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Is It Possible to Recover From Chronic Mental Illness?

The title of this blog, Recovering from Mental Illness, argues that, yes, it is possible to recover from mental illness. But recovering from a mental illness is different from, say, recovering from a physical injury. I broke my ankle two years ago and spent time on crutches and in physiotherapy. The recovery period was slow, six months passed before I could walk with both feet, but my ankle slowly healed. It became well and functioned as it once had. I could rely on it to take me through the day. I could go running again.

Recovering from mental illness is not the same. The process probably does not require physiotherapy and Tylenol as the drug of choice. The road to recovery from mental illness is much longer, not usually smooth, and perhaps hot to the touch. Metaphors aside: it isn’t easy.

Recovering From Chronic Mental Illness Differs From Recovering From a Physical Injury

It is possible to recover from chronic mental illness. But 'recovery' from chronic mental illness requires a different working definition. Here it is.A physical injury might tie you to bed for weeks or months, maybe you have to get surgery, or perhaps the injury will recur down the road. You may have to tell your supervisor that you need a few weeks off as a result, but can usually provide a date in which you will be back at work. Functioning as you were before the injury. The cast you wear tells the world that you are injured. Colleagues tell you to get well soon. And, with any luck, you do.

If you are diagnosed with a mental illness, the road to recovery is probably not as easy. It’s easy to accept that you have physically injured yourself. It’s depressing, sure, but acceptance of physical injury comes much easier. When coming to terms with the idea that you will have a mental illness for the rest of your life and will need to take medication and change your lifestyle, acceptance of the illness is anything but easy. It is probably the hardest thing you will come to terms with.

What Does Recovering from Chronic Mental Illness Mean?

Recovering from a mental illness is different than recovering from physical injuries. First, it is an invisible disease. It’s not easy to explain to people that you are sick if you do not look sick; even though you are in pain and working to be free of it. Sometimes, you lose people who had previously been a vital part of your life. Surely, the best people will hang on for the ride.

The definition of recovery, the very roots of the word, mean to be healed or to be cured. People are not cured of mental illness but we do heal, and we do recover. It’s important to understand what the word recovered means when tied to mental illness. Recovering is the process you take to find wellness and stability. It is the months, the years, you work to find the right medication and balance in your life. Recovering is hard work. It is the hardest thing I have ever done and something I work to maintain on a daily basis. Unlike a self-limiting physical injury, recovery is defined on a  consistent basis. It is the medication you take when you should, the appointments with doctors or therapists, and the support network you nurture.

Achieving a State of Recovery From Mental Illness

Recovering is exhausting, but achieving a state of hard-earned wellness is liberating. Mental illness is a chronic disease, and so the word recovered implies remission. An abating or elimination of symptoms for a duration of time.  A life that is not defined by the illness and instead the ability to move forward. It’s important to plan for relapse but equally important to plan to for success.

Having a mental illness is not a life sentence. If the glass is is half full, and let’s believe that it is, we might think of it as an opportunity to grow and to become stronger than we were. To live in the present moment and move on from the past: to work to recover and rejoice once we have.

31 thoughts on “Is It Possible to Recover From Chronic Mental Illness?”

  1. Seems like this post comes in good time for me…
    Recently I’ve been fighting with if recovery is possible, and complete remission attainable.
    I hate so much about being mentally ill, but I refuse to let it monopolise my life anymore.
    Thank you 🙂

  2. I was ill for over ten years. I periodically had to be hospitalized. Near the end, I developed a lot of insight, and tried various ideas, to make myself better. Finally, whatever that was within me causing all the trouble healed. I no longer need medicine of any kind. I do occasionally become depressed, but I seem to be able to handle it without medicine. The medicines I was given while I was sick were very effective. I wish that I had been more careful about taking them.

    1. Hi, Steven:
      I am sincerely happy you have been able to recover without medication—very few people with a chronic mental illness can do this, or should. It can be dangerous. It’s good that the medicine you took worked so in the future you have options.Congratulations on your recovery!:)


  3. Recovery requires nutrition,sleep,exercise,support,patience as in any physical injury. 99% of physical issues include mental set backs of stress and depression.

    Divorce,death,relo,isolation,broken relationships all take a long, hard toll on people.If unsupported, these issues escalate to deeper mental handicaps.

    1. Hi, Marzipan:

      Recovery involves many things, you have mentioned some crucial ones in your reply. I agree that life events,stressors, can impact recovery. I plan to do a post on this very soon.
      Thank you for your comment

  4. Natalie,
    This is the most succinct description of mental illness recovery that I have come across. Recovering is hard work and I concurr it does not define me (all) as a person.
    A few weeks ago, I updated my dedicated depression blog to my life blog. You can read that here:) http://www.lifeofct.com/2011/10/cleaning-my-kittys-box.html
    Updating to distinguish the difference between daily recovery from a major depressive disorder and having a major depressive disorder that I manage through meds, doctors, and support was very libe

    1. Hi, CT:
      Thank you so much for the positive feedback on my post. I am glad you can relate to the notion that we are not defined by the illness—we are so much more! Your blog looks fantastic and I do hope people will check it out.

      Side note: my kitty always manages to step all over the keyboard:)

      Take Care.

  5. (cont) – kitten helped me submit early:)

    –and support was very liberating. Managing my illness vs. being consumed with my illness has been very difficult to achieve. I’m happy that I’m closer to managing my illness than being consumed by it. For those that are consumed, I understand. I support you.

    Thanks again Natalie-great stuff.

  6. The human mind is incredibly complex and we need more creative thinking in our treatment of mental distress. In particular it would help to have a whole community approach to engaging with and supporting those striving to bring about their own healing. If friends, family, professionals, the whole community, understood the terror and anguish of sufferers and how important it is to be “with” them through every minute, then we might be on the way. Currently we just hand out pills and expect patients to get better by themselves, with the occasional input from a professional service provider. Not good enough!
    Living with a chronic condition is not the same as recovery. The assumptions underlying the myth that patients will always need treatment has no scientific basis. Our increasing understanding of how the brain works and its remarkable plasticity should give people hope. And encourage new ways of thinking about what we can do to help. I have a dream….

    1. Hi, Jill:

      I agree, treatment needs a dose of creativity! The process of recovery can be stale, exhausting. It’s so difficult for a community to embrace mental illness. It is something that often lives behind closed doors but the more we put a face to the illness, a name like yours, the closer we get to lessening the stigma. Patients are handed pills, yes, but they need community treatment as well. With any luck, the person ill has a support system that can find these things. Thank you for your comment Jill and I love your end reference “I have a dream…” That is what we need, dreams we can act on.


  7. It is just as possible to recover from mental illness as it is from a physical injury. You have to decide if you will be the victim your whole life. Or if you will be a the survivor the example, the one people think will make it. Many people think i am pretty normal. But they didn’t know me when I was sick. i refuse to allow myself the pity pool or the other self loathing scripts i used to have. I am not perfect, but I am a winner. i havemade horrible mistakes but the grace of the universe has shown me a lot of consideration. To tell the whole truth the more someone knows me the more they understand me. Thefaith they give me inspires meto bea better person. Raising mychold inspires me to be a better person. The fact that everyone treated me with sensitivity helped too. Many people can’t make it out of the hole they dug, but i have and thank godforthose who handed me the shovel and gavemethe tools to cope and discern what is healthy and what is not. I choose to be who i am and i choose to accept myself for all myown good and bad. I keep trying and i never give up.

    1. Hi, Jacsprat,
      I agree that it is just as possible–the process just more difficult on a mental level. But I certainly do not want to ignore the fact that a physical injury can be devastating mentally. I know this first hand. Not being able to function physically can cause severe depression on its own.

      Deciding to be the victim is not, I believe, a conscious choice—at first. After all, nobody wants to feel a like victim, but the illness is such that it feels like it sometimes, isolating and confusing. People think I am pretty normal as well—they also did not know me when I was sick. Now that I have started writing about my life, I cannot hide. This alone has helped me heal and I encourage people to talk about the illness.

      I used to feel pretty sordid for myself as well. I felt like the victim. But now, I feel like I am a stronger person. This does not mean that I feel as if having the illness is not negative, the creative aspect of it is the positive for me, but just that I have put life in perspective—many people live hard lives and they too look “normal.” People all struggle, that is the human condition. It is how we deal with the cards we have been dealt that really matters.

      It is important to note, however, that if a person is ill and not yet treated they are not able to step outside of the box and claim life. It takes time and persistence and you are an excellent example of this.


  8. Appertaining to recover from mental illness, I may said that this is the most desire intention of psychiatric treatment of any mental disorder both easy or serious ones. I agree with Your confession that mental illness are long term lasting diseases, but they aren’t so invisible as You stressed. Indeed. every mental disorder is manifested with destruction of life functioning, including personal, professional and social performances to respective mental ill person. These handicaps resulted with falling of global life functioning and demolition of relationships. Therefore, that which we looked at mentally ill person is its inadequate behave to others. And, ours effort should be concentrated just to these points of psycho-social achievements of any mentally ill person. This approach would accomplish the process of recovery from mental illness. It is implied, that preliminary we ought to medicate the respective psychiatric entity.

  9. Recovery.

    The Recovery Philosophy developed from thre narative stories of people with lived experience of mental illness and “recovery.”

    • Philosophy, paradigm, model, and process

    • Challenges the traditional model of care: pathologizing person and attention only to symptom reduction.

    • Recovery. What is it? Living a meaningful, socially integrated life in the community beyond the limitations of mental illness.

    Dr. Ashok Malla: 3 nuances of recovery.

    • Personal Recovery: regaining one’s self identity. I am a person of worth, not a label or illness. Not dominated by self-stigma, fear and shame.

    • Illness Recovery: regaining stability either by remission or illness management and stress management as regards symptom management. I am a resilient person striving for positive mental health. Not dominated by pathology.

    • Social Recovery: regaining social statues by social inclusion and integration within community. I am not alone but enjoy social equity and benefits. Not dominated by discrimination or disability caused by society (Social Model of Disability).


    • Recovery is more than just symptom reduction. It having a life of quality and inclusion based upon self-determination, hope, empowerment and opportunities.

    • The goal of mental health systems and social services are to create environments in which this kind of recovery can happen; hence, “recovery-oriented mental health services.”

    • Staff has to be trained and policies reflect these values, etc. Peer Support Workers are critical to the system’s transformation!

    That’s it in a nutshell!!

    What are people recovering from?
    • Losses
    • Illness
    • Symptoms
    • Side-effects
    • Maturational development
    • Non-recovery-oriented services
    • Coercion
    • Social prejudice
    • Lack of employment
    • Lack of income security
    • Lack of workplace accommodations
    • Learned helplessness
    • Hopelessness
    • Lack of housing
    • Social exclusion
    • Social inequities in living conditions: unjust distribution of resources and services
    • Social and structural inequities: unfair and avoidable ways in which members of a different group in society are treated and their ability to access services

    Equity is social justice. That’s why this is a social justice issue, not just a health issue!

    Chris Summerville, D.Min., CPRP
    CEO Schizophrenia Society of Canada

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