

Some people talk about a defining moment – that moment when they knew they had to take back control over their lives. Others describe a gradual process, an awakening.

But without self-determination, people stagnate. They become more and more dependent, and more and more convinced that they will never fulfill their life dreams and goals.

It is exciting to me that mental health agencies and organizations are now recognizing the importance of self-determination – some with vigor and some more reluctantly – and are moving to rebuild the system to reflect this change.’