What is Recovery? Differentiating the Diagnosis from the Person

This article seeks to discuss, define, and set up an ongoing dialogue around what recovery means. As people, we all have our own eccentricities. Some of us are moody; others are more negative and cynical. These are the character traits that make us who we are, human. When a person is first diagnosed with a mental health diagnosis and enters the mental health system it is easy to forget the humanity behind the diagnosis. At the onset of treatment it is easy to dismiss our everyday quirks and eccentricities and believe these innate traits are also part of the problem requiring medication and/or therapy. This article will explore several key strategies for differentiating the person from the diagnosis and provide the reader with tools to spread psycho-education to dismantle stigma in your everyday life. As with all self-management skills explored in this blog, be sure to consult with your therapist and psychiatrist before implementing them in your own living environment.

For people diagnosed later in life it is easy to remember who you were before you become sick. But for people with severe and persistent mental health issues, diagnosed early in life, it is too easy to forget life before treatment. I encourage you to think back to a time when you were naïve, happy, and the mental health system was totally off your radar. I suspect even then, before any symptoms were present and active in your life, you still had problems that you considered normal for your stage in development. For example, you may have loved to stay up all night. I’m going to go ahead and assume nobody called your behavior manic when you were running on very little sleep and ill also assume when you were full of energy people still wouldn’t throw around the word manic to describe your behavior and general presentation. Were you strange or goofy at times growing up? Even bizarre? I bet no one called you schizophrenic or delusional.

People reserve certain language and descriptions of behavior for people with a mental health diagnosis. But the truth is people with and without a diagnosis can behave the same way and the person with the diagnosis is understood or perceived as symptomatic. This a huge problem for the recovery movement and an even bigger problem for people in recovery who are trying to figure out if the issue they are struggling with is a symptom or a normal reaction to life’s stresses. For example, if you are a person carrying a depressive disorder diagnosis, when is it okay and normal to be sad? If you are bipolar, when is okay to be energized and feeling on top or the world?

The answers to these questions are complex and should signal the focus of recovery: the healing of the person diagnosed not the alleviation of the symptom. Recovery needs to begin with identifying who you were, assessing where you are at now, and planning a course of treatment for getting you to where you want to be in life. When treatment focuses on the problem, or the symptom, the person becomes the diagnosis, (e.g. he or she is schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed…). Too many people in treatment forget some problems or issues are normal, need to be experienced, and are apart of life. Problematizing every little issue in life and associating it with your diagnosis is the first and best way to keep the revolving door to hospitalizations and the mental health system moving perpetually.

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