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Taking a personal path to recovery from mental illness

Recovering from mental illness is not only possible but also personal, according to Eleanor Longden, busting the myth that recovery can only come from a clinical approach.


Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18, Dr Longden said clinical recovery was not the only index of success when it comes to treating mental illness.

“Personal recovery is an ongoing journey,” she told an audience of more than 700 people at RMIT University this week. “It is an active approach to engage and to accept an individual’s experience and it is something that you do for yourself.”

Explaining her own experience with schizophrenia as “diagnosed, drugged and discarded”, Dr Longden said she was still hearing voices but now making peace with them.

During her 45-minute presentation, she questioned conventional treatments that risked further isolating and undermining people in psychological distress.

“Rather than obsessing over a cure, we must view the symptoms as a natural, meaningful response to trauma, loss and stress, and view madness as a process, one from which victims can emerge as survivors.” — Dr Eleanor Longden, mental health expert

Personal recovery, she added, was a kind of treatment that enabled patients to empower and heal themselves.

“Rather than obsessing over a cure, we must view the symptoms as a natural, meaningful response to trauma, loss and stress, and view madness as a process, one from which victims can emerge as survivors.”

Recovery was not synonymous with cure, Dr Longden added, stressing the importance of health services that supported the uniqueness of every individual. She believed that recovery had to be seen in an “individual context” rather than a “generic context”.

Drawing from her experience, Dr Longden wrote a book, Learning from the Voices, which was part-personal memoir as well as a medical thesis and detailed her emergence from the psychiatric system after 10 years to go to university where she graduated with a Master of Science in psychology. She spoke about her experience at a TED conference in 2013, which has been viewed online by three million people and translated into 35 languages.

One-in-five Australians experiences some form of mental illness each year. A 2007 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 7.3 million people aged between 16 and 85 had at some point experienced a mental disorder. However, only 35 per cent of these people had actually accessed services.

The National Mental Heath Framework for Recovery Oriented Practice defines recovery as “being able to create and live a meaningful and contributing life in a community of choice with or without the presence of mental health issues”.

Echoing that statement, Laura Collister, of Mental Illness Fellowship Victoria, said personal recovery was complementary to clinical recovery. “You don’t have one without the other,” she said. “You can achieve a good level of personal recovery and still have symptoms.”

There were also cases, Ms Collister added, when symptoms had been treated but patients felt helpless because they didn’t have money or a job. Community support also played a vital role to help individuals recover from mental illness and maximise their potential after recovery.

Ms Collister said it was very important to have conversations about mental illness despite how uncomfortable that could be. But she cautioned that people needed to avoid getting trapped in a binary perspective. “Recovery is not a linear process,” she said. “We cannot just say some people recovered and some others didn’t.”

She further explained that treating people in a medical way was still a major challenge. “Some of these illnesses are pretty horrible and they can be catastrophic to people’s lives,” she added. “However, medication . . . it’s not enough.”

Professor Helen Herrman, a president-elect of World Psychiatric Association, told the RMIT forum that a partnership between consumers, families, doctors, government, NGOs and the health care industry was important to improve mental health care.

“We need an inclusive approach that involves family, consumers and carers,” said Professor Herrman, who is also Professor of Psychiatry in the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. “Involvement of consumers and family members are crucial because they can assist in developing services that are tailored to people’s needs.”

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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