Idealism and optimism at the heart of the recovery movement
The recovery movement in psychiatry is sweeping the day. The state commissioner of mental health calls for a transformation in services to grant mentally ill people a higher level of self-esteem, rights and independence. National policy making bodies like SAMHSA and the Center for Mental Health Services finally come on board with financing for recovery models. The consumer movement is elated off its rocking horse. The state, with little money of its own but a mandate to capture federal Medicaid money, swoops down on provider programs like the social club and continuing day treatment in Schenectady to force their conversion to PROS, which stands for personal recovery oriented services.
The idealists and dreamers are finding full expression in many areas of modern life--like health care, in psychology, how we spend money, in military planning. It's rubbed off in the mistakes they've made, in the false cheerfulness we see in the world around us. People want to buoy each other up when illness strikes a friend, saying things they don't believe, like “you'll get better soon.” They make foolish investments and buy houses without enough collateral to pay for them when the going gets tough. Businessmen, thinking the world has a rosy glow to it, have sunk us in wasteful practices with their easy deals and careless mortgage lending. They refused to face reality.
How do I know? From what I read, it's a matter of ideology. Americans are cheerful people, who think positively, but not often realistically when we have to be. We don't want to think the worst about anybody or anything. We're compulsively optimistic, it's ingrained in us by our culture to look on the bright side of everything. We can't do otherwise than tell sick people they'll get better soon, greet people we don't know with a smile, and try to make others feel better.
That's called positive thinking and where it goes wrong is in the excesses. Read Barbara Ehrenreich's book, “Bright Sided,” about the extravagant way our culture perceives happiness and a better life as an entitlement for all. She claims “the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.” She writes that in this idealistic age churches preach that you only have to want something to get it because God wants you to prosper. And when she went down with breast cancer recently, she was told she had to battle hard against it in order to join the hallowed body of survivors. A man suffering with prostate cancer was told it was God's will for him to get cancer whether he survived or not. For those not hopeful enough there is plenty of self-blame.
Some of this irrational exuberance naturally has come over to the recovery trends in mental health.
Remission, not recovery
Along the way, the people who promote the recovery movement in psychiatry have found a way to overcome the medical profession's negative thinking about mental patients. That feeling prevailed, according to the movement, as a staple view for some time, labeled the “clinicians illusion.” It was widely held that patients were doing poorly in between visits when they weren't seeing them. Instead, writes Larry Davidson, PhD, a Yale psychologist and lead author of the new website Recovery to Practice, “the evidence suggests that many people recover over time and that when people drop out of treatment,they often are doing better than we might have expected.”
In his Weekly Highlight column recently, Davidson tells how a workgroup of patients, caregivers and clinicians tackled this by introducing the concept of remission of symptoms. The work group decided that a sizable number of patients sustained periods of symptomatic relief and improved functioning, disrupted by episodes of recurrence or relapse. They called these “periods of remission.” Davidson says there is increasing recognition that such improvements are common.
Thus, the “clinician's illusion” has been turned upside down and given way to the concept of remission. If you're in remission you're part way to recovery. Remission means the worst symptoms have gone away and your functioning is better. But it's a long shot from being free of symptoms. There are still people out there with schizophrenia and bipolar who are on the streets and in shelters and in jail and prisons and repeatedly visit emergency rooms. They have periods of remission, too, but they're not moving ahead toward recovery.
Recovery would involve a more demanding and longer term phenomenon in which a person is relatively free of disease and has the ability to function in the community, Davidson writes. He believes that's possible for some people. He cites the Harding study in Vermont years ago as evidence that long- term hospitalized patients can “recover.” But these were older folks and they were moved to serene farm-like villages in the country. Would they have met a different fate in New York City?
I don't see full recovery for people with schizophrenia. I see them "in recovery" or "in remission". Of course, we want them to make it. I remember my friend at a NAMI national meeting years ago confessing that he and his wife felt they gained sensitivity and understanding in bringing up a mentally disabled child. “But I really do wish it was happening to someone else and not me,” he added. (Roy Neville)