Can a Person Recover From Their Mental Illness?

Are you a kind, compassionate person? Are you the type of person who looks for and sees the best in everyone? Do you believe that many people can heal or recover from their mental illness? Believe it or not – I do. But, that’s not the most important question. The real question is – will they be able to recover?

That is an entirely different question altogether. Quite a few people I cross paths with want to hear a story of hope. It’s clear from the questions they ask and the statements they make. They are less than impressed when I tell them the truth; that my recovery was largely fueled by fear of my own mind, being stubborn, and anger.

People cling to hope because it’s positive and romantic. And yes, hope is an important thing because it can keep people moving through dark times. However, there comes a point where hope can be harmful because we invest so much emotional energy in how we want things to be as opposed to how they are. We spend too much of our time in the future instead of the present.

Do I believe that most people can recover and attain a higher quality of life? Yes. Do I believe that they will? That’s a more complicated question. And here are a list of reasons why…

1. The person has to want to change. My biggest system shock came with the realization of how few people want to change. They want something easy, a therapist or a pill to fix them. Recovery is like 98% personal work, 2% clinical assistance. That personal work includes reevaluating one’s emotions, how one conducts their life, how one interacts with others, learning management practices and actually implementing them, and so much more. Every person I know that has reached a high degree of recovery from Depression or Bipolar Disorder is a very different person from who they started off as. Why? Because the attitudes and emotions that these mental illnesses foster are often harmful and toxic. They must be changed.

2. The person needs adequate resources. Numerous people just don’t have access to the resources they need or reject the ones they have access to. Medication and doctor appointments can be expensive. And yes, I know, “Some have sliding scales!” Which means little when you have next to nothing and are barely able to keep your head above water. I’ve watched people absolutely refuse to request help from charities or other resources when they would have qualified because of their own pride. I was one of these people, too.

3. The person needs to be okay with changing. This is different than the first point because a person may decide they want to change, but not like how they change. I find this to be especially true in Bipolar people who trend towards the escalated side of the Disorder that is pronounced, but not necessarily destructive. But even a destructive mania can feel absolutely wonderful to the person experiencing it. And I’ve met several people who view it as their edge in their art, career, or social life. Real emotions are so quiet compared to what a Bipolar person experiences in escalation. Some people don’t want to give that up. On the other side of that coin are the people who are content to be miserable and depressed. Life is just horrible and they feel more comfortable being a victim to it all.

4. The person can make bad decisions. Many people are a bad decision or two away from serious repercussions. “I feel great! I don’t really need this med.” “I’m going to skip this doctor’s appointment.” “One night of hard drinking or drugs isn’t going to kill me.” “I didn’t call in my prescription early enough and they are out of my med until next week!” “I’m not really mentally ill. Everyone else is the problem.” I can talk until I’m blue in the face on what to avoid, but people insist on learning the hard way time after time.

5. Even if the person makes all the right decisions, the pursuit of wellness can still go sideways. Medication can have negative reactions or unmanageable side effects. A person can be medication resistant, meaning their body just doesn’t react well at all or positively to medication. Trying to push through past damage and trauma with a therapist can make a person worse before they start getting better. Many mental illnesses can get worse with age, not better. Bipolar Disorder is one of them. And then you have dealing with the general stresses of life on top of everything else.

And none of that is including the people who like having their mental illness as an effective “Get Out of Responsibility” card. Abusers and manipulators regularly use hope and compassion against their victim. The victim carries the hope that a toxic person will recover, feel sorry for their actions, and everyone lives happily ever after. That rarely happens.

Even if we do everything right, things can still go completely wrong. And getting people to want to change is the hardest battle of all, because change is fucking difficult and scary.

I know that a lot of people are going to take this post as me being negative, but I’m not. This is the reality that I’ve come to know in trying to help other mentally ill people and their loved ones walk their own path. It’s still difficult, even in an optimal scenario. Hell, it’s not like my life is where I want it to be yet either. Self-improvement is a marathon, not a sprint. And I still get shit wrong, too. All you can do is the best you can, really.


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6 Responses to Can a Person Recover From Their Mental Illness?

  1. avatar Jeannie says:

    Wow, Dennis, you are spot on. I’ve seen plenty of people stay right where they are and not change, and a very few who have – but they’ve had to really work at changing those bad habits. To me, it’s similar to losing weight. Some people are born naturally thin – great! Others have to work at it a little bit. Some have to work at it a lot, and they have to decide at what stage they will be comfortable.

  2. avatar Mike says:

    Hi Dennis – great to get your latest post in my email. I agree with what you are saying, as usual. FYI I contacted you recently about my Bipolar wife – we are now getting on better and there is a shift in her acceptance of the illness, and from me an acceptance of my role if I am to continue – albeit partly to support our son in this journey. So yes, being realistic is the way forward. I hope you are well and look forward to your next post. It takes a long time to get over the “I never thought this could happen to me” bit, but when you do, you can sometimes develop as a person in remarkable ways you never thought possible. Physical hardship is difficult to deal with in life, but dealing with mental hardship takes everything you have – and ultimately everything you didn’t even know you had. All the best.

    • avatar Dennis says:

      Glad to hear that there has been some progress, Mike. It’s a difficult journey for everyone involved, but it is one that can be made. All you can do is the best you can for you and your loved ones. You are definitely right on hardships.

      Thanks for being here and taking the time to comment!

  3. avatar Eleni says:

    Thanks so much Dennis for your insightful post on recovery. Yes, I agree recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Your notes appear to me objective, not negative.

    I personally get challenged with all the issues you raised but I am making progresses…being stable for 1 year without anti depressant but mood stabilizers & good discipline. Wish me good luck that it continues this way!

    I wish all your readers a stable move towards recovery…

    I always enjoy reading you; it’s a pleasure. Thank you.


    • avatar Dennis says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Eleni. I’m glad you enjoy my work and that it came off as objective. That was what I was hoping for!

      Progress is progress. Everyone has their own rate. And in regards to Bipolar Disorder, not everyone actually needs an antidepressant. Many can get away with just a mood stabilizer, and I believe there are a couple of newer antidepressants which won’t force a Bipolar person into escalation. I can’t remember the name off of the top of my head though. Anyway, that’s not important. What’s important is that you keep pushing forward and keep striving. Progress is progress, even if it’s not immediate.

      And you’re very welcome.

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