Mental Health, Illness to Recovery

In light of this being Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought I would shed light on the distinction between the two predominant mental health modalities in our society today.  I was classically trained and have served as a licensed professional counselor since 2008 during which time I learned the function of illness and the vocabulary associated with distress and disease.  This is an example of the illness model.  Words like “disability” are used profusely defining the person as less than or short of due to a psychiatric diagnosis.

People would ask me in session, “Will I always be like this?”  The desperation was apparent and understandable in considering the situations and circumstances that had brought them to my office.  I always hated the only answer I felt able to give based on my training and experience as an individual living with bipolar disorder my whole life.  “It is a lifelong thing and most likely includes some level of suffering or interference in your daily life.”

Inside I just couldn't accept that, even though that was how I was trained and what my general experience had been.  I just couldn’t give up.  I couldn’t accept that this was as good as it gets and I just had to deal with it.  I read books on symptom management and wellness, a term I would later fully embrace exchanging it for sickness in many ways.  I stopped focusing on the literature that told me how sick I was and sought out those sources that seemed to instill hope rather than dash it.

I learned how my whole body’s health was the greatest influence on my mind’s health.  I began to see the mind as just another of the body’s organs.  It just happened to be the one on the top.  I started understanding how the thoughts I could control could put me in a better place to deal with the thoughts I seemed to struggle with.  I began to realize that the things and people I surrounded myself with had a great impact on my mental health.  

I started a support group, the first in Wichita Falls of its kind.  As people with mental illness, we were meeting to support others with mental illness by discussing victories, setbacks, tools, and snares.  I brought the constructive aspects of my clinical knowledge from the traditional illness model, but I also started seeing a strength I felt I lost when given the label bipolar.  I began to question the nature of my disability and explore what remained in my realm of possibility.

I discovered a population of people seeking the same thing in the state and around the country.  One of the main words used was “recovery.”  The message:  It is possible.  With the help of these brave souls I started understanding that I was not my illness.  Instead of, “I am bipolar,” I started saying, “I have bipolar disorder.”  Words possess great power.  I became much more conscious of my internal dialogue and how I related to my clients.

Whereas I felt hopeless when asked if this was as good as it can get before, I now felt confident in informing my clients that we were not our labels and we are not disqualified from a happy, fulfilling life on our terms.

The medical/traditional/illness model of mental health is good at saying what’s wrong and what we can’t do.  The recovery model has always been more focused on what we can do and how.  As a clinician, I am not saying we don’t need diagnosis.  That’s how it is billed to insurance and serves as a shorthand for those in the profession when communicating characteristics and categories.

I don’t know if I would still be here though if I hadn’t searched out and discovered the recovery model and its message of hope.  From professionals I got the med’s and an understanding of limitations.  From my peers I received support and encouragement along with a great deal of practical “how to” info.

So be aware this month that there is mental illness in our society, but never forget that that doesn’t mean that one can’t, with dedication and determination, know the joy of a life well lived on one’s own terms just like anyone else.

This guy got a kick out of it

This guy got a kick out of it