I wrote a piece recently for HSJ about the importance of recovery in the upcoming Mental Health Taskforce report. And it got me thinking about what that much overused but, to me anyway, beloved word “Recovery” means. Here are my thoughts.
- Some people think that recovery is about getting better and then doing everything possible to forget that you were ever once unwell. But that would be a complete waste of the experience.
Our minds are like our bodies. They never forget being hurt or ill. If we let them, they will incorporate the scars from our experiences and use them to make us stronger and better people.
Recovery is about celebrating everything that has happened to us as an essential part of who we are, even those things that we may prefer to forget. This knowledge will help us as we face challenges in the future.
There are no sudden or miracle cures for psychological ill health. Recovery is slow, often unsteady, and at times very painful. That is why we should celebrate those who have achieved it as much if not more than those who have borne and overcome physical illness.
Sometimes we must go backwards in order eventually to go forwards, for example during therapy when exploring painful memories or damaging patterns we find ourselves repeating. And as with physical wounds, we cannot truly heal if we try to bury bad feelings deep inside ourselves. They have ways of getting out and causing harm at unexpected moments.
The word Recovery has nicer connotations than Rehabilitation. But they mean essentially the same thing. Recovery does not mean that everything is the same as it once was. That would be impossible. Even the healthiest and luckiest people encounter loss and pain from time to time. Recovery means harnessing the lessons we can learn from life events, however terrible, and incorporating them to make ourselves wiser, kinder but also more vigilant of the triggers that cause us pain or are the warning signs that we need to take care.
Like many of you, I am reading the excellent but troubling report by the King’s Fund into the state of our mental health services. I thought Stephen Dalton, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Network of the NHS Confederation was sharp yet lyrical on BBC Radio 4 Today in his analysis of what patients and staff are facing, and in his condemnation of the government and NHS England for saying one thing but apparently doing exactly the opposite at the same time. And that made me think as well.
It seems to me that our mental health services will forever be in a state of recovery. We cannot forget the changes we have experienced, including many hard-won and stunningly positive ones, particularly in the last couple of decades. But we also must face up to the damage that is currently being caused by the ongoing service cuts, and the havoc wrought by ill-thought through initiatives to save money or confuse prevention and early intervention with specialist care. Imagine the uproar if excellent cancer services were to be cut because money was being invested in health promotion and cancer screening instead?
These cuts to mental health services are carried out through fear on behalf of providers who get ferociously criticised if they don’t accept the unpleasant medicine willingly, and ignorance rather than cruelty on behalf of commissioners who are cushioned from the direct impact of the risks faced by patients and staff. The story on the Today programme of a dangerously ill man taken by ambulance to a voluntary café as a place of safety, who then had to wait 3 days with his desperate family before a hospital place was found was not a one-off. This is the result of too many bed closures alongside near collapse of community services in many places. We must face up to what is happening and not pretend it is all OK, or we risk slipping back all too quickly to the horrors of the past.
So we must be vigilant, wise and compassionate about the state of our mental health system. For me, compassion doesn’t mean keeping quiet. It means speaking up with intelligence, evidence and passion for something that matters more to me and to those reading this than almost anything else.
Let’s get together and let’s keep making a noise. Mental health services are not some luxury item that we can do without when times are tough. They are the essential bedrock of our society. In tough times, we need to invest in them even more.
Being able to say this with courage, conviction and purpose is what recovery means to me.