What No One Tells You About Life After Mental Illness
No one ever really "recovers" from a mental illness, but we need to get better at talking about how you get your life back.
When I was 17, I developed an anxiety disorder that intensified when I moved to London at 21. It caused agoraphobia, claustrophobia, depression, and a debilitating phobia of fainting. Someone told me at the time that I was existing, rather than living.
Before this starts to resemble a woe-is-me memoir excerpt, know that I managed, from about 2014, to start recovering. But life after mental illness is a neglected part of the wider conversation we're having on mental health. Future in Mind, the government's strategy report on mental health treatment for young people, only mentions the word "recovery" twice in more than 80 pages.
One in 25 people in the UK are affected by a generalised anxiety disorder and one in 10 young people overall will experience a mental health problem, a spokesperson from charity Rethink Mental Illness says, "with half of these going on to experience a lifetime of mental health issues." A fair number of these people will recover and there's support and advice available for them. But a big part of recovery is being able to live independently, and is something we hardly seem to talk about.
Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at charity the Centre for Mental Health, says that from a care perspective, recovery isn't just about trying to "fix" someone. "The important thing to understand about recovery is that it should be treated from the perspective of the person," he says – and not seen as a one-size-fits-all model. "Many people say the most important thing for them is whether the help they got was focused on the things they wanted, such as sorting out housing and a career." This makes sense to me. After something has such a devastating effect on you, regaining control and independence is the most important step in the recovery process.
Everyone's route to recovery is different, but experts agree on five general points. First, Rethink's spokesperson says it's important to accept your illness: "Acceptance may help you make changes and take steps towards achieving new goals. It might help you to read about your illness and talk to other people with the same diagnosis."
You might find it more helpful to focus on developing ways to cope, rather than trying to get rid of every symptom of your mental health problem.
Rachel Boyd, information manager at charity Mind, tells me that this means being patient with yourself. "It's important to remember that managing your mental health problem is a journey, and won't always be straightforward. You might find it more helpful to focus on learning more about yourself and developing ways to cope, rather than trying to get rid of every symptom of your mental health problem.
"If at any point you do have a setback where you feel worse or symptoms return, try not to be disheartened or angry – things can and will improve if you find out what works for and helps you."
Bell says that local NHS and social services can support people through recovery by helping them push past fear or deep depression and do the things they want to do – a second key part of recovery. He says it's important to join in with your peers' activities, making adjustments wherever they're needed and seeking support to help you do this. Rethink suggest making small, gradual lifestyle changes, such as volunteering, learning a new hobby or exercising.
They sound simple, but fit into feeling like you're in control of your life and your recovery, even if you need to make some adjustments. "If you've lost a job, relationship or anything else because of your illness," a Rethink spokesperson says, "then there are different ways to deal with this as part of your recovery. Some people try to get back some the things they have lost, and others try to look for new opportunities." If you work in a good, accepting and non-stigmatising environment, Bell says going back to or starting work is a big step on the way to recovery. "Work can be part of the answer, not the problem."
Having hope comes next, he says, and with it knowing "that it's possible to have a good life with or without symptoms". Rethink advises reading about other people's recovery stories online, or joining a support group where people share their stories: "For some people, low self-esteem and a negative outlook can be barriers to having hope for the future. Recognising these issues and understanding that they may be related to your illness can be the first step towards building hope."
The last part of recovery relates to accessing services and being able to talk to someone, "whether it's your GP, a friend, a member of your family, or an organisation such as Mind or the Samaritans", says Boyd, from Mind. "There are different ways to treat mental health problems, and it will depend on what feels right to you, and how your diagnosis affects you. 'Talking treatments' like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been effective for some. Your doctor might also look at whether medication will help you manage the symptoms of your mental health problems," and she says there are alternative techniques to consider, from hypnotherapy and support groups to relaxation techniques.
While evidence of what works in recovery may still be thin on the ground, this year will see the end of a pilot two-year programme offering local courses on recovery to up to 80,000 adults. It aims to investigate how people manage their post-illness mental health, and will use those findings to help local areas shape their services. We're getting somewhere.
My illness left gaps in my life where friends, experiences and career progression should be, but I've learned to transition from a fear of leaving the house to being able to hold down a job and find a relative sense of stability. No one may have prepared me for illness, but we may as well do whatever we can to talk about what happens afterwards.
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