For as long as any of us can remember, people who experienced various kinds of “mental health” experiences, like deep sadness, anxiety, phobias, paranoia, visions and hearing voices, have been called or diagnosed as “mentally ill”. Those of us who were called “mentally ill” sometimes accepted that, or sometimes we didn’t accept it, but others tried to convince us that we should accept it. Along with this label, we were often told that we would never get any better, and probably would get worse over time. We were told that we had to follow the orders of one or several care providers who were charged with deciding what was best for us and trying their best to see that we did just that.
Usually we were given a specific diagnosis like schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. Some of us were given several diagnoses. As time went on, we came to see ourselves as “mental patients”, or as our diagnosi began to see the world through the mental patient lens. We forgot there were things we liked to do. We forgot about out goals and dreams. We forgot that there were things we could do to help ourselves feel better when we were not comfortable with how we were feeling. Whenever we talked to others about ourselves, it was as mental patients. In recent years many of us have come to believe that many of these former assumptions are not correct and that when we believe them, we severely limit our life experience and ourselves.
We have now come to see our experiences in new ways that help us to move past them, and on to doing the things we want to do and to being the way we want to be. Many people now believe that the things we used to call symptoms of a disease or mental illness are really normal responses to difficult and horrific things that have happened to us, like child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, war and loss. This is sometimes referred to as the trauma-informed worldview. If we look at these experiences in this new way, it changes the way we respond. We think about loving support and opportunities to express emotions.
Some people consider that these experiences are harbingers of a spiritual transformation – that they are opening to a new way of being in the world and that these experiences can be supported and enhanced by creative artistic expression. In some cultures, people who have these experiences are seen as having special powers. In others, everyone takes an interest and supports the person, sometimes with help from a healer. In these situations, the family and the community support the person through their process. In forward thinking agencies and organizations, care providers are seeing these experiences in new ways.
As a result they are adopting practices that see people as the experts on themselves, and assisting and supporting them in doing what they feel they need to do to get through uncomfortable and even dangerous times. There are many more views. The important thing is that each of us follows the path of our choice, the one that feels right and is right for us, not one that is dictated to us by someone else.
One thing that many of us have learned in this process is that we can feel uncomfortable and still be OK. We can “be with” experiences that we may not understand, waiting them out until we feel better. And that there are many simple safe things we can do to help ourselves get through these times. It helps me a lot to have someone to talk to, to be able to say anything I want and not be judged. It also helps me to do something creative—for myself only—that will not be judged by anyone else. If things are really bad, if someone would just hold me and reassure me, it would help a lot.
Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD, developed Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) with a group of people with lived experience who were attending a mental health recovery workshop in 1997. She is the original author of the WRAP Red Book, as well as dozens of other WRAP books and materials. She has dedicated the last 30 years of her life to learning from people who have mental health issues; discovering the simple, safe, non-invasive ways they get well, stay well, and move forward in their lives; and then sharing what she has learned with others through keynote addresses, trainings, and the development of books, curriculums, and other resources. Now that she is retired, and that, as she intended, others are continuing to share what she has learned, she continues to learn from those who have mental health issues and those who support them. She is a frequent contributor to this site.