’Self-Determination in Mental Health Recovery: Taking Back Our Lives (Part 2)’ by Mary Ellen Copeland

Unknown-7Breaking Down Barriers to Self-Determination
There are many assumptions about “mental illness” and mental health that must change, and are changing, that will facilitate the personal process of self-determination and taking back our lives.

When I first decided to reach out for help to deal with the difficult feelings I had been having all my life, I went through a lengthy questioning process (assessment) that had little or nothing to do with the way I was feeling.

I was given a diagnosis, told what that diagnosis would mean in terms of what I could expect in my life, and given medications that I was told I must take, probably for the rest of my life. Little attention was paid to my “out of control” lifestyle, my abusive relationship and my history of childhood sexual and emotional abuse and trauma.

My definition of myself changed in a very short time from person, mother, teacher, artist, writer and naturalist to “mental patient,” a person who needed others to take care of me and make decisions for me. My power was taken away and I felt different from others and alone. Unfortunately, this is a common scenario that many still experience.

What would an alternative view look like that would allow for a different outcome – an outcome that would help me get my life back, change and grow, and work toward my own goals and priorities?

As before, I am dealing with difficult feelings and behaviors. I reach out for help. The person or people I reach out to assume that if I am feeling this badly, something bad has happened to me. They want to know about these things. They want to know how they can help. I am listened to. I am supported. I feel validated and safe. I am connected with peers.

Together we work on seeing our feelings and behaviors in new ways and work together to find new ways of responding that foster wellness and recovery. In this trauma informed scenario I keep my personhood. I keep control of my own life. My difficulties are seen as normal human responses to bad things that have happened to me, either recently or a long time ago. I can move forward, creating change based on my needs, dreams and goals.

For many years it has been assumed that those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms can never get well, and often get worse over time. Now we know that many, many of us have become empowered, gotten well, stayed well for long periods of time, have determined their own goals and priorities and are working toward meeting them.

Another common misperception was that those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms need to be controlled and “taken care of,” that we cannot control or take care of ourselves.

Now we know that those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms can control ourselves, take care of ourselves and make choices about our own treatment and our own life. Empowerment and choice hasten recovery rather than interfere with it.

Some people have assumed that that because we have difficult times, we can’t learn, and we can’t make decisions, that only highly trained medical professionals understand these symptoms and can make decisions about our lives.

We have always known that we can learn, and now we use our ability to learn to make good decisions for ourselves – decisions based on our own personal values and priorities – about our treatment and other aspects of our lives.

Others also thought that those of us who experience psychiatric symptoms could not advocate for ourselves, that we need others to decide for us what would be best for us, and then to advocate for us.

Now we know that we can almost always advocate for ourselves. If we are having a very difficult time, we can ask for the help of family and friends who know our preferences.

Those of us who experience these symptoms were told that we should not associate with others who experience similar symptoms.

Now we know that others who have experienced psychiatric symptoms can often be the best of supporters. We can understand each other and support each other in ways that are really helpful. We can “be” with our discomfort rather than needing to “fix” it immediately, and support each other through recovery. We can challenge each other to take risks and create change that would be difficult to accomplish alone.

The idea that when we are having a difficult time we need to be forcefully controlled, confined and subdued has been a widespread belief through the system for a long time. This kind of “treatment” which many of us referred to as “punishment” did not help and often made us feel worse, traumatizing us again and again, and making it much more difficult to get well.

Now we know that when we are having a difficult time, there are many things we can do to help ourselves feel better. We have developed documents that instruct others on how to take care of us in ways that are really helpful when we need that help. We have advocated for the development of safe places where we are listened to, validated and supported by others who understand what we are experiencing.

In the past, it was thought that we couldn’t do anything to help ourselves. Others failed to recognize our strengths and instead saw only what they considered to be our deficits. Now we are recognizing our own strengths and using those strengths to prevent and relieve symptoms and to keep ourselves well.