Mental Health Recovery in Different Contexts: Lessons Learned from the Field
Jessica Maria-Violanda Spagnolo
The mental health recovery movement emerged in order to counter the overly biomedical view of mental illness that littered the era before deinstitutionalization (Anthony, 1993). After this era, community-based services for people living with mental illness were strongly encouraged, as illness is not merely the absence of disease, but a state of holistic well-being that goes beyond physicality (WHO, 1948). Therefore, mental health recovery includes ways of “living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even with limitations caused by illness”; as well as finding “new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness” (Anthony, 1993, p. 527).
I have always been interested in understanding how this concept is seen and understood around the world. This post will report on examples of the cultural representation of mental health recovery in local communities where I worked.
At a shelter in a small village in the Caribbean, mental health recovery meant developing new skills by learning how to plant vegetables, pineapple, and flowers, as well as care for chickens. This manual labor encouraged the presence of a daily routine, which can easily falter when one is affected by illness; learning through trial and error, which promotes patience and perseverance; as well as interacting with others, which can often be a limitation caused by illness. Photo 1 shows the chickens that the residents took care of until they were either sold to local community members or were used to feed the residents at the shelter. These same residents highlighted the importance of religion in their lives, which helped them find new meaning after illness. For example, when asked what inspired them, the majority of the residents said “God.” This reality is also apparent when visiting the shelter, as the walls are painted with religious images and symbols by local artists (Photo 2).
In a small village in Central America, where many refugees sought protection after experiencing hardships in another country, often showing signs of post-traumatic stress, mental health recovery was seen through the development of new social ties. Arriving as strangers, women leaned on each other for support as well as hope for the future. Their children, through play, would do the same (Picture 3).
The beauty of the mental health recovery movement is that it ensures the focus is not solely on mental disorders or symptoms. Not once during my work in these 2 communities did the residents mention the word “sick” or “ill,” but spoke about what was important in their own, unique, personal recovery journey from illness: developing new skills; generating hope for the future, creating social support and networks. These things are what innately make us human, and are anchored in what can help people living with any type of illness enjoy a satisfying and fulfilling life, despite symptoms.
Jessica Spagnolo is a Doctorate Candidate at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal. Her research focuses on building system capacity for the integration of mental health at the level of primary care in Tunisia. Jessica is funded by les Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS) and MITACS Globalink. Jessica holds a Bachelor and a Masters of Social Work from McGill University.