Rehabilitating after mental illness

Anna Kelsey-Sugg

With dignity and respect, self-responsibility and supportive relationships, return to work after mental illness is achievable.

Laurie Ahern and Daniel Fisher, co-directors of the National Empowerment Centre (NEC) write in ‘Personal Assistance in Community Existence – A recovery guide' that people can and do recover from mental illness, despite the prevalent belief that it is necessarily a lifelong, debilitating condition. Rehabilitation methods that follow the belief that one can never recover from a mental illness, the authors write, focus on stabilising a patient rather than helping them to overcome their illness.

“Recovery research tells us that, given the right combination of attitudes and supports, people can fully recover from mental illness,” write Ahern and Fisher, who developed their own guidelines for assisting people in their rehabilitation from mental illness. They believe this rehabilitation is most effective when it is led by the individuals themselves.

Ahern and Fisher outline five major themes of successful rehabilitation after mental illness:

  • Recovery beliefs; the belief that people will recover, belief in oneself, hope and a positive outlook.
  • Recovery relationships. Close, trusting relationships can be vital to recovery. They make people feel whole, human, safe, wanted and alive.
  • Recovery skills. “Once people and their network have come to believe in their capacity to recover and believe in themselves, they can acquire many of the skills needed to manage their own lives and their emotional stress.” Recovery skills involve learning how to connect emotionally, to express anger, sadness, joy, love and fear, and to manage emotional states.
  • Recovery identity. It is important to regain the feeling of being a ‘person' not a ‘patient', to return to feeling like having a valued place in society. The authors write that “This process occurs through feeling valued in relationships, through having successes and through valuing oneself.”
  • Recovery community. Feeling part of a community is vital as it provides people with their social roles that reinforce all of the above. For many this community is the workplace.

“When the mental health system and the society believe that people can recover from even the most severe forms of mental illness, the outcomes are more positive,” write the authors. Their recovery plan involves self-help, help from people who believe in you, help from peers and from the sense of belonging to a group again.

Returning to work and to other meaningful activities after mental illness is possible. Like all illnesses and injuries, attitude – the individual's, the community's, the employer's and the medical profession's – is everything.

Recovery rates are higher when emphasis is on self-sufficiency, self-determination and community integration. Beginning meaningful work as soon as possible helps with recovery. Setting personal goals and achieving them also helps recovery.

The authors believe that it is important to take responsibility for yourself, and to do so is empowering.

Overcoming mental illness calls for respect, support, and belief in oneself and in those providing assistance. Society's attitude has a huge impact and overcoming stigmas attached to mental illness is essential to increase chances of successful rehabilitation. 

National Empowerment Centre 
beyondblue (with information about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and postnatal depression)


Published 13 November, 2008 | Updated 29 September, 2015