For anyone seeking support and treatment for their mental health, the journey of recovery will be a unique experience, and for many people it’s not always straightforward. But whether you face relapses, or struggle to find the support that’s right for you, there is hope. Author and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon shares her insight into recovery, and advice based on her personal experience
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 10 million people have experienced a mental health problem in the past week. Mental health issues cover an incredibly broad remit, everything from work-related stress, right up to more long-term illnesses like schizophrenia, or anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, addiction and many more. Yet they all have one thing in common: they all involve a process of recovery.
Statistically, half of those who have one episode of depression or anxiety make a full recovery and never relapse. The other 50% are like me – I've had an anxiety disorder involving panic attacks since I was 10 years old and, through a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes, I manage the peaks and troughs long-term, some weeks more successfully than others.
Whatever category you are in, or stage you are at, here are some things I have learned about recovery that may help you on your own journey.
What’s your 'primary'?
Some symptoms are shared across mental illnesses, like low self-esteem. Similarly, it’s very common to experience depression and anxiety in tandem, or for people with eating disorders to also self-harm in more traditional ways.
This can lead to difficulty in finding the right help. In private facilities, where they tend to have greater amounts of time and resources, they speak in terms of “primaries”. For example: “Do you drink to distract yourself from pre-existing feelings of depression? Or is your low mood a result of drinking too much alcohol, which we know to be a depressant?”
Identifying your “primary” can be difficult, but it’s worth investing some time into, particularly in a climate where your GP is likely to be so overworked that they’ll be guided toward diagnosis by whichever symptoms you are able to describe to them during your allotted 10-minute slot.
Recovery isn’t one thing
Medication might initially put you on an even keel, but it’s not going to address the circumstances that led you to mental illness in the first place. The right therapist can work wonders, but their efficacy is increased immensely if you have a supportive network of friends and family around you. Additionally, many people find adding self-care techniques into the mix, like yoga or massage, gives them the right balance.
If a “quick fix” seems too good to be true, that probably means it is. Recovery usually involves a combination of factors that are unique to you.
It’s like knitting
Too often, mental health stories are presented in the media in binary terms, with a person’s historical symptoms described in graphic detail, and then a quick acknowledgement at the end telling us they’re now “better”. This can leave you feeling devastated if you have a relapse, because you think everyone else got it right first time.
The reality is that recovery often involves several “wobbles”. Yet each stage leaves us with more information and psychological tools at our disposal than we had before. A set-back, be it a drinking binge, an episode of self-harm, or the odd day where getting out of bed seems like an impossibility, is therefore like dropping a stitch in knitting – just because the stitch has been dropped, it doesn’t mean you haven’t already knitted a row.
It’s an absence, not a presence
The idea that you need something additional in order to “achieve” recovery can be a dangerous one. For me, recovery was less about acquisition and more about absence. Slowly, I realised I was beginning to re-emerge. The pain diminished, the compensatory behaviours began to slow, the incidents during which I felt like I was watching myself act strangely or hurtfully dwindled, until I could finally breathe again.
As Russell Brand says in his book of the same name: “There is a reason it is called ‘recovery’, it is the process of recovering the person you were always meant to be.”
Never give up
There’s a lot of bad advice out there, especially in the age of Dr Google. There’s also a lot of good advice that simply won’t work for you.
If you don’t think your GP has the right training, ask to see another one. If your therapy or medication isn’t working, try a different type.
Above all, never give up on the belief that you can (and deserve to be) well, functioning and truly living your best life.
Natasha Devon MBE is a campaigner, speaker and author. Find out more at natashadevon.com and read her new book, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’ out now (Bluebird, £12.99)