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Is Recovery the Right Word? / 5 August 2013

Screenshot of Mental Health Recovery Archive

Screenshot of Mental Health Recovery Archive

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Today I will be part of an event at the Dragon Cafe exploring archives and heritage around mental health. This stems from my involvement with the Mental Health Recovery Archive developed at the Wellcome Trust. I am putting my story in the archive to counteract and challenge the fact in most health archives, including the current Wellcome one, the voice of lived experience takes up less than 10% of mental health archives. It has been a challenge, because I want my story to be both honest and hopeful. I haven't pulled back from criticism of the mental health system but I am also sharing what has helped me in my life. 

One of the sticking points is the word 'recovery' itself, so I wrote something for the archive about it. Here is the first draft:

The problem with the Recovery Model is that it is a medical concept and term, and is expected to sit safely and warmly in the medical world. The recovery model says you need to look beyond the symptoms and see the person. But the whole relationship between service user and professional is regulated by the symptoms, depending if your symptoms go up or down, decides what treatment you get, if any at all.

It is also assumes that there is an illness to recover from. It minimises the fact  that mental and emotional pain can sometimes be a very human and very appropriate response to trauma, and for it to be pathologised  and turned into a sickness insults and negates the person’s story.  If that wasn’t enough, it then puts you in a system where your candle is blown out or taken away, and then you are asked ‘where is your light?’ You won’t find a better example for catch 22 than in psychiatry.

 I came across the idea of recovery before I came across the model, and it didn’t need to fit the model because it was truly personal, it was deep, meaningful understanding that I had the power to change things for the better. I had hope before the recovery model, it can’t claim it as its own, it shouldn’t steal my thunder or my accomplishment; the system had nothing to do with it, and in fact has made my journey harder not easier.

There is a lot to say about the Recovery Model, as it misses the point in so many places. For example, work is seen as a goal in recovery, but the model does nothing to look at stigma and discrimination in the workplace, or trying to change that. Is the world or workplace going to welcome with open arms someone who says: hello, my name is Dolly and I have got schizophrenia? The fear around mental health is still there, and the recovery model has done near to nothing to tackle that.  The problem with the recovery model is that it puts all the responsibility on the service user and none onto society. YOU can change your life, but can you change how people respond to you?

Is recovery about being well enough to be thrown into the world of sharks? I can see how some people don’t want to ‘recover’ because they are suspicious of rejoining the world that hurt them or made them have a breakdown in the first place.  Where is the recovery model for the society of sharks? Or is the aim of recovery to turn you into a part of a judgmental, venal cruel society that hurts you and so many others?

So is recovery the right word? Depends if it has power and meaning for you. It doesn’t for me, finding the dollyness of dolly is not a medical phenomena, it is an emotional and spiritual one, it is a human one, and humans were discovering and healing themselves long before psychiatry came along. 


Dolly Sen

7 August 2013

'A very interesting debate was had, and alternatives to the word 'recovery' were 'acceptance' and 'Metamorphosis', and that you can change or stay the same, it's up to you, and society and psychiatry has no say at all in people's journeys to wherever they wanted to go.