Akin Mental Health Blog

Understanding a Loved One's Recovery from Mental Illness

7 min read

As you take care of your loved one, you may have wondered if the current challenges they’re facing (e.g., taking medication on time, doing their daily tasks, remaining sober) will ever change or lessen over time.

This can be especially difficult as a parent of a child with severe mental health issues. The life you envisioned for your child is probably not the life they’ll have for themselves. And it’s OK to mourn the life that you thought your child would have.

Although every person’s journey is unique, having a severe mental illness isn’t the end. There is hope to be found.

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You may think that your caregiving just keeps them alive, but it’s doing a lot more than that. You’re helping them to create a stable life and future for themselves. The same goes for having good treatment and support from medical providers and others.

There may not be a cure for your loved one’s illness, but there can be recovery — recovery to the point that people can live full, enjoyable lives.

Recovery as a Journey

First let’s talk about what recovery is like when we’re talking about mental health.

You’ve probably heard of recovery in terms of a substance use disorder, where you focus on a journey of wellbeing, not a destination like abstinence or being ‘cured.’ It allows for relapse being a part of the recovery process, not as a failure or detour.

The same goes for mental health recovery. Instead of focusing on a life without a mental illness, the focus is on managing symptoms and living a fulfilled life. Your caregiving can be vital to your loved one’s recovery journey.

Research has shown that over time, people can recover from severe mental illness or have remission from their illness, and the likelihood grows as a person ages. Treatment for illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia is effective at promoting recovery.

Recovery rates vary and you may find these rates higher than you’d expect.

With schizophrenia, studies have shown that it can range from between 46 to 84 percent of people recover. Treatment for depression typically helps 60 to 80 percent of patients. With bipolar disorder, it’s been reported that 80 percent of people treated recover.

Elements of Recovery

Treatment is just one part of a stable life with a severe mental illness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identified four life dimensions that support recovery:

  • Health – maintaining one’s physical and emotional wellbeing through informed, healthy choices
  • Home – a safe, stable place to live
  • Purpose – having meaningful activities, such as volunteering, a job, or school; also involves having the resources, income, and independence to take part in society
  • Community – supportive relationships such as family and friends, providing love and hope

Reflection: Which of these does your loved one need the support in and what will you do to help them?

SAMHSA also provided 10 guiding principles of recovery that can guide your caregiving and support of your loved one:

  • Hope. Recovery as a journey has to be believed in, that things will get better. Hope is the foundation and activator of the recovery journey.
  • Person-driven. The recovery journey is your loved one’s and they’re in the driver’s seat of their life. You are a trusted companion and guide. They get to choose their life goals and their support system. The amount of autonomy your loved one has will depend on your loved one’s age (i.e., if they’re a child vs. an adult, your support and guidance will vary in intensity) and mental capabilities, but honoring their autonomy is an important key to recovery.
  • Many pathways. There is not just one way to engage in a recovery journey. We’re all different. We all have our unique backgrounds and histories and biologies, so what works for one person may not work for another. Recognizing what works for your loved one makes their journey tailored to them and their needs.
  • Holistic. Recovery is a comprehensive process, involving spirit, mind, body — as well as a community. It involves examining work, home, friends, spirituality, family, health, treatment, self-care practices — recovery is a whole-life process and services that your loved one receives should be looking at their whole life in a coordinated, integrative way.
  • Peers and allies. Peer support for both your loved one and yourself can be crucial for recovery, such as giving and receiving help through mutual aid support groups. Recovery can be steered by an individual but can be supported by peers and one’s community.
  • Relational. Who are the people in your loved one’s life cheering them on, encouraging them to keep going, holding onto hope for them when they can’t hold it for themselves? Community support from several sources — from family and friends, from support groups, from spiritual communities, from peers — can create a vital web of support for your loved one. It can also empower your loved one to leave unsupportive relationships and venture into new, more supportive relationships.
  • Culturally relevant. We’re unique because of where we’re born, who we’re born to, what we experience, and our beliefs. All of those things should be taken into account with the recovery process. Treatment and support your loved one receives should be personalized to their cultural background, values, and traditions. What does your loved one uniquely need?
  • Trauma-informed. Many times, trauma (e.g., abuse, neglect, war, natural disaster) can be the prologue to a mental illness or substance use disorder. So the treatment and support your loved one receives should be trauma-informed, focusing on creating safety and trust in a collaborative, empowering environment.
  • Strengths and responsibilities. Collectively and individually, we all have strengths that we can offer to each other and draw upon for resilience. Individuals can and should speak up for themselves and communities should examine how inclusive and supportive they are to people who are in recovery. We have a responsibility to support each other, just as you support your loved one.
  • Respect. Communities and families should respect, accept, and appreciate people like your loved one who is in recovery. And your loved one should be able to have self-respect and self-acceptance for themselves and their lives. The journey of recovery requires bravery and perseverance, and your loved one should be encouraged to keep going and believe in themselves.

Reflection: Which of these guiding principles is the most surprising and why?

A Picture of Recovery

Recovery is not linear, and your loved one’s journey may look different than anyone else’s. It can look like three steps forward, two steps back, but progress is still being made. That could look like changes in medication, relationships, job status, health and wellbeing, or substance use.

So ask yourself now: what does their baseline look like, when everything is going as smoothly as it can? How are they doing in all areas of their life?

Ultimately, when recovery is going well, your loved one knows that they are safe, supported, loved, and accepted by not just you, but also by other friends and family. They live in a safe environment.

They feel plugged into their communities through volunteering, working, playing, and/or making friends. They can be involved in support groups around their mental illness. They can be involved in loving spiritual communities or other social groups. They have friends and other loved ones cheering them on, encouraging them to keep going.

They have peers in their lives that they can support and are supporting them. Their trauma-informed, culturally sensitive medical team are all on the same page, coordinating care with your loved one’s psychiatrist and therapist.

They are physically and emotionally well or are on their way there. There’s a focus on their strengths and responsibilities — what are they good at and what can they offer to their communities?

Even if everything is relatively OK, there can still be setbacks. But that is all a part of the journey.

Recovery does not happen in a straight line. With severe mental illness, you’re most likely looking at a lifelong diagnosis. It does not mean it’s the end of the story for your loved one.

What it does mean is a new story emerges, springing from an old life. It’s a new story of empowered, informed choices, of community acceptance, of self-confidence, and of love.

This may mean the symptoms go away or are a lot easier to manage. It may mean a part-time or full-time job. It may mean starting a family of one’s own or living more independently.

Whatever recovery means for your loved one, it means their goals must be supported by hope that the recovery process does work. The journey may look like a squiggly line, but there is ultimately forward movement.

Reflection: What is one way that you can support your loved one to have a more stable life?

Deborah Beckwin
May 12, 2022
Beyond the blog

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