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Can People Recover from Mental Illness?

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

According to the National Library of Medicine, more than 86 percent of people will experience some form of mental disorder by the age of 45. I have several people in my life who have struggled with mental illness. I visited them at times in mental health wards and hospital emergency rooms.

The patients were put on various medications that worked for a few months, and then their symptoms would resurface. At times, I feel helpless and hopeless that they would ever recover.

Then the psychiatrist of one individual, who I will call Sarah, put her on a powerful drug as a last resort for schizophrenia. As time went on, she improved dramatically. She progressed from a quiet, isolated individual to become the outgoing person she was inside. Sarah went from disorganized thinking to being able to process thoughts more clearly and improve her communication skills.

Sarah is now emotionally stable and no longer has wild mood swings, hallucinations, and delusions. She has been clear of most symptoms for over five years. Can she recover completely? I hope so.

The University of South Florida (USF) has investigated how likely people are to recover, thrive, and live with positive emotions, healthy relationships, and a sense of purpose. The study was based on Statistics Canada data on over 25,000 Canadians. Their findings challenge stereotypes that mental disorders prevent people from thriving and that their conditions are always chronic and recurring.

Some of their findings include:

  • 33 percent reported experiencing mental disorders throughout their lives
  • 67 percent said they recovered, with nearly 10 percent of this subsample reporting that they were thriving
  • 24 percent of patients without mental illness said they were thriving
  • Multiple lifetime mental health conditions may reduce the likelihood of recovery but do not prevent thriving
  • Patients are more likely to flourish during shorter durations of mental illness, especially if their symptoms manifest in less than two years
  • Patients with substance abuse disorders and depression were more likely to thrive than patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety

Tips to Work Towards Recovery

USF researchers found that former studies on mental illness outcomes focused on symptoms only and concluded that it is impossible for patients to flourish after mental illness. USF researchers discovered that symptoms only have a modest connection to patient wellbeing and do not determine what recovery will look like.

Several things can be done to lessen symptoms and start the healing process.

Identify Barriers

Some patients are in denial that they are mentally ill. Patients who do not acknowledge and accept their condition will refuse to seek help. I watched in frustration as someone close to me struggled with many symptoms but would not seek treatment.

Some patients may have difficulty accessing mental health services. In my country, Canada, we have universal health care but do not have enough psychiatrists, mental health professionals, and facilities to accommodate patients requiring treatment. In other countries, a lack of financial resources can prevent patients from accessing care.

Multiple mental disorders and the length of time that patients have had symptoms may negatively affect the patients' ability to achieve a sense of wellbeing. Psychiatrists need to determine a diagnosis based on a physical exam, a psychological evaluation, lab tests, and discussions about symptoms, emotions, and behavior patterns.

Treatments plans may be trial and error at first. In my experience, it can take a while before mental health professionals develop strategies that successfully lessen symptoms and improve the quality of life for mentally ill patients.

The recovery process can be difficult because it requires attending scheduled appointments with doctors or blood tests, taking medication correctly, participating in psychotherapy, and becoming involved in support groups. Patients may struggle more if they lack support from others.

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Encourage People to Have Hope

Some mental health professionals tell patients that they cannot recover from their symptoms and will have their condition for the rest of their lives. However, researchers are developing new strategies and medications every day that successfully improve the well-being of patients. There is hope that medical professionals can help mentally ill patients improve their quality of life.

Defining The Meaning of “Thriving”

Defining what thriving means to individuals varies by the patients’ characteristics and conditions.

Here are some common factors that contribute to success:

  • Improving their mental and physical health through healthy lifestyle choices
  • Being educated about their condition
  • A willingness to comply with their treatment plan and change as needed
  • Living an independent, self-directed life
  • Keeping track of their progress
  • Identifying triggers and barriers
  • Working toward fulfilling their full potential
  • Having a stable home
  • Having nurturing, supportive relationships and social networks

Sticking To a Treatment Plan

Patients and their mental health professionals can create a plan that helps achieve wellness. It is important that patients follow the treatment plan. Sometimes patients start to feel better and stop taking the medication.

Unfortunately, quitting suddenly can trigger side effects. Treatments provide tools to relieve and manage their symptoms under the supervision of mental health professionals.

Unfortunately, medications can have negative effects such as chronic fatigue and weight gain. There may be times when symptoms will resurface and cause a relapse. Patients and their doctors may need to tweak or rethink their treatment plans.

Practice Self-Care and Make Healthy Choices

Some patients who are depressed or anxious may neglect personal care. Patients should avoid using drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse can interfere with the effectiveness of medications that treat mental illness.

Use Support Systems

Sarah is doing well because she follows her psychiatrist’s advice and takes her medication regularly. She needed to be reminded at first about appointments, but now, she is more independent. She has learned how to use various apps on her android phone to manage her life such as Google Calendar.

Family assistance is an important part of the healing process. Other supports include volunteers, social workers, peer groups, and employment counselors. Local mental health NGOs can provide more information about local services.

There are instances where people recover from mental illness, but they are rare. There is no “cure.” However, with proper care and treatment, people with mental illness can marry, work in rewarding careers, and thrive.


USF researchers uncover misnomer in mental illness recovery, University of South Florida (USF)
General Information Frequently Asked Questions, NAMI
Mental illness, Mayo Clinic
Recovery Is Possible,
Mental Illness Basics, WebMD

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Carola Finch

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