How do we get better? Just ask!

While preparing for a presentation, I recently re-familiarized myself with some of the research on factors associated with mental health recovery, the primary ones including:

  • “The dignity of risk and right to fail” – being believed in and respected while having the opportunity to make mistakes when learning a new skill.
  • Being seen and believed in as a capable, non-ill person.
  • Empowerment to develop a sense of pride and self-reliance.
  • Encouragement to take personal responsibility with respect to solving problems and managing emotions.
  • Support to develop meaning and purpose in life.

These outcomes reminded me of an experience I had had some years back running a support group for teens with eating disorders and trauma. The topic of how to get parents to “listen” was raised by a group member, which I noted with irony since as a therapist, my experience was usually parents asking how to get their child to listen! Curious about what these teens thought, I asked, “If we were to give all of your parents some advice about supporting recovery, what would you say?” Amazed at what these teens offered, I began asking the same question of many of the adults with mental illness I worked with and surprisingly, it sounded very much the same!

Regardless of the gender, age (13 – 56), diagnosis (included Anorexia, SchizophreniaPTSDBipolar), or previous treatment (none to multiple episodes) of the dozens of clients I asked, very similar themes emerged as to what helps recovery:

  • “Respecting me is more important than making me comfortable; making me comfortable doesn’t actually help me take care of myself but can even make me doubt if I can do it on my own.”
  • “Recovery has to be our own; we can’t get it through osmosis from you. We have to find the motivation ourselves and in our own way.”
  • “If you don’t believe I can do it, it makes it hard for me to try.”
  • “Be tough and hold me accountable – I need it.”
  • “Don’t constantly check up on me unless that’s what we agreed on. I’m responsible for my own recovery.”
  • “Don’t just give me advice – I’ve probably already heard it before or thought of it myself. Help me find my own solutions. If you just tell me what to do, I probably won’t do it anyway. I need to find my own desire for health.”
  • “Try to relate to us as people, as individuals, as human beings, not as someone with an illness.”
  • “Having goals is really important, something to look forward to, but let me figure out what I want to do.”

Whether informally asked or from a research outcome study, the results were the same and serve as an excellent reminder to parents, helpers and peers alike as to how to best help someone on their path of recovery.