Recovery from Mental Health Conditions

Living with a physical health condition can be isolating, painful, costly, stressful, and challenging. When one has a mental health condition in addition to a physical health condition, the difficulties can be multiplied. Just as one looks for professional help when physical health declines, so do many when they experience mental distress. It is reasonable to hope for a quick cure or escape when one lives with physical and mental pain or suffering. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet cure for mental illness, just as there are not cures for many diseases.

Recovery or remission is often the goal of treatment for both physical and mental health conditions. Evidence shows that mental health conditions like depression can negatively influence the outcomes of many diseases. Though mental health is always an important area of wellbeing, for those with physical health conditions it is especially important to address and manage.

What is recovery?

In treating many mental health conditions, a focus on recovery is generally the goal. But what is recovery? Recovery can be thought of as a reduction in symptoms, for instance a decrease in both the frequency and intensity of panic attacks in panic disorder. Likewise, recovery can be thought of as the cessation of a behavior, like someone dependent on substances discontinuing use and remaining sober.

Other ways of thinking about recovery can move away from a symptom-based focus, and towards subjective wellbeing. For instance, someone with light or moderate depression need not count the frequency, time, and intensity of depressed moods to know they are recovering. They might conceive of recovery as feeling better, less hopeless, more in tune with life and others, thinking more realistically and less fatalistically about the future, and so on.

What many of the ways of looking at recovery have in common is that the life interfering severity of mental illness is reduced and functioning in important domains of life is achieved. Some people might need ongoing help with recovery, others may go it alone, some may recover for periods of time only to become affected again, and for those with untreatable or severely disabling mental health conditions, recovery may not be a useful term since ongoing management and/or assisted living may be required.

Link to physical health

For many living with a physical health condition, mental health may be strongly impacted by the experience of illness. For example, research shows that for people living with rheumatoid arthritis, levels of depression often recede when someone enters remission or the disease is controlled with medication. In the other direction, there are diseases that are directly linked to mental illness, like thyroid diseases that affect hormone production, causing emotional imbalances that can meet criteria for mood disorders.

There are also medications that can affect mental health, or cause side-effects like unwanted weight gain or sexual difficulties that can negatively affect one’s self-image. In all of these and similar instances, recovery from a mental health episode or condition is also related to controlling or managing the physical condition. For these reasons, it is best to discuss both your mental and physical health with your treating physician and a mental health professional if you receive services. Recovery is possible for many mental health conditions.